Kerala: Welfarism Remains the Dominant Narrative, but There Is an Undercurrent of Phobia

Kerala’s political culture was built around dominant communities balancing political power and overall social development. But that looks set to change.

The 2021 assembly election is unlikely to be a watershed event in Kerala’s political future. Unless there is an upset of a meteoric proportion, Pinarayi Vijayan is coming back for a second term as the state’s chief minister.

Campaigns usually need three things to work: a frame, a message with a mechanism to communicate it, and (a) person(s) to embody the frame’s message. In politics, coherence matters. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, with its remarkable sense of purpose and bridging of communication between the top leadership and the grassroots-level work, is providing exactly that: a sense of coherence.

The Left’s strategy has derived aspects from success formulae from across the country. Some of these are the person-centricism that has become inevitable to Indian politics of the Narendra Modi era; Nitish Kumar’s idea of connecting with women; the welfarism that Jayalalithaa and Arvind Kejriwal championed; and the recognition of the need to integrate the youth into its rhetoric.

Also read: ‘Epitome of Communalism’: What Pinarayi Vijayan’s Fierce Attack on Amit Shah Achieves

The tag line ‘Urappaanu LDF‘ can mean two things in Malayalam: LDF has the assurance of people and the LDF is sure to come back, a smart branding job.

The Congress, the leading opposition party, has neither the narrative nor the leaders in the state. Kerala is yet another example of the Congress becoming weaker in states where it is not the sole alternative to the BJP. In any case, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), an ally, is also likely to do well in a number of seats, as the organisation has a mass-base and organisational efficiency.

The BJP ended up with the best candidate they could have hoped for in E. Sreedharan, a figure around whom a new Kerala-specific narrative could have been formulated. However, the party was pushed back to square one when the newly-inducted celebrity began mouthing off routine BJP sound bytes against non-vegetarian food and interfaith marriages.

The party’s growth in terms of votes seems to have reached a saturation point. The BJP needs to reinvent itself, which it seems to fail at yet again, leaving it facing the probability of just a handful of seats, if pre-poll surveys are to be believed.

Sreedharan’s induction does point to the BJP leadership’s ability and willingness to cast its net wide, beyond the closed network of a handful of families. Photo: PTI

Election narratives 

Even if the results preserve the status quo and the dominant electoral narrative is welfarism, there are undercurrents and social media trends.

Liberalism has completely been abandoned in this election. A case in point is that the Congress and the BJP are criticising the Left government’s stand supporting women’s entry to Sabarimala. In response, the Left front has either remained quiet or has jumped into conspiracy theories. Community reform is nobody’s agenda anymore anyway, given the connection between rich businessmen and mass community leaders, both of whom would rather see communities as static monoliths.

Kerala’s political culture was built around certain communitarianism: each dominant community Ezhava, Muslim, Christian and Nair, work for intra-community social development and then they bargain for community interests through the electoral political process. The fear of and hatred towards other communities was never part of this aspirational assertion and on that front, this election seems to be making a major departure from the past. The dormant inter-community antagonism seems to be becoming more of a reason to vote for or against, something that will rupture the social fabric of Kerala.

The fear that the UDF and LDF are both dealing with is the allegation of the other’s under-the-table arrangement with the BJP. If it is an ideological fight of constitutional nationalism against the religious nationalism of the BJP, it would definitely be understandable. Kerala parties, astonishingly regional in their outlook, seem to have a national concern only in this fear-mongering.

Also read: Kerala: IUML’s First Female MLA Nominee in 25 Years Triggers Debate on Women in Politics

While there is of course no truth to these allegations, but supporters of one side are finding enough reasons to be convinced that their rival party has ties with the BJP. This rather lazy excuse and its inexorable repetition may potentially normalise majoritarianism in the state.

But the Left and the IUML can tackle this rise of the BJP by making an alliance, which may be where they are headed. But the problem is the state will be stuck in this vicious cycle of fear rather than able to work on evolving an inclusive, egalitarian political imagination.

The Muslim factor

The Muslim community of Kerala has been especially cornered and caught up in this fear psychosis. This might be strange, given that the state’s Muslim community is not only more socially and politically powerful compared to their co-religionists elsewhere in the country, but also the most artistically and culturally active community in the state at present.

The IUML has a solid and effective model, which is to ensure the social development of the backward Muslims of Kerala. This is aided by the remittances of expatriates and is engineered by a dynamic visionary like C.H. Muhammed Koya. It should be trying to nationalise its model at this point and give leadership to the country’s Muslims. But unfortunately, in the hands of leaders like P.K. Kunhalikutty, who are perceived as corrupt and self-centred by a large section of the community, the party is only concerned about consolidating its already existing forts in Malabar.

IUML abandoned its commitment to communitarian politics and its historical opposition to Islamist politics through a short-lived, electorally pointless and conceptually suicidal alliance with the Welfare Party, the political outfit of Jamaat-e-Islami, during the local body elections, against the wish and will of all Muslim organisations.

The electoral adjustment has been broken and the Welfare Party has already fielded candidates against the UDF. But the IUML has neither the ideological clarity nor committed spokespersons who could even explain the actual difference between their communitarian politics and the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Islamist worldview.

Also read: Is the Anti-CAA Rhetoric Enough for Pinarayi Vijayan to Garner Traditional Muslims’ Support?

If the vacuum created by the IUML’s forsaking its legacy is seen as an opportunity by the Jamaat-e-Islami in social and mass media (with Malayalam social media fights being most frequent and loud between the political left and the political Islamists), at the grassroots level, it is the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political outfit of the Popular Front of India, which seems to be doing its work.

UDF leaders release their manifesto for the Kerala assembly election in Thiruvananthapuram, March 20, 2021. Photo: PTI

After Shaheen Bagh championed the cause of Indian constitutional nationalism and showed the Indian people the way of working towards the promises of the Republic, such political responses from the Kerala Muslim political formations read rather disappointing.

Ezhavas, the community to be primarily credited with the so-called Renaissance, is the biggest voter base of the LDF. But there is a generational conflict within the community and a lot of youngsters are either Hindutva supporters in party or in spirit.

Christians are another community divided between the Left and the Christian version of the IUML, the Kerala Congress. Although a large section of the community is being seen as moving towards the Left, some of the groups, however, prompted by the fear of “Muslim designs” seem to be moving towards the BJP.

Nairs, the community that was at the forefront of establishing Malayali identity against the dominance of Tamil Brahmins, is aligning with the BJP and deserting the Congress.

Amongst all these developments, women, Dalits, Adivasis and backward sections of all religious communities and the social environment of Kerala might be at the receiving end.

Kerala, a capitalist society with a certain feudal set of values and socialist rhetoric, is likely to maintain its character in this election. But right beneath this rhetoric of welfarism, there is a subtext of phobia, and the yet-to-be-known future of those illusions.

Two movies that were huge hits could provide an allegory to the choices ahead for Kerala. The Great Indian Kitchen, which showed a woman walking out on her husband and family, reminding one of Nora slamming the door in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, breaking out of social webs and then cultivating a new kind of assertive and creative space.

Drishyam 2 showed an environment in which all characters, from the police to common people, work in some kind of a social vacuum with self-interest, be that of vendetta or a personalised sense of safety. The movie only has selfish, individualised villainy on all sides, with no mediating structures and sensationalist spectatorship, making it an excellent allegory of Kerala of tomorrow, if not of today.

Both are possibilities for the people of Kerala.

N.P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.