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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 5, January 21 & January 28, 2023

Political and Administrative Hegemony of Left Democratic Front in Kerala in Policy Making and Policy Implementation with special reference to People’s Plan Campaign | Jos Chathukulam and Manasi Joseph

Saturday 21 January 2023, by Jos Chathukulam, Manasi Joseph



This paper closely looks into the association between the political and administrative hegemony and policy making and policy implementation process.To establish this association, the paper offers an empirical evidence from the state of Kerala by critically reviewing the political hegemony of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) over the People’s Plan Campaign (PPC) and how it helped them to capture local governments in the state. It also looks into the political hegemony of the LDF and its impact on Covid 19 mitigation strategies and how it resulted in the spectacular victory of LDF in the 2020 local government elections and the 2021 assembly elections.

Keywords Political and Administrative Hegemony, Democratic Decentralization, Covid 19, Kerala and Local Governments


In Kerala as well as the rest of India, politics and public administration are closely intertwined and along with that there is high degree of collaboration between elected and non-elected administrative functionaries. While the intense interaction between the elected and the non -elected administrative functionaries can result in corruption and tyranny, in Kerala, the LDF have used this collaboration as a tool for exercising political and administrative hegemony over policy making and policy implementation. The 1996 People’s Plan Campaign (PPC) for decentralized planning was a major public policy initiative undertaken by the LDF in Kerala. The PPC was conceptualized by Left intellectuals and elites and it has given them a political hegemony over not only democratic decentralization and local governments but also in the realm of public administration. It has also been suggested that at the time of Covid 19 pandemic, “public administrations while formulating and implementing mitigation strategies had to depend on inter-governmental relations or multi-level governance to come up with effective solutions” (Puppim et al., 2020).Studies suggest that the recent pandemic opened up an opportunity to further improve public administration(Puppim et al., 2020) and the same is applicable to Kerala context as well. For instance, in the midst of the pandemic, Kerala launched community kitchens to provide free food to the poor and needy in the state (Aimol, 2022). To effectively implement the programme, the coordination between Kerala civil supplies department, local governments and members of Kudumbashree was ensured. The community kitchens turned out to be a success due to the effective coordination between local and state players which LDF was able to mobilize due to it political and administrative hegemony over decentralization and Kudumbashree. In the case of free food kit distribution during the pandemic, the political and administrative hegemony of LDF over Public Distribution System (PDS) in the state made it possible for them to smoothly implement the programme. It is evident here that the formulation and implementation of public policy requires intense collaboration and coordination between different levels of governments and a variety of civil society stakeholders as is evident in the Kerala model of Covid 19 pandemic management. Above all, the political systems in the state and the local levels also play an instrumental role in formulating and implementing immediate solutions since “political systems mediate public policy decision making and can either assist or constrain development of trust and social cohesion necessary to manage a public crisis” (Puppim et al., 2020 ; McGuire & Silvia, 2010).

Meanwhile, before delving into the political and administrative hegemony of LDF over the structure and systems of public administration, it is equally important to understand the political landscape of Kerala. Kerala, a state in India has always been an enigma and paradox in terms of its model of development as well as politics. Kerala has been celebrated as a unique development model by scholars across the world for its exemplary achievements in human development and poverty reduction despite relatively low GDP growth (Franke & Chasin, 1994; Kannan, 2000; Törnquist, 2002; Chathukulam & Tharamangalam, 2021). While the Kerala model of growth and development defied the conventional development economics, the political landscape and equations in Kerala have stumped political scientists across the world. On April 5, 1957, the democratic India got its first Communist government. The Communist Party of India (CPI) led by E M S Namboodiripad became one of the first democratically elected governments coming to power in the world. Many attributed the victory to the loyal support the party enjoyed among the peasants and working class due to party’s anti-feudal and anti-imperialist struggles. Communism in Kerala did not begin with an ‘armed revolution’ to capture power and instead, the birth of communism in the state was rooted in mass movements that socially and politically mobilized and supported tenants, peasants, agrarian, and land reforms. In Kerala, the public policies were more or less a “byproduct of popular mobilization from below and state sponsored initiatives from above” and the LDF in Kerala played a major role in it (Prabhash, 2004).

In the Post-Independent India, the Communist Party in Kerala continued to fight for the rights of poor tenants and landless laborers in the state. The first communist government in Kerala even implemented tenancy reforms. The Land Reforms Act is considered as one of the significant contribution of communists in Kerala. Though radical programs including land redistribution were abandoned, they succeeded in politically and socially mobilizing the working class and marginalized sections of the society (Desai, 2005). They also succeeded in unionizing workers in the informal sector. Though the first democratically elected communist government in Kerala was toppled due to Vimochana Samaram spearheaded by dominant political and religious groups, within a very short span of time, the state of Kerala embraced a vibrant yet contentious democratic system governed alternatively in every five years [1] by two coalitions: LDF led by CPI (M) and United Democratic Front (UDF) led by Congress Party. In 1982 assembly elections, UDF got 4,617,498 votes and LDF got 4,523,228, that is less than 100,000 votes separated them (Bhaskar, 2016). In 2001, the UDF was able to increase the seat share and vote share as it won 99 seats and LDF only 41. But in 2006 assembly elections, LDF won 98 seats and UDF got just 42 seats. In 2011 assembly elections UDF got 72 seats and formed the government, the electoral victory was in terms of a narrow margin [2]. In 2016 assembly polls, LDF won 98 seats and UDF 42. In 2021, the LDF wrote a history of sorts by winning 99 seats and it was for the first time an alliance won the second consecutive term in the state since 1977 assembly elections. In the 2021 Kerala assembly elections, the LDF fought and won the elections based on the welfare initiatives and the measures undertaken to tackle the spread of Covid 19 pandemic. The LDF is synonymous with development and welfare-oriented governance has always been their forte. However, a closer introspection will prove that these welfare programs of the LDF are just a logical continuation of the PPC. But none of the election analysis have discussed how the political and administrative hegemony over PPC played a role in the victory of LDF in 2020 local government elections and 2021 assembly elections for a second consecutive term.

Did the PPC lay the foundation stone for the political and administrative hegemony of the LDF ?

Apart from pro-peasant and pro-worker struggles, decentralization was a favorite topic for a section of the communists. Thus, introducing the idea of PPC in 1996 was another major contribution of the LDF. The PPC aimed at decentralized planning and devolution of funds, functions, and functionaries. It was also the most extensive and efficient decentralization program undertaken in India. The 1996 PPC initiated large-scale rural development and also facilitated the decentralization of powers. Poverty reduction in the state was a significant outcome of the PPC (Heller & Isaac, 2005). It had a major impact on the quality of services rendered, especially in sectors like health, education, drinking water, sanitation, roads, energy, and housing. Over the years, political observers have noted that the extensive involvement of LDF and CPI (M) in the PPC have helped them to tighten their grip on Kerala society and thus mobilize votes during elections. Their involvement in PPC which rolled out a slew of socio-economic welfare measures have convinced the people to think that LDF means development. It has helped the LDF and its major ally CPI (M) to mobilize not only proletarians and peasants but also white-collar workers, middle class women, celebrities, and public intellectuals. Under the umbrella of socio -economic programs that originated from the 1996 PPC, some 25 years ago, the LDF have endeared itself to Keralites by offering a balanced combination of growth and development along with a humanist touch. While it is generally believed that decentralization in a way attempts to downsize the state, in the case of Kerala it has turned out as a vehicle to empower the state.

The first phase of PPC which started in 1996 was smoothly functioning till 2001 but due to various reasons it got derailed (Isaac & Franke, 2021). It has been noted that decentralization in Kerala shows a clear hiatus between theories and practice especially when practice is taken as the reference point and contrasted with an ideal situation of devolution (Moolakkattu & Chathukulam, 2003). Studies and research show that Kerala’s record is not up to the expectations of genuine enthusiasts of decentralization. The Kerala experience also suggests the limitations of decentralization initiated from above and were implemented with centralized command (Chathukulam & John, 2002). In other words, it has been morphed into a decentralization suited to the principle of ‘democratic centralism’. The LDF employed a ‘hegemonic and non-hegemonic generative politics’ [3] at the behest of PPC (Williams, 2008). EMS Namboodiripad has explained the concept of PPC as a dialectical position between the left deviations that ‘nothing can be done’ and right deviation of ‘everything can be done’ (EMS, 1994) though he does not refer the ‘hegemonic and non-hegemonic generative politics’ [4]. But at the same time CPI (M) the biggest ally in LDF also rejected the idea that “nothing can be done until a national revolution occurred, arguing instead that it was in and through the current conditions that a socialist democracy would be forged” and thus giving the perception that they follow a ‘hegemonic and non- hegemonic generative politics’. Here comes the significance of the 1996 PPC in Kerala and the second phase of PPC which began in 2016. If one closely looks at the electoral victory of LDF, one cannot completely reject the fact that the investment in decentralization has eventually yielded its result after 25 years. Since it is an adopted version of decentralization under the democratic centralism, the LDF captured the local governments for the vote bank politics of welfare net wedded to a messianic populism [5].

Decentralization Downsizes or Empowers the State?

In reality, decentralization downsizes the state and empowers the local governments. But in the case of Kerala, it is a state-controlled decentralization and therefore the state did not give the unlimited freedom for local governments. The decentralization process was engineered in Kerala in such a way that the state became the major beneficiary of the decentralization initiatives and it empowered the state and disempowered the local governments and faded their independent identity and thus captured the local governments and their apparatus. The Kerala experience suggest that decentralization and social and political mobilization under the guise of PPC has been used by the LDF as an instrument for obtaining political hegemony and patronage. Evidence from Kerala suggest that decentralization and PPC have contributed to more extensive distribution of political patronage in the state (Sadanandan, 2012). In addition to that, by employing clientelist strategies, the LDF has formulated a new political formula of ‘hegemonic and non -hegemonic generative politics to obtain political and administrative hegemony and political patronage and thereby to capture state power. LDF has distributed patronage to enhance their political support at the behest of PPC. Clientelist strategies also leveraged the political and administrative hegemony and distribution of political patronage of LDF. Though decentralization in true spirit downsizes the state and empowers the grassroot level governance, in Kerala, it has empowered the state and disempowered the local governments. Thus, the LDF has turned local governments and its apparatus into instruments of patronage using its political and administrative hegemony and it has helped to put an end to the four-decade trend of alternating state power between the LDF and UDF.
Nevertheless, the 1996 PPC laid the formal foundations for socio-economic development and welfare projects as well as agencies and stakeholders in the state. The PPC showcased that democratic governance can be made possible through the larger and comprehensive participation of people in local politics and decentralized planning. In 1996, LDF government earmarked around 30 per cent of the outlay of the Ninth Five Year Plan towards projects and programs drawn up by the local governments. In 1997-98, the total resources thus devolved (grant-in-aid) amounted to Rs.10,250 million (US $134.96) and in 1998-99 it was Rs.11,780 million (US $ 155.11) (Heller & Isaac, 2005). Nearly one third of the plan funds were given into the hands of local governments. Social mobilization for formulation and implementation of plans was a notable feature of the PPC (Oommen, 2014; Isaac & Franke, 2000 & 2021). It opened the doors before the ordinary people to become a part of the planning process at the village level through Gram Sabha and it in a way empowered decision making at grassroots level. The PPC encouraged people to identify their own needs and problems and to formulate solutions to them through their participation in local development planning. Though the first attempts to decentralize power to local level democratic institutions began in 1957 in Kerala it was the 1996 PPCthat made Kerala a forerunner in decentralization.

Action Research Labs for Decentralization: From Kalliasseri to Mararikulam 

The Kalliasseri experiment was a predecessor of PPC in 1996. Kalliasseri, a Gram Panchayat in Kannur district of northern Kerala was converted into a methodological action research lab for decentralized planning and it is from there it was scaled up to the entire Kerala under the banner of PPC in the first phase. In the recent literature on ‘Kerala decentralization’, the case of Kalliasseri is hardly figured anywhere and all the initiatives including ‘Kalliasseri Development Society’ (KDS) has become defunct and it is the Mararikulam experiment that has brought much attention in connection with the PPC. The Mararikulam experiment is described as a logical continuation of 1996 PPC. The Mararikulam experiment consists of an integrated set of projects designed to make substantial reductions in poverty in the eight villages and Aryad and Kanjikuzhy development blocks in Alappuzha, the central coastal region of Kerala over the years of 2001 to 2006. The PPC paved the way for a “democratic set up functioning at the local levels combined with high degrees of participation, mutual trust among individuals, optimism towards the future, and a willingness to deliberate, compromise, and work together” (Franke, 2002) and these features of PPC have been effectively extended into the Mararikulam experiment. The Mararikulam action research lab for decentralization was developed by T M Thomas Isaac [6] when he represented the constituency from 2001-2006. The Mararikulam experiment served as an action lab for developing additional inputs for strengthening the PPC post 1996 and these activities in a way finally culminated into the second phase of PPC which began in 2016.

Kudumbashree and PPC

Kudumbashree was an outcome of the first phase of the PPC. In 1997, a three member task force was constituted to examine the feasibility of establishing a mission for poverty eradication at state level in the context of 1996 PPC and it recommended setting up of a State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) with the primary aim to eradicate absolute poverty from Kerala. In 1999, SPEM started functioning under local self-government department (LSGD), it came to be known as Kudumbashree Mission. Since then,ithas been largely involved in the monitoring and implementation of a slew of welfare measures especially poverty eradication. Today Kudumbashree has turned not only into a grassroots network of self-help groups but functions as community based organization. With a member strength of 45 lakh members, Kudumbashree has evolved into a network that is closely connected to more than half of the families in the state and hence it is in a position to understand the felt needs of the community. It is this connect that the members of Kudumbashree have with common people that prompted the government to entrust the agency with the implementation of development schemes of the government and LDF government has taken maximum advantage of this grassroots network for social as well as political means and ends. In the last 20 years, Kudumbashreemembers have offered their expertise in various fields including micro-enterprises, collectives, agricultural services, rural development, palliative care and compassion initiatives and empowerment of women and marginalized. When pandemic induced lockdown was imposed in Kerala, the Kudumbashree members served as frontline workers and addressed the major challenges in terms of food security. The budget hotels of Kudumbashree and the community kitchens across the state played a crucial role in ensuring that no one went hungry in the midst of a deadly pandemic. The Kudumbashree members jointly worked with the local governments in setting up community kitchens across the state for providing food to guest workers (migrant workers addressed as guest workers in the state), destitute and needy on time. The Kudumbashree members also came to the rescue when the state was experiencing a shortage in hygiene products including sanitizers and masks as well as personal protective equipment. They were also actively involved in monitoring the health and well-being of the elderly people and those placed under quarantine. From all these, it is evident that the Kudumbashree which was born out of 1996 PPC has evolved into a mechanism and reckoning force not only to empower women but also the state at large. Kudumbashree has played a crucial role in increasing the social and political mobility of women in public life. Women empowerment and participation become a major focus of development action under the PPC in 1996 and Kudumbashree is the biggest example in this regard.

Meanwhile there have been criticisms that although women’s participation has increased both in absolute terms and as a share of the total participants, it has not been translated into as a reckoning influence in plan-related decision-making and it has paved the way for the concept of panchayat feminism [7] and it has been established that a “non-challenging "panchayat feminism" has emerged in Kerala at the Panchayat level (Nair & Moolakkattu, 2014).

Kudumbashree as a tool for leveraging political patronage and hegemony

Interestingly, Kudumbashree


though envisioned as apolitical, it is by and large a political entity and a political asset for LDF as long as it continues to be part and parcel of the PPC legacy. The Kudumbashree can be termed as ‘Made in Kerala’ model but it is the brain child of LDF and since its inception it enjoyed the support of left-oriented organizations and the argument that Kudumbashree is not affiliated to any political party does not hold any ground. That is why even when UDF was ruling the state, Kudumbashreecould not shed its image as a pro-left agency. The hegemony of LDF in PPC and it’s by -products including Kudumbashree has helped them in mobilizing people from all walks of life and helped in the distribution of political patronage (Williams et al., 2011; Devika, 2016).
Political mobilization and patronage within Kudumbashree got further strengthened when political parties, mainly LDF started to field Kudumbashree membersin local government elections. As women in Kudumbashree are closely connected to the community they live in, they remain highly popular in those circles which can in a way translate into votes. A total of 7071 members of various Kudumbashree units in the state won the local government elections held in 2020. [8] That is 32.30 per cent of the 21,854 members, who were elected to panchayats, municipalities, and corporations. In 2015 local government elections, 7,367 Kudumbashree members won elections. In 2010 local elections, 4000 Kudumbashree members got elected while in 2005 only 848 members got elected. The members of Kudumbashree contesting in local government elections has in a way helped the LDF to capture the local governments and cement its influence at the grassroots level. The local governments are now being converted into the functional arms of the LDF government. People in a way now see the local governments as mere implementation agency which carries out the diktats and welfare measures of the state government.
As a result, the mechanism has been arranged in such a way that be it any scheme or programme, even if it is launched by UDF, the credit by and large goes to the LDF and Kudumbashree has a great role in it. For instance, BUDS school is an initiative of Kudumbashree for children with special needs. Though the initiative is closely linked to the people- centered development approaches rooted in PPC, it was the UDF that launched it in 2004. It all began when a survey conducted by Kudumbashree in Venganoor Gram Panchayat revealed that within the jurisdiction of the Panchayat, there were around 72 children suffering from physical and mental disabilities living in poverty. This led to the setting up of a rehabilitation center in the panchayat and it led to the BUDS initiative. Following the success of BUDS in Venganoor Panchayat, a total of 71 Panchayats in Kerala along with the assistance and support of Kudumbashree established BUDS across the state. It has to be noted that Kudumbashree, which has earned the tag of a pro-left agency was the rallying point behind the BUDS and hence it helped the LDF to open a pathway for political patronage and mobilization. The success of BUDS proved that projects implemented on the basis of the felt real needs of the community and LDF has been successful in tapping into this potential via BUDS and Kudumbashree. 

Similarly, care and compassion initiatives like palliative care have also been turned into instruments of political patronage by the LDF. Government of Kerala has a policy on Pain and Palliative Care that focuses on community-based homecare initiatives under the guidance of (LSGD). As a result, Gram Panchayats have also been entrusted with the task of running palliative care centers and initiatives. In 2018, the LDF government launched the Arogyakeralam Palliative Care Project. Then palliative care is also a component in Vyomithram project, which was also launched by the LDF. In 2018, Kannur, a district in North Kerala, and a strong fortress of CPI (M), became the first palliative-friendly district in the state. It has been reported that the CPI (M) way back in 2015 decided to concentrate in palliative care initiatives. As a result, a palliative care movement was formed in Kannur under the banner ‘Initiative for Rehabilitation and Palliative Care’ (IRPC). The IRPC has a 21-member governing body and a five-member advisory committee with the Party District Secretary of CPI (M) as the chairman to give leadership and coordinate the activities of the IRPC. Though there is nothing wrong in politicians engaging in philanthropic and charitable activities, given the political history and support enjoyed by CPI (M) in Kannur, the initiatives like IRPC has helped in capturing political patronage in favor of LDF.

Much before the launch of Vyomitram scheme, the panchayats in Kerala [9] have been running palliative care centers. Over the years, it has been noticed that a migration from less developed Panchayats to more developed Panchayats, especially due to the presence of BUDS school and palliative care centers. Such migration of people has led to the emergence of “vote with the feet” [10] syndrome (Tibeout, 1956) in Kerala and the LDF has been the biggest beneficiary in this regard. In 2019, the LDF launched Agathirahita Keralam (Destitute Free Kerala), which is a comprehensive expansion of the Asraya - Destitute Identification Rehabilitation Project launched in 2003 while UDF was in power. Schemes like these have been very helpful for LDF to obtain political patronage. Meanwhile, if one looks at from the point of ‘broad basing concept’ (Nadkarni, 2020) agencies like Kudumbashree has helped women from marginalized social groups to enter into the social, political, and economic mainstream and progressively derive the same advantages from society as the groups already part of it.

Revival of PPC in 2016: A Crucial Step Towards Cementing Political and Administrative Hegemony

There have been criticisms that in the first phase of PPC there was delay in implementation and completion of projects. The initial phase of PPC continued until 2001 but LDF lost power and UDF formed the government. UDF renamed it as Kerala Development Programme (KDP) but the structure and functions of PPC remained in different forms. Meanwhile, in 2016, when LDF was voted back to power, it decided to revive PPC and thus the second phase of PPC began. It led to the launch of Nava Kerala Karma Padhathi, an umbrella programme under the four missions — Aardram, LIFE, Haritha Keralam and Public Education Rejuvenation.

i. Aardram Mission

In 2017, the LDF government launched the Aardram Mission also known as Ardram People’s Health Campaign as part of reviving the second phase of PPC in the state. One of the main objectives of the Aardram was to revamp the public health system and to make health facilities people-friendly. Transforming primary health centers (PHCs) into family health centers (FHCs) took place under Aardram. It was implemented in a phased manner from 2017-18 to 2019-20. In the first phase 170 PHCs were converted into FHCs while in the second phase 503 PHCs were transformed into FHCs. In the third phase, 212 PHCs were transformed into FHCs [11]. The investment made by the LDF government in public health systems, particularly through the Aardram helped the government to handle the Covid crisis. In 1996, on the sidelines of PPC, the management of primary and secondary public health facilities in Kerala were transferred to local governments with the objective of improving infrastructure and services offered. Social mobilization was key to the response of Kerala to Covid 19. It has been argued that there was a “strong social contract between the people and the state, based on awareness of the population, high social capital, and trust in government” (Sadanandan, 2020). The social mobilization thus obtained helped the LDF to obtain political and administrative hegemony over the healthcare policies in the state.

ii. LIFE Mission

LIFE Mission, launched in 2016 is one of the flagship schemes of Govt. of Kerala that offers a safe and decent house for the homeless with land and without land. It was one of the main highlights of the second phase of PPC. The mission envisages total housing for all the homeless in the state According to the Govt of Kerala, so far around 2, 50, 547 houses have been constructed under LIFE Mission, as on January 2021 as a result over 10 lakh people in the state have a roof over their head. In the first phase, a total of 52,607 houses were provided. Out of 98,326 people who possessed land but did not own a house, around 87,697 were provided with house under LIFE Mission in second phase. The third phase of the Mission is currently underway [12].

iii. Haritha Kerala Mission (Green Kerala Mission)

The Haritha Kerala Mission is all about managing and preserving natural resources such as water and forests as well as solid waste management. One of the inspirations behind this was the water harvesting units developed at Olavanna Gram Panchayat during the 1996 PPC. A lot of polluted water bodies have been restored and revived under the Haritha Kerala Mission. The Haritha Kerala Mission is further divided into three sub-missions. They are (i) sanitation and waste processing (ii) water conservation (iii) agricultural development. One of the main focus areas of the Mission is to provide leadership role in conducting activities that can ensure maximum people’s participation and social inclusion in creating a Green Kerala. Since its inception in 2016, the Mission has rejuvenated 390 km of rivers and 41, 259 km of streams in the state. In 2018, a mass rejuvenation campaign named All to Water Bodies was held. It saw a massive participation of more than 50,000 people including general public, residence associations, neighborhood groups, self-help groups, schools, clubs, government officials, Kudumbashree and MGNREGS workers [13].

iv. Public Education Rejuvenation Mission 

The Public Education Rejuvenation Mission is a follow-up of the ‘People’s Education Model’ (Janakeeya Vidyabhyasa Mathruka), which was part of the PPC in 1996. The Mission improved the quality of infrastructure, academic standards in government schools in the state. With the objective of providing the best possible education to every child, the Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education converted 44, 705 classrooms hi-tech in 4, 752 government and aided schools in the state. Following the upgradation of classrooms with hi-tech facilities, a massive shifting of students from unaided to aided and government schools took place in Kerala between 2016-17 and 2020 -21. Around 6.8 lakh additional children enrolled in government and aided schools during this time period [14].

From all this one can understand the fact that, these four missions as part of the second phase of PPC and the foundations laid by the 1996 PPC have helped consolidated the public opinion and political patronage and political and administrative hegemony in favor of the LDF. All the four missions applied a combination of ‘hegemonic and non-hegemonic generative politics’ and helped LDF in capturing victory in the 2020 local government elections and the 2021 assembly elections in Kerala.

Clientelism by LDF government as an instrument to normalize political hegemony

The politics of developing countries are often described as “clientelist” (Wantchekon, 2003). Clientelist politics or patron-client relations between political leaders who act as patrons and individuals and subjects as clients has become a political tool to woo the electorate. In such a scenario, public resources, and incentives as well as welfare measures are allocated to clients in exchange for political support. The LDF government in Kerala has skillfully used this ‘clientelism’ as the strategy to woo the voters since the days of 1996 PPC. The poverty reduction component in PPC paved the way for the birth of clientelist approach. Clientelism is no longer a fancy word for saying that people exchange votes for political favors (Markussen, 2010) and populistic measures and today it has been converted into a political machinery to consolidate power and the LDF realized this potential and took full advantage of it. In the midst of the calamities and pandemics, the LDF government had no other go but to offer full support to its people and thus it had to roll out welfare and populistic measures in the form of food kits and hike in welfare pensions. Though these are outcomes of a political clientelist approach, the public did not view it as political clientelism or patronage strategy but were convinced that though there may be political motives behind all these measures, it had only benefitted all sections of the society in the time of crisis. This political patronage worked in favor of the LDF this time and the main reason, though not publicly discussed is the PPC.

Food Kits and Welfare Pension

The distribution of essential grocery items or popularly known as kits during the pandemic and increase in the welfare pensions have been a huge success and these pro- people measures convinced the people to give a second chance to LDF. People preferred LDF mainly because of the material assistance provided by the government to people during the crisis as more than one lakh families received free rations and over a dozen essential commodities since the lockdown was announced. On April 10, 2020, the government began distribution of the food kits and on the first day itself government managed to distribute 47,000 food kits in the state. The kits have earned the government much goodwill. Distribution of ration kits have been a huge help throughout the pandemic time especially during the lockdown. According to Kerala government around 98 per cent of ration card holders in the state have collected the free food kits through more than 14,189 ration shops from April 2020 to August 2021 [15].

In Kerala, social welfare schemes play a pivotal role in overall growth. Five years ago, the old age and widow pensions were in the range of Rs.650 (US $ 8.56) per month [16]. It was enhanced to Rs.1,600 (US $ 21.07) in recent years and the LDF government ensured its regular disbursement. The election manifesto of LDF had promised to increase the amount to Rs.2,500 (US $ 32.92). This too has paid huge electoral dividends. As per the official data, the number of beneficiaries of different welfare schemes in the state was only 34 lakhs during the former UDF government. Now under LDF regime it has gone up to 59.95 lakh.

These welfare measures in a way helped the LDF to override the impact of scams and scandals including gold smuggling and the damage it had to endure due to the investigation by central agencies including National Investigation Agency, Customs, Enforcement Directorate. The poll results showed that narrative build against the LDF government in the wake of gold smuggling and other allegations did not matter to the citizens and all that mattered was the ‘goodwill from welfare schemes’ especially kits and pension. A large section of Keralites felt that the UDF and BJP were taking undue advantage of it for political mileage and all these in the midst of a deadly pandemic annoyed the people. All this forced the Malayali sub nationality pride’ found a savior in LDF.

Promoting and projecting social welfare schemes and programs as a panacea for the absolute poverty was one of the concurrent themes in the 1996 PPC and programs like food kits and welfare pensions are a logical extension and continuation of the PPC. So, in a way the investment LDF made in democratic decentralization through PPC matured over the years and today it has helped the LDF to secure a spectacular victory in the 2021 assembly polls. In other words, be it Kudumbashree or the slew of welfare measures in the wake of pandemic and floods, all of these are a logical continuation and extension of 1996 PPC for democratic decentralization. For instance, poverty alleviation was one of the key components of the PPC and through free food kit distribution and hike in social welfare pensions all of these aimed at not only addressing hunger but also to reduce the afflictions of the poor and marginalized sections of the society. All these are the by-products of the valuable experiments that undertook within the Mararikulam experiment.
While many discussions and debates around the historic win of CPI (M) led LDF revolves around the ‘Brand Pinarayi’ and his welfare measures, a close introspection will prove that it is the logical continuation and extension of various components of the 1996 PPC that helped both Pinarayi and LDF in cementing the victory. Surely the investment LDF made in the democratic decentralization has bared its fruit eventually after 25 years. In other words, the political patience [17] of 25 years has eventually yielded its result and it is only a pure coincidence that the LDF was able to reap the benefits.


The LDF led by CPI (M) did use the decentralization initiatives especially PPC to increase its political and administrative hegemony at local level and at the state level. The very same political hegemony over policy making and policy implementation helped the LDF government to tide over the challenges posed by the Covid 19 pandemic to a great extent. The clientelist and welfare strategies implemented by the LDF were crucial instruments for leveraging its political hegemony and political survival and the PPC experiments beginning from Kalliasseri and later in Mararikulam were the inspiration behind these political paradigms. The foundations laid by first phase of PPC in 1996 and the second phase in 2016 had a significant role in the electoral victory of LDF in the 2020 local government elections and 2021 assembly elections in Kerala. It is true that local governments played a crucial role in the time of floods and in the management of the pandemic and in one way or the other, PPC empowered them to do so. But the decentralization experience in Kerala was operated within a controlled framework in which the state government became the major beneficiary while grassroots agencies including local governments were turned into implementing agencies as per the whims and fancies of those in the power at the state level. Through PPC, the LDF, tried to politically mobilize the various facets and apparatus of local governments. Even components of PPC like Kudumbashree, has been captured by the LDF. Earlier, the adversarial politics combined with class struggles made the LDF dearer to the masses and sustained electoral dominance by adopting ‘hegemonic’ position. Today political engineering with humanist touch under the guise of democratic decentralization helped the LDF to capture not only the institutions but also the conscience of the people. Thus, the PPC had in a way been used as a tool for political mobilization and by adding welfare measures as well as philanthropic and humanist approach into it, the present LDF regime has eventually converted it as a political strategy and has made it into a sort of ‘vote-bank politics’ by giving a perception that they follow a ‘hegemonic and non - hegemonic generative politics’.

It is the very political mobilization of various agencies and institutions at the grassroots level in the name of welfare politics helped the LDF government to contain the Nipah outbreak, the great floods of 2018 and 2019 and the pandemic (in the initial stages). The effective crisis management showcased during each crisis are directly and indirectly rooted in PPC. The distribution of free food kits or hike in welfare and service pensions, all these socio- economic welfare measures offered by the LDF government are the offspring of the PPC in Kerala. The pertinent question here is whether the PPC experience in Kerala can be considered as an alternative democratic paradigm between a dialectical position of ‘nothing can be done’ and ‘everything can be done’ as hypothesized by EMS Namboodiripad and a ‘hegemonic and non-hegemonic generative politics’ by Williams.

(Authors: Jos Chathukulam is former Professor, Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralisation and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru and currently the Director of Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala ; Manasi Joseph is a Researcher at Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala)


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[1A four-decade old trend which was broken in the 2021 assembly elections when LDF was voted to power for a second consecutive term. Prior to that it was only in 1977 that an incumbent government in Kerala won the mandate to remain in power. In both the periods, the people of Kerala could assess only the performance of the ‘governments’ and not the ‘governance’

[2The UDF got a vote share of 45.80% and LDF got 44.90%.

[3Though Williams places the politics of CPI (M) in a counter-hegemonic generative framework, the authors strongly argues that CPI (M) uses a combination of hegemonic and non-hegemonic generative politics in Kerala. Hence, we adapted the term ‘non-hegemonic ‘instead of counter-hegemonic.

[4EMS made a Marxist interpretation of PPC in the context of a controversy within the CPI (M) regarding its ideological position during the formulation and designing prior to the official launch of PPC in 1996. 

[5Messianic populism is used by Heller to characterize the politics of pandemic responses of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonro and Narendra Modi.

[6T M Thomas Isaac is a renowned economist and politician, who served as the Minister for Finance for the state of Kerala from 2006 to 2011 and 2016 to 2021. He is one of the key architects of PPC in Kerala.

[7The concept of Panchayat Feminism in Kerala has been developed by Chathukulam and John, two decentralisation activists based in Kerala.

[8Inputs were furnished by Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA), Kerala, India.

[9A palliative care programme was started in Marangattupally Gram Panchayat, Kottayam, Kerala.

[10Ilya Somin has described foot voting as "a tool for enhancing political freedom: the ability of the people to choose the political regime under which they wish to live”. During the fieldwork by authors in the pre-pandemic era in North Kerala, there were evidence to cite such migrations to better developed Panchayats in search of affordable service delivery in BUDS schools, palliative care, and other similar services.

[11Times News Network, 26 October, 2020.

[12The Hindu, January 28, 2021

[13Kerala Development Report 2021

[14Kerala Development Report 2021

[15Kerala Development Report 2021.

[16Human Development Report, Kerala, 2005.

[17While discussing the overall performance of PPC between the first author and Patrick Heller the ‘politics of patience’ was introduced by Heller in 2014 at New Delhi.

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