Kerala’s ongoing election is also a test of its Political Culture

S. Harikrishnan

[This article builds on the paper Communicating Communism: Social Spaces and the Creation of a “Progressive” Public Sphere in Kerala, India, originally published in a Special Issue of TripleC on Communicative Socialism]

 

Voters of the south-Indian state of Kerala are awaiting results, having voted on the 06th of April to decide who forms the next government. Traditionally known for its left-of-center political culture, the state has alternated power between the Left Democratic Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM), and the United Democratic Front led by the centrist Indian National Congress (INC) for four decades now. This election has thrown an opportunity for the incumbent LDF government led by Pinarayi Vijayan to get re-elected, thanks to strong support for the popular welfare schemes introduced in the last five years, and their management of both the Covid-19 pandemic and the earlier Nipah virus outbreak of 2018. Another factor that makes this election intriguing is the emergence of a third front—the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)—led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kerala, as a potential player in some key constituencies. The BJP has dominated the national politics in India since coming to power at the center in 2014 but has struggled to make electoral gains in Kerala, partly because its majoritarian right-wing Hindu nationalist politics is seen as being at odds with Keralan ecumene and its secular and progressive political culture. Nevertheless, the BJP-led NDA has steadily increased its vote share in Kerala from around 6 percent (in 2011) to 15 percent (in the assembly elections 2016 and general elections 2019). This rising electoral threat, the fear that BJP’s gains could lead to increased religious conflicts and seething social tensions, and the response it has provoked from the LDF and UDF on religious debates in the state in the recent past, all make this election a referendum on the resilience of Kerala’s secular political culture.

Increase in vote-share for the BJP (and allies) in various elections since 2006 Image: The Hindu

Compared to other parts of India where the BJP has, since 2014, managed to ride to power heavily reliant on the “Modi-wave”, Narendra Modi’s approval ratings in Kerala continue to remain low. On the other hand, the INC continues to be the preferred national alternative to the people of Kerala, even while it has faced a leadership crisis and lost power in a number of states since 2014. In fact, the Gandhi family—whose leadership of the INC is considered its biggest weakness nationally—continues to remain popular in Kerala. Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Kerala won the UDF an astonishing 19/20 seats from Kerala in the national elections in 2019, even as BJP was re-elected with a larger mandate than they had in 2014. In Kerala, however, the BJP is still a distant third electoral option. But the fact that they increasingly influence public discourse on social issues in Kerala today suggests that they can impact political culture from a national base, despite weak electoral support locally. The increase in BJP support in Kerala is driven by an aggressive communications strategy and through interventions in the social sphere by the BJP and its “cultural front” the RSS, over many decades.

Participants at a political event in Kerala before the 2016 elections. Image: S. Harikrishnan

Breaking Ground

The 1980s was a period of stagnation in Kerala both economically and, to some extent, politically. Already, a generation of cultural figures, authors, poets, and thinkers who played an active role in shaping Kerala’s left-politics in the early twentieth century were either side-lined by the mainstream left party or moved away from the party voluntarily. The response of the left parties towards the radical left movement in general and specifically to its cultural front—the Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi (1980-82)—further widened this divide. There was a general “disillusionment” among the many young people towards politics in general, and the left’s stand on social issues specifically. Ashraf, then a young party-sympathizer, said to me in an interview that this was partly what led him, like many others, to step back from politics and migrate to the Gulf in the 1980s. This period also saw the death of many youngsters, either from direct police brutality or suicides led by disillusionment.

Interestingly, this is also the decade during which the BJP—and by extension, other Hindu nationalist organizations—began to make organized and active interventions in socio-political issues in the State. At the national level, the BJP emerged as a political opponent to the INC, loudly wearing its Hindu nationalist rhetoric on its sleeve. In Kerala, the BJP embarked upon a massive communication program across the state, including door-to-door campaigns, book sales, public posters, and processions. Within the short span of a decade, three new ventures were established to communicate Hindu nationalist ideas to the public in Malayalam, the local language of Kerala: a newspaper Janmabhumi (started in 1987), a research journal Pragathi (published since 1979), and a new publishing house Kurukshetra in 1992 (Cochin). The right-wing also expanded its activities in social service through their Seva Bharati (1989), and in the education sector through the Bharatiya Vichara Kendra (1982), a research center, and many schools established by Hindu organizations. Through these spaces, they reached out to the masses who started to see these organizations—long connected to their legacy as a violent organization responsible for Gandhi’s assassination—in a new light. The RSS sympathizers I interviewed during fieldwork all said to me that it was through these programs that they were attracted to the cultural right, and by extension more often than not, to its political front, towards the BJP. As a result of these measures, RSS membership more than doubled from about 20000 in 1975 to 45900 by 1982, and its cultural significance grew.[1]

The Sangh Parivar’s conscious efforts since the 1980s to build an aggressive communications strategy through the abovementioned means is crucial to understanding how they have managed to expand BJP’s vote shares in the recent decades. It did not help that secular politics was on the backfoot, and that conventional social spaces which had cajoled the “progressive” political culture in Kerala—like the teashops, rural libraries, and reading rooms—had started to decline after the mid-1980s, mostly with the advent of television and later, the internet.

Youngsters supporting the LDF celebrate outside the BJP office after an election victory in 2016. Image: S. Harikrishnan

 Communicating Politics

Kerala’s politics, for decades, has taken pride in being rooted in values of equity and justice. Recent developments in Kerala have proven to be a test of the resilience of its political culture. Even as the state waits in anticipation of the election results due to be declared on 2nd May, a few observations can be made. Irrespective of whether or not BJP makes considerable gains in terms of seats, the fact that they have become a force to reckon with in Kerala’s political public sphere indicates the success of their aggressive campaigns and communication networks. The need of the hour is for progressive forces to evolve an effective communicative socialist strategy. One possible avenue is to explore the potential of autogestion—the use of grassroots movements to build broad-based alliances that have the power to reconstruct social spaces from “low to high”, as opposed to “high to low”, and where social needs would be determined here by the action of interested parties, and not by “experts”.[2]

Kerala boasts of one of the most successful projects of decentralization in India, with strong administrative networks at the village level. Since the 1990s, the many initiatives of local self-governments have been pivotal, especially in sectors like public health and education. The government must tap into these networks to build broad-based secular alliances that cut across religious, caste, and gender differences.  

A second possible route would be to rekindle the relationship between progressive politics and art. Arguably, the most successful tool for political education in the early twentieth century in Kerala were theatre, music, cinema and literature. Eventually, debates between the party and artists and authors led to a strain in this relationship towards the end of the last century. The last decade has seen a new ‘school’ of filmmakers and artists revive these links by being open about their political support for the secular political parties, and making films that address threats of religious extremism. Progressive forces must engage more constructively with these artists to develop a communication strategy rooted in secular ideology, within or outside party structures.

The promise of the incoming government in May, in other words, must be to nourish secular progressive spaces—both tangible ones at the community level, but also art and literature—without succumbing to the pressures of narrow religious politics. A new language of communicative socialism must be shaped which reflects a similar initiative that progressive political forces undertook in Kerala a century ago.

References:

[1] Jayaprasad, K., 1989. Impact of Hindu Nationalism on Kerala Society and Politics: A Study of RSS, (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis) p.163

[2] Lefebvre, Henri. 2009. State, Space, World: Selected Essays. Edited by Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden. Translated by Gerald Moore. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


S. Harikrishnan is a postdoctoral researcher at DCU, where he also completed his Ph.D. form in 2020. His thesis looked at the role of social spaces in shaping the modern public sphere in Kerala, India. His current research interests include spatiality in post-conflict societies, streets as political spaces, and the salience of physical spaces in an increasingly virtual world.

 

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