Communist politicians in Kerala have a long history of creating alternatives that push back against the narrative that capitalism is the only option.
It was a time of “titanic struggle against world fascism,” writes Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad 35 years after he overcome the odds to become the governor of one of the first states in the non-communist world to elect a communist government.
The year was 1957. World War II had ended, India had won independence from British colonial rule and the country had been partitioned to create the state of Pakistan.
Among the palm-lined beaches, backwaters and canals of India’s southwestern state of Kerala, there was a fomenting movement against imperialism, capitalism and racist parochialism led by the Communist Party of India.
With Namboodiripad as its leader, the CPI, in a historic precedent, went on to win the state’s very first election.
But just two years later it would be illegally overthrown by the Indian National Congress, which sought to rollback CPI’s efforts in a vigorous push to the right.
Still, the seeds had been planted. The CPI came to power again six years later in 1965, then again in 1967, 1980, 1987, 1996, 2006 and most recently, 2016.
The communist movement that pioneered radical land and educational reforms in Kerala early on — pushing the state to outrank the rest of the country on a number of fronts — has in the last five decades shown no signs of paling.
With the CPI (Marxist) — an offshoot of the original CPI — in power since May 2016, their Left Democratic Front government, a coalition of various communist and socialist groups in the state, has achieved a number of victories in the past year that peg the small, southwestern state miles ahead of the rest of Modi-governed India.
For while India, under the leadership of right-wing Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, succumbs to “unbridled market fundamentalism,” authoritarianism and “minority-hating parochialism,” say the CPI (M), Kerala’s literacy, infant mortality, life expectancy and school enrollment rates are on par with the First World.
Communist movement sets a standard
“The Communist movement in Kerala has grown in a land that had been prepared for it by the social reform movements that preceded it,” the Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, told teleSUR by email.
“If reformers … were the torch bearers of renaissance in Kerala, (then) Communist leaders … were instrumental in translating their vision for our society into political action,” he added. “Even now, the left in the state is closely aligned with all such movements that profess and practice progressive ideas, standing by the oppressed, marginalized and disadvantaged.”
The history of left governments in Kerala has forged the way for the “Kerala Model” of development to the world — a people’s alternative to the rising forces of globalization.
Michael Parenti, in his 1997 book “Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism”, wrote:
“Consider Kerala, a state in India where the actions of popular organizations and mass movements have won important victories over the last forty years against politico-economic oppression, generating a level of social development considerably better than that found in most of the Third World, and accomplished without outside investment.
Though Kerala has no special sources of wealth, it has had decades of communist organizing and political struggle that reached and moved large numbers of people and breathed life into the state’s democracy.”
For 28-year-old Asif Ahamed, who lives in the state, Kerala’s communist party is easily the answer in a country governed by the whims of “ethno-nationalist fascism.”
“They have stuck by the people ever since, contrary to the corporate government that have been in power in Delhi. In the end it’s an extremely easy choice to choose the Communist party in Kerala over any other in the country,” he told teleSUR.
He agrees that the longstanding history of communist movements has helped the state to soar ahead.
“Kerala over the years has always been a step ahead of other states. This is largely thanks to the massive presence of the revolutionary and the spiritual movements in the state since the early decades of 20th century,” he pressed.
Outranking India from wealth redistribution to women’s rights
Born in the struggle against revisionism and sectarianism in the international communist movement in order to “defend the tenets of Marxism-Leninism,” according to Vijayan, the CPI (M)’s governance has pushed Kerala to have India’s highest literacy late at 93.9 percent, highest life expectancy rate at 77 years and therefore its best Human Development Index score at 0.712 in 2015.
Since its LDF coalition government took office on May 25, 2016, lawmakers have also put in place a number of progressive policies that tackle issues ranging from racism to labor rights to gender equality.
Meanwhile, in a country still battling deep-seated discrimination against those deemed lower caste, “Kerala had eradicated untouchability and casteism long before India’s independence,” explained Ahamed. In the past year, Kerala’s government has conducted some 6,000 “I have no caste” campaigns across the state.
The population, known as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the country, have also been allocated the biggest set of funds in the state’s budget for 2017.
Feminist initiatives have also soared under the LDF’s governance. This month it became the first state in the country to install sanitary napkin vending machines in all its schools under its “She Pad” scheme, providing access to menstrual hygiene products to every young woman.
It also introduced the “Pink Patrol,” a network of specially trained women police personnel to ensure the safety and comfort of women, children, senior citizens and those with disabilities traveling on public transportation. All tourist destinations and public spaces in the state are also being made to accommodate people with physical disabilities.
And amid a global crisis of violence against transgender people, who have suffered epidemic-level murders of their community in recent years from the United States to Brazil, Kerala has pushed to make trans people more included in mainstream society. Last month in Kochi, a small beach town, 23 people from the hijra, or the transgender community, were employed by a local train network, Kochi Metro Rail Ltd.
Rashmi CR, the spokesperson for Kochi Metro Rail, told the Guardian, “People don’t interact with trans people. They live separately from society, they are not given jobs, their rights are not respected. We want to bring them into the mainstream by ensuring that people interact with them every day — on their way to work, for example.”
The government is also seeking measures to “do away with the male-female binary in the state’s public service commission so that it is inclusive of sexual minorities as well,” states the press release from the Chief Minister’s office celebrating one year in office.
In the realm of labor rights, Kerala, again, has been exemplary. In May, it announced it would be providing free health insurance and medical treatment for the region’s migrant workers. The program will cover some 3 million people.
The government has also implemented a scheme to help unorganized workers attain a minimum wage.
And in the realm of education, it has launched an expansive loan repayment that was introduced to help students pay back education loans.
“At a time when students’ movements against fee hikes and student debts have shook countries across the globe, we are taking up an ambitious … scheme to enable students to come out of debt,” Chief Minister Vijayan explained.
Finally, Kerala’s momentous goal of ensuring every home in the state had electricity was also achieved last month, another first in India.
“The most notable of the reforms that this government has brought about includes, among other things, electrification of all the houses in the state, a first in the country. Given the mountainous and forested terrain of Kerala, this isn’t an easy feat by any measure,” explained Ahamed.
The lone red state
The case elsewhere in India is shows a remarkable contrast.
Modi’s “Hindutva” nation, wrote Vrinda Gopinath in the Daily O, has already arrived, “trampling citizens from marginalized communities like Dalits, tribals, minorities, and the poor who face the jackboot of aggressive and militant religious bigotry.” Gopinath argued that goes together with assault on “citizens who stand up for the Constitution, human rights and civil rights activists, free thinking doctrinaires, and all those who challenge an ultra-nationalist state.”
The country, in its three years of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rule, has extended its crackdown on liberation movements, from the Maoist insurgency in its core, to Kashmiri citizens it occupies in the region that is the most heavily militarized in the world.
“Moral police,” like the Hindu Yuva Vahini, Ram Sene, Bajrang Dal, VHP and hundreds of Hindutva fringe groups, explained Gopinath, roam the streets from Delhi to Darjeeling, banning things like cow slaughter and murdering those that act otherwise.
It is in this climate that the CPI (M) must operate.
“With the current BJP-led government at the centre, we are also seeing an encroachment on the rights of the states within India’s federal structure as well as the communal onslaught on our autonomous institutions, including educational institutions,” pressed Chief Vijayan. “Such attacks are part of an orchestrated move to make India, its economy in particular, further open to neoliberalism, by hushing up all voices of dissent.”
This contrast is not lost on Ahamed as well.
“While the Modi-led government at the centre along with many other BJP-led governments in the north are fuelling right-wing Hindu nationalism, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and misogynist attitudes among the people, the LDF are doing all they can to bring the people together and remind them of the gains and the socio-economic changes Kerala has made over the years through mass struggle and workers movements,” he declared.
A people’s alternative only set to grow
Given its decades-long history of a right-wing-left-wing tug of war over power, along with the current right-wing assault elsewhere in the country, the state of Kerala will continue to face a set of challenges.
“This is the primary challenge that the left has faced in implementing its progressive policies, that while we have focused on pro-people measures, the right has focused on pro-capital measures,” said the chief minister.
“With political formations of the left and the right successively coming to power in Kerala, what has happened is that the pro-people measures of the left have failed to have continuity. Programs that the left spearheaded like universal literacy, housing, total electrification and so on, were delayed immensely because the right wing-led governments in the state did not give priority to such measures,” he added.
Ahamed credits the LDF’s rapid achievements in the past year, in part, to the country’s rising authoritarianism.
“This government (hasn’t) wasted any time in making progress across a broad spectrum of issues. Maybe the urgency is understandable given the rise of jingoism all across the country,” he stated. “When an authoritarian government is in power at the center, the rest of us cannot rest on our laurels and need to act fast.”
Still, with a party backed by left movements and ordinary working peoples for decades, what seems certain is that despite its struggles, Kerala’s communist government has flourished, is flourishing and will continue to flourish.
“While all the naysayers in the world will unite to tell us that there is no alternative, in this small state of Kerala, we — because of our sheer commitment to the people who have bestowed us with this responsibility of governance — are leaving no stone unturned to achieve a people’s alternative,” said the revolutionary state’s chief minister. “An alternative that caters to the hopes and aspirations of all sections of our society.”