The swearing-in of the second Pinarayi Vijayan government on May 20 has marked a new chapter in Kerala’s electoral history. For the first time in four decades, the south Indian state has broken with its tradition of alternating power between two opposing coalitions, i.e., the LDF (Left Democratic Front) led by the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India [Marxist]) and the UDF (United Democratic Front) led by the Congress party. The emphatic re-election of the Left government has defused what might have been the single most important factor in Kerala’s electoral politics, namely, anti-incumbency.
But a recent debate in the Kerala public sphere has posed a rather philosophical, and perhaps for that reason, necessarily unpopular question: is it desirable for the people of Kerala to abandon their long-standing commitment to democratic alternation? In general, is continuity preferable to alternation for the well-being of democratic societies?
In the days before and after the elections to the state legislature on April 6, this line of questioning was deployed by all sorts of actors opposed to the ruling Left, including some sections of the Congress party’s leadership – some leaders publicly mourned the impending death of their party in the event the latter failed to come to power yet again. It was pointed out that the Congress party, and the UDF more broadly, will simply fail to survive such a fate, especially with the BJP waiting in the wings to repeat its strategy of gobbling up the Congress leadership as it has managed in other Indian states.
Setting aside the perverse conservatism implicit to such appeals for the preservation of ‘grand old parties’, the more forceful versions of the argument for democratic alternation foreground a degree of ‘instability’ as a necessary virtue of democratic politics. It is, so the argument goes, that instability produces the conditions necessary for revitalised political agency, including for the Communists themselves. The worry is that a lack of alternation and interruption will precipitate Communist hubris and laurel-resting which, long term, will cost both them and the state. The self-destructive concentration of power within the party and the subsequent development of ahankaram (arrogance) within its rank and file, will cost it dearly. The CPI(M)’s fate in West Bengal and Tripura are held up as the inevitable end point of this ‘victory’.
The fact that we are living through a time of unprecedented crisis might have turned out to be the biggest factor in favour of the incumbent coalition, and not only in response to the pandemic. The Communist-led Left government that was elected in 2016 has had to contend with large-scale disaster management like no other government in recent history: the cyclone Ockhi in 2017, the deadly Nipah virus outbreak in 2018, the great floods in 2018 and 2019, and then the pandemic which saw the south Indian state reporting the very first case in the country on January 27, 2020, as a returning student from Wuhan in China turned COVID-19 positive.
Even the harshest critics of the Communists have acknowledged that through all this, the Left government has steered the state with considerable and commendable acumen, tapping into and building on the state’s strengths in the social sector and public life. Even though the Kerala polls were held before the nightmarish pictures of the COVID-19 second-wave emerged from the northern states of the country, the majority of Kerala’s citizens seemed to have made the connection between their relative security and the state government’s timely and substantial interventions. And yet, the question refuses to go away: is alternation of power not preferable to continuity for the health and vibrancy of a democratic society?
Alternation and alternative: the troubling conceptual twins of democracy
“Democracy does not confer the most skilful kind of government upon the people,” wrote the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville nearly 200 years ago, “but it produces that which the most skilful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely, an all pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favourable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits. These are the true advantages of democracy.” Tocqueville goes to the heart of the matter: the undeniable pull of the idea of alternation for democratic citizens is not an accident, it comes from a deeper ‘cultural’ necessity for ceaseless activity and churning that comes with citizenship in a democracy.
Contestation – of policies, practices, socio-cultural mores, and of course state power – ought to be the rule, and meaningful consensus can only ever be a temporary cessation, and can only emerge on the back of spirited agitation within a democracy’s body-politic. As citizens of democracy, this is the dance we are destined to dance, and any attempt to bypass this process in favour of any putative unity leads to alienation, atrophy, and ultimately democratic disenchantment. In other words, the impulse towards alternation is hard-wired into the aspirations of our democratic modernity, and any political force that operates within democracy would do well to acknowledge it rather than brush it aside.
The problem, however, is that a simplistic commitment to the principle of alternation overlooks certain important fixtures of our politics that are more or less immovable, whatever the degree of agitation that can be brought to bear against them. All the features that we associate with democracy today, at both the level of society and state, including the propensity for alternation that has characterised Kerala politics for over four decades, exist within larger structures that remain intransigent. One such overarching structure is that of global capitalism, and while the logic of capitalist modernity allows political alternation until the cows come came, such largess is soon exhausted when alternation threatens to interfere with business as usual. Thus far and no further. Those arguments for alternation of power would do well to accept that it almost always occurs within certain limits. These limits are not themselves the expression of a democratic will, or democratic purpose, but are guided by different imperatives altogether.
It is to their credit that the Kerala Left has pushed against this limitation over the last five years, increasing state investment in health, education, social-security, infrastructure and other public goods, once again bringing the Kerala Model, with all its defects and handicaps, back into focus. This has further enhanced social trust, a key indicator of the health of any society, to the extent that an ordinary beedi worker feels the moral imperative to donate his entire savings to the chief minister’s disaster relief fund in order to contribute to the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines for his fellow citizens.
There is another issue at stake here. Across the world today, we are witness to alternations between parties unequally committed to the creative spirit of alternation. A common characteristic of the rise of authoritarian figures and movements across the world in recent years – in Poland, Hungary, the US, Turkey and India – is that these are not ‘enemies of democracy’ in the mould of the Cold War. These regimes are led by charismatic leaders who have come to power through legitimate democratic means, who use their power to carry out the systematic dismantling of checks and balances, especially targeting the institutions of judiciary and the constitution.
On the one hand then, the imperatives of those brought to power through the churning processes of electoral alternation are constrained by broader structures, such as global capitalism. On the other hand, there are attempts, made by those brought into power through alternation, to stack the decks in their favour, chipping away at majority rule, liberal protections for minorities and the safeguards of basic civil freedoms. Commitment to alternation is no panacea to the threats posed by such a politics.
Nevertheless, over and above abstract appeals to alternation, there is no denying considerable truth to the idea that parties that feel themselves too secure in power, are liable to hubris and complacency. The challenge for any political party committed both to the capture of state power and its continual reinvigoration as a medium of democratic engagement, is to initiate Tocqueville’s ‘all pervading and restless activity’ within the ranks of its own party as well as in society.
There are good reasons to think that the Kerala CPI(M) is relatively well positioned to meet this challenge, compared to most other political formations in the country. In the run-up to the 2021 elections, the CPI(M) took a big risk by dropping all of its two-time consecutive MLAs from candidature – stalwarts like T.M. Thomas Isaac, G. Sudhakaran and A.K. Balan, all of them ministers and leaders who would have been victorious in all likelihood had they been allowed to contest, were removed from the fray altogether in the process. The gamble paid off, and the party was able to return to power with 62 MLAs, four more than its previous tally in 2016, including many young and first-time MLAs.
In another shock decision, the 2021 LDF cabinet will feature an almost entirely new cabinet under the chief minister Vijayan, leaving out even the hugely popular and internationally recognised former health minister K.K. Shailaja. While Shailaja’s ouster has provoked criticism from different quarters, both the CPI(M) and the CPI have stuck to the message that positions of parliamentary power will not be allowed to remain with any individual for a long time at one stretch. One might reasonably suspect that some of the impetus behind these decisions has come from the lessons learned from the party’s disastrous showing in its erstwhile bastions of West Bengal and Tripura.
Lipin Ram is a post-doctoral fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, The Graduate Institute, Geneva and David Jenkins is a Lecturer at the University of Otago, New Zealand.