New face of Kerala’s community politics

By N P Ashley

As the dust settles on the latest set of assembly elections, what emerges is a bifurcation of the political tendencies of the 2014 general elections: If Tamil Nadu and West Bengal reiterated the political value of powerful leaders, Assam points to the BJP getting out of the trap of one singular national image (after the disastrous outcome in Delhi and Bihar) and making intelligent local partnerships while fielding faces connected by consistent narratives of “outsiders”. But it is the Kerala election results that followed its ritualistic character though with an interesting twist in the single seat won by the BJP. 

After every five years, the people of Kerala choose a change and this time has been no different. Had change not taken place, the absolute heedlessness that the Congress-led United Democratic Front showed in the last two years, after winning 60 per cent of the seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, would have gone uncontested.

In the state of Kerala, the most important item of common engagement if not entertainment is politics. Adequately funded by the hard work of the expatriate Malayali, the political programme is a daily ritual here since the 1970s. The spectacle of politics is endlessly interesting to Keralites. Hence the hold of political parties in each and every segment of life is almost complete: to the point that, every party has a class one organisation as well as a porter’s organisation in the state, and several in between these two as well. But the use of the same old language and practices have turned political activities into meaningless, arbitrary and subjective spectacles.

There are two reasons for the growth of the BJP in Kerala: the political reason is the disillusionment with the two fronts, be that the disappointment with certain leaders, social fascism in certain localities and so on. The emotional reason is the narrative of “new India” with identifiably religious undertones capturing the imagination of many youngsters in the absence of another narrative.

It is interesting to note that a number of expressions that signalled “new politics” in Kerala in the last two years have been either eaten up or dissolved in the party folds: the exciting organic movements floated and championed  primarily by women questioning the grammar of politics in Kerala from the struggle for sales girls to be permitted  to sit during  work hours, the ‘Kiss of Love’ movement against moral policing, the women worker’s movement in the tea plantations, the meets against fascism- all, finally, became tributaries for the Left front.

The “green politics” projected by some young Congress-front MLAs ended up nowhere in the larger ecologically insensitive governance. The historic “standing agitation” seeking land for the tribals suffered in its social content when its leader C K Janu became an NDA candidate.

The real new item on the menu is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s one seat in the assembly. Both the BJP side and the anti-BJP side seem to view a “domino effect” in this. This grand symbolic value attached to the BJP’s entry might mean something in the case of the confidence of the party cadre. But to argue that this is the first time communalism entered Kerala is to miss much:  the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and some of the Muslim fundamentalist organisations have been very active in Kerala for decades.

The BJP apologists’ question that the State where the Indian Union Muslim League and Kerala Congress (essentially a Christian communitarian organisation) have been strong, how is the BJP presence an issue, isn’t too convincing. Not in the least because they are “minority organisations” but these two parties don’t subscribe to an Islamist or Christianist ideology, the way the BJP does with the Hindutva ideology. Communitarian parties do represent the interests of the community (and it is true that they have often been unethically territorial and insensitive to other communities), but this surely is different from communal parties which understand their community’s interest always in opposition to that of other communities.

It might not also be correct to count the BJP as a third kind of party.  The party can only work in Kerala as far as it wins a new kind of communitarianism of Hindu consolidation, becoming a new face of community politics through new alliances. There are two reasons for the growth of the BJP in Kerala: the political reason is the disillusionment with the two fronts, be that the disappointment with certain leaders, social fascism in certain localities and so on. The emotional reason is the narrative of “new India” with identifiably religious undertones capturing the imagination of many youngsters in the absence of another narrative. So the emergence of the BJP will only eventually mean majoritarianisms of three kinds in various parts of Kerala: Muslim in the North, Christian in Central Kerala and Hindu in the South. It cannot mean a new political ethic in any meaningful sense.

If the public of Kerala get on without investigating its political foundations, what will be ushered in is a certain politics of balance based on mutual fear among communities. This state where co-living is spatially mandated for everybody, it is important to make it an honest political value.

Once an autodriver in Kannur, an area infamous for political clashes between the CPM and the RSS, said to me pointing to the experience of another area, which had communal conflicts between Hindus and Muslims: “It is good to have political clashes. Or else, communalism will come here too.” That echoed the feeling of many Malayalis. But this is a thought from the dead end. The time has come to convert this mandate into a turning point: a search that can forge a political narrative based on the socio-economic and demographic givens ethically.+

(Dr. N.P.Ashley is a socio-political commentator and dramaturge. He teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi)