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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 30

A Year in Power with the People - An Appraisal of The LDF Rule In Kerala

by Biju B.L.

Saturday 14 July 2007

It is too difficult for a government, especially a Left Government, to survive in a hypercritical society like Kerala. History shows that while the ‘pragmatic’ decisions of the Left governments were criticised for diluting radicalism and compromising ideological principles, the radical ones were also discredited for embracing utopianism. Such a political prejudice of the media-literate and middle class-dominating Kerala society created trouble even for the first Communist Government of the State providing tacit consent to the efforts of the vested interests to organise the ‘liberation struggle’ in 1958-59.

Interestingly, the first anniversary of the present LDF (Left Democratic Front) rule in Kerala happened to be simultaneous with the continuation of the golden jubilee celebrations of the first Communist Government. Rather than coincidence of time, it is the radical legislations and the stubborn executive actions of these two regimes that make a comparison relevant.1 Here, the attempt is to evaluate the performance of the LDF against the backdrop of the social and developmental challenges faced by the State.

Election 2006 : Left’s Decisive Victory

IN the Assembly election 2006 the LDF was able to win 98 out of 140 Assembly seats defeating the UDF (United Democratic Front) led by the Congress. In addition to the quantitative increase in the administrative failures, corruption, anti-people policies and inner-party factionalism of the UDF, it was the political vigilance of the Left to mount ideological resistance against the government that ensured such an impressive victory. The mood of the electorate was rightly reflected in not only the number of seats secured by the LDF in the election but also in the percentage of votes it gained.

The people rejected the propaganda of the UDF and the publicity given by a section of the vernacular media that the contest was between the champions of development (UDF) and the anti-developmentalists (LDF). They were also wary of the disintegration of the social democratic foundation of the Kerala Model of Development under the UDF dispensation. The debacle of the UDF was almost certain and predictable as it had been facing setbacks in all the previously held elections, for instance, the Lok Sabha election (2004) and the Local Bodies election (2005).

The new government had mainly two objectives: first, to demonstrate that its rule is qualitatively different from that of the UDF; and second, to change the ‘anti-developmentalist’ image imposed by the political rivals.

Development for the People

DEFINING development for the people and implementing developmental policies in the interest of the class, which it politically represents, are the political challenges before the Left while it is in power. As the political power is indispensable for them to implement radical policies, it is a burden since governance makes the Left vulnerable to the actions of both omission and commission. Besides this, the limitations of bourgeois democracy and the constraints of the capitalist economy remain as supplementary obstacles to ideological interventions. In India, the liberalisation policies of the Central Government have enhanced the limitations of the Left governments forcing them to comply with private capital and the neoliberal fiscal practices. Hence, it is quite natural that they would become suspect in the eyes of the toiling masses as the replica of the Right-wing dispensations.2 Fortunately, the development policies of the LDF Government of Kerala remain as a silver-lining in this cloudy state of affairs.

The Left in Kerala has to manage a dilapidated economy characterised by industrial stagnation and agricultural decline. Globalisation has also aggravated the economic crisis, especially in the agriculture, forcing a large number of farmers to commit suicide. The Agricultural Debt Relief Act assumes importance against this backdrop. In fact, the declaration of moratorium for agricultural loans resembles the landmark ordinance of the first Communist Ministry to stop forceful evictions of the tenets in 1957. In spite of the fiscal constraints the government showed sympathy to the aggrieved peasants by writing off the entire debt of around 1000 farmers who committed suicide and disbursed Rs 50,000 each to their destitute families.

The Shops and Establishment Labourers’ Welfare Act ensures permanency in employment, pension and other benefits to the unorganised workers. This Act assumes relevance since the service sector contributes to the major part of employment generation in the State economy. This Act also endorses the tradition of the Kerala model assuring distribution of the surplus among the working class through state intervention.

A number of closed industries and locked out tea plantations were opened in the past one year. The government lobbied hard for obtaining due share in the Railway Budget, increasing its share from the Kayamkulam Thermal Power Station and establishment of the Kannur airport, Vizhinjam port and the LNG plant in Vallarpadam. It was also very keen to protect the interest of the State in the inter-State controversies. The conflict with Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar dam is the best example.3

Besides these achievements, the last one year of the government is noted for its concerns for environmentalism. The decisions of the government to stop spraying of Endosulfan in the plantations of Kasaragode district (which was proved to be dangerous to public health) and banning of Coca-Cola (which is notorious for the drinking water extraction in Plachimada) were acclaimed by the people. Such initiatives, in the long run, may be helpful for fostering cooperation between the political Left and the environmentalists.

The government has started to implement the policy suggestions of the conferences on development organised by the CPI-M, for instance, the International Congress on Kerala Studies held in 2005. The declaration of the Eleventh Five Year Plan as People’s Plan giving thrust to the traditional sector gives newer hopes.

Evictions in Munnar and the Smart City Project

TWO decisions of the government simultaneous to the celebration of its first anniversary added to the enthusiasm. They are the strong executive action against the illegal land lobby that encroached into the revenue/forest land in the tourist place of Munnar and the signing of the Smart City agreement to establish an infopark in Kochi. While the first one reaffirmed the implacable stand of the government against the vested interests who were bribing the officials and politicians to privatise valuable public property,4 the second one gave a concrete reply to those who condemned it as anti-development.
It is to the LDF’s credit that the Smart City deal worth Rs 1500 crores, was struck with better conditions than was conceived by the previous regime. The understanding between the TECOM and Kerala Government ensures that the Infopark remains with the State Government and assures a 26 per cent stake for the government, with the Chairmanship and Director Board membership, apart from creation of more job opportunities.

It is normal that several eyebrows are raised when the Left attempts to attract private investment. But the approach of the government towards privatisation proves that it is based on principles.5 The Smart City deal is actually an affidavit in this regard. Recent developments also show that the LDF is evolving a rational and pragmatic approach without diluting the principled opposition to private capital.

Education: Continuity of the Past

THE first Communist Government is etched in memory for the Education Bill. Thus the progressive people anticipated radical changes in the education sector when the CPI-M took over the portfolio of Education in 2006. The main task of the LDF Government was to streamline the profit seeking private self-financing professional colleges. The last government was giving all support to the commercial lobbies by creating a situation where money replaced merit and social justice. The new Education Bill, unanimously passed by the State Legislature, became an expression of the popular will against the commercialisation of education.

Even though the leadership of certain community-managements urged for a second ‘liberation struggle’, it hardly evoked any response from the people. The people have been closely watching the efforts of the government to ensure social justice and merit in professional education, which is being strongly resisted by the managements. Actually, the negotiations between the government and the private managements were helpful to reveal the hypocrisy of the community leadership who usually pretend to be the caretakers of the poor. This incident also demonstrates the Left’s political courage to combat such a powerful lobby in Kerala politics. Unfortunately, the negative interventions from the High Court striking down the vital provisions of the Act obstructed the government to complete the mission.

The Team and the Leadership

THE LDF Ministry was criticised by the press that it was in dearth of persons with rich administrative experience. Ironically, the critics concealed the fact that none of the Ministers was a political upstart.6

In our common parlance terms like ‘realism’, ‘experience’ and ‘professionalism’ have become tantamount to the willingness of the political leadership to take anti-people decisions and make wilful compromises. Viewed thus, the decisions of the Ministry may be regarded as impractical since they exasperate various lobbies that circumscribe the State administration irrespective of political changes. The Ministers, and the Chief Minister himself, issued strong warnings against the officials including the higher bureaucracy who wanted to indulge in corruption and lethargy. The increasing number of vacancies reported from various departments to the State Public Service Commission is strong evidence of its administrative efficiency.

Political corruption has become cancerous with the coalition politics becoming the common norm. Compared to the major parties, the Ministers of smaller parties are more susceptible to corruption. The government faced such an ordeal when the Transport Minister, P.J. Joseph, was allegedly involved in a case of sexual harassment. The Front showed the political grit to expel him from the Ministry.7 The government was able to proclaim an ordinance to democratise the Devaswam Boards ending rampant corruption by its members.8

In the police administration the government has proved its efficiency. Strong warnings against the police officers for violating human rights brought about positive results. Recently, the National Judicial Commission has given a clean chit to the State Police Force. It is an obvious fact that police atrocities have to decrease under the Left governments, since the leadership knows about the cruelty of the oppressive instrument better than others.

Constraints beyond Control

IT is also to be noted that the LDF Government is functioning under severe constraints. The highly asymmetrical federalism and the worse fiscal scenario prevent the government from taking bold initiatives. However, the government was able to mount theoretical resistance against them. For instance, the Finance Minister, Dr Thomas Isaac, in various Centre-State deliberations as well as in several public functions, elucidated the perspective of the Front about the neoliberal fiscal policies citing their negative consequences on the fiscal autonomy of the State and the Panchayat Raj system. (Isaac and Shaheena: 2007) The opposition of the Left against the mechanical ceiling for fiscal deficit rightly expresses its concern for the people’s welfare. He summarises the efforts of the government in the following manner:

The government reemphasised its commitment to public spending simultaneous with its stern efforts to reduce the revenue deficit. Here the strategy of the government is increasing revenue, which has been met with success in the last year with an increase of 25 per cent. The fiscal deficit due to the creation of the additional assets is no longer a problem for the state finance if the government could control the revenue deficit. (Isaac: 2007)

The LDF Government is eager to carry out ‘administration with agitation’. Thus it can make certain contentious issues, for instance, social justice versus minority rights in education; capitalist mode of development versus environmental security; public spending versus fiscal control; and the interest of the state versus the freedom of entrepreneurs as the themes of public debates. A popular campaign on such issues would be necessary to vigorously carry forward the ideological debate. It would also help the Left to expand its support base pulling more and more people into its ideological orbit.

The Unfinished Agenda

ONE year is not sufficient time to evaluate the performance of a government. Here, the LDF rule in Kerala becomes an exception because of the absence of any vital critical remarks against it. However, it is not well to leave the pitfalls unattended. Long-term policies are yet to be evolved to save the Kerala Model of Development from crises. The public health system suffers from severe problems which is the reason for the spread of contagious diseases.

The tussle between the organisational leadership of the CPI-M and the Chief Minister is an irksome factor. The open criticisms between the State Secretary of CPI-M and the Chief Minister ultimately led to the suspension of the two leaders from the Polit-Bureau. Hence, it is not untenable to say that the personal rivalry between these two leaders has deprived the administrative decisions the character of political policy. Such a hiatus between the leadership of the party and the chief of the political executive—either genuine or a media construct—would adversely affect the future of the Left rule. Therefore, abandoning of ‘individualistic populism’ and formulation of political policies based on larger consensus within the party organisation are inevitable to avert the crisis. This is important from the vantage point of fostering the Left as a critical force in Kerala politics.

NOTES

1. However, such a comparison has certain limitations also. Firstly, while the government of 1957 was a single party government, the present LDF Government is a coalition consisting of a number of conservative factions. Secondly, the term ‘radicalism’ does not carry the meaning (even among the Leftists) which it had in the 1950s. Thirdly, the socio-economic churnings of the Kerala society have dramatically changed its class composition, which had been rightly reflected in the party organisation of the Left. Finally, the contemporary social and developmental challenges of the Kerala society are quite different from those faced by the State in the initial years of State formation when the Communists came to power.

2. The Left Front Government of West Bengal which is abused for the unfortunate Nandigram incident is really a victim of this crisis generally faced by all Leftist dispensations in the era of globalisation.

3. The government amended the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation Act (2003) empowering the Dam Safety Authority to ensure the safety of the dam. The political will-power of the government forced Tamil Nadu to withdraw from the negotiations unilaterally.

4. The government was able to take bold take steps against the illegal possession of land in the high ranges by the national monopolies like the Tatas. The executive decision seldom spared the relatives of the ruling parties and the coalition partners.

5. While speaking in the Global Investors’ Meet at Kochi on January 18, 2003, V. S. Achuthanandan (the then Opposition Leader) said: “I want to set aside all apprehensions regarding the position of the Opposition, and make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the LDF is fully committed to promoting all genuine proposals of investment. I am happy to let you know that there is consensus among political parties of the State and that the State of Kerala needs more investment for stepping up the tempo of development, even to sustain the past gains of our celebrated Kerala Model. I am glad, therefore, to assure you that there would be continuity of state policy in Kerala in promoting ‘genuine’ investment proposals.’’ It is also worth mentioning that E.M.S Nampoodiripadu also expressed a similar view to justify the initiative of his government (1957-59) to invite the Birla Group of Companies to set up a Rayons factory in Mavoor near Calicut.

6. Recall here a similar criticism levelled against the first Communist Government. The government was discredited by the press for the lack of previous experience in administration and ideological difference with parliamentary democracy.

7. Earlier, it had also denied candidature to Dr. Neelalohitha Dasan Nadar (another prominent leader of a coalition partner) on the same ground.

8. ‘Devaswam Boards’ are the authority to manage the affairs of the Hindu temples in the State, these are notorious for corruption and nepotism. Ironically, no government in the past six decades had shown the political courage to streamline them partially due to the fear of manipulation by the Hindutva forces and partially due to the share in corruption and other malpractices.

REFERENCES

Achuthanandan, V.S., 2007: ‘Passing the Line of Scrimmage’, Kerala Calling, Vol. 27, No. 7, May.

Economic Review-2006, 2007: Thiruvananthapuram: State Planning Board.
Krishna Kumar, R., 2003: ‘Visions of Development’, Frontline, Vol. 20, No. 03, February 01-14.

Isaac, Thomas, 2007: ‘Fianncial Management: Cautious Steps’, Kerala Calling, Vol. 27, No. 7, May.

Isaac, Thomas and Shaheena. P., 2007: ‘Fiscal Devolution to Local Self Governments and the Finance Commissions’, Paper presented in the National Seminar on Democracy, Decentralisation and Participatory Development: Decentralised Governance in Kerala, A Decade and Beyond, April 24-25, Thiruvananthapuram.

Dr Biju B.L. is the Head of the Department of Politics, Government College, Madappally, Vadakara, Calicut (Kerala).

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