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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 25

Public Sphere and Participatory Development: A Critical Space for the Left in Kerala

Saturday 9 June 2007, by Biju B L


Public sphere is considered as a corrective against the oppressive state, a curative of the irrationalities of civil society and a deterrent to the exploitative market. Jurgun Habermas (1989) remarks that public sphere can ensure undistorted communication evolving critical public opinion. According to Kellner (2007), public sphere is an arena closely linked to the organic life world in which people would be able to discuss public issues in an egalitarian and non-instrumental manner. There are striking similarities between public sphere and participatory development as both of them possess reflexive, inclusive and pluralistic qualities. Besides this, their nearness to the organic life world of the masses is very significant.

Public sphere has two important functions with respect to the participatory development model: first, democratisation of the process of development, and second, elaboration of its scope and objectives by bringing its political, cultural and ideological dimensions into the discussion. It indicates the potentials of public sphere to nurture a new political culture centred on development in grassroots democracy. Local democracy could administer distributive justice provided the participatory development model envisages regeneration of the public sphere as a critical space. This article discusses the possibilities of the political Left in Kerala to take up the initiative. Such a discussion is timely since the participatory development experiment has completed a decade in Kerala under four different political dispensations.

State-Society Synergy in Development

THE Kerala model of development is remarkable not only for the high human development it achieved but also for the state-society synergy which it evolved. Actually, the spontaneous interaction between state and civil society consequent to the political mobilisation of different social groups determined the basic features of the model. (Tharakan: 1987) However, in recent times the continuing economic and fiscal crisis of Kerala negatively affected the model and the governments were persuaded to abandon it. The reactions of the Rightists and Leftists of the political society to the crisis of this model exposed the ideological differences. While the Congress led coalition (UDF) saw neoliberal alternatives as the remedy, the LDF led by the CPI-M initiated the People’s Plan Campaign to rescue the basic principles of this model giving greater emphasis on state intervention in development at the grassroots and mobilisation of the local people.

Earlier, the Kerala model provided a common minimum programme for the major political parties and the coalitions. It held legitimacy of the boisterous social groups because they also enjoyed the state’s patronage. But after the disintegration of the social democratic edifice of this model under fiscal turbulence, the interactions between the dominant social groups and the state have degenerated into intrigue. This is more so since the elites share a consensus about the pro-capitalist economic policies in the era of globalisation. The conspiratorial relations between the civil society and the state lead to the monopolisation of the latter by private interests and thus politics ceases to be an activity for the common good. As a result, it hardly evolves public policies based on common concerns.

Communal appeasement compounded with pro-capitalist policies characterises the State politics today. The rich form nexus with the communal/caste leadership in order to lobby the political parties. In this respect, one can identify a serious break with the traditions of modernity and renaissance.

The progressive public policies of the Left are strangulated in this atmosphere. For example, the People’s Plan campaign (1997-2001) came under strain because of the middle class’ apathy and the media propaganda. A vigilant public sphere could have effectively checked the propaganda about the programme being ‘partisan’, ‘political’ and ‘uneconomic’.

Degenerating Middle Class

LIKE other post-colonial societies, Kerala could also be proud of its middle class which spearheaded modernity in political, economic and social fronts. They were able to problematise every specific case of exploitation of individuals and groups as issues of common concern. Actually, the public sphere, organised by a section of the middle class having strong convictions in meta-narratives, politicised the social issues. As a result the state was forced to adopt the distributive (and, therefore, democratic) development policies. The middle class of the social reform phase was also noted for its commitment to ideologies, for instance, nationalism, revolutionary socialism and libera-lism. Consequent to this, public policies were ideologically fortified sharpening the political debates on development on class lines.

Habermas’ (1989) criticism about the Western industrial societies for abating their rational and humanistic qualities in the post-enlightenment period, to a certain extent, is relevant to explain the crisis of modernity in non-Western societies. Most important are his analysis of the de-radicalisation of the middle class and the account of the culture industry, that the popular media has taken over the public sphere and transformed it from a sphere of rational debate into one of ‘manipulative consumption’ and ‘passivity’. Rational debates and consensus have thus been replaced by managed discussion and manipula-tion for increasing public consumption. In a highly media-literate and middle class-dominating society like Kerala this point is of critical relevance. Actually, the decline of public sphere has both causal and consequential relation to the degeneration of the middle class.

The ‘new generation middle class’ of Kerala is qualitatively different from the old generation in many ways. (Prabhash: 2004) Currently, ‘soft-line’ caste sentiments and religiosity remain strong with the new middle class. Ironically, they have discarded critical consciousness. Since their communal characteristics and religiosity sideline class identity, the actual class contradictions and struggles in the Kerala society do not get reflected in the current political discourses. As politics remains congenial to the interest of the dominant classes it is necessarily becoming hostile to the class struggles of the masses.

The middle class is convinced by such notions that development ought to be apolitical (which indirectly gives legitimacy to the proposals of neoliberal agencies), and politics is a personal affair rather than a social one. Obviously, these naïve theorisations—personalisation of politics and political debates, and depoliticisation of development—are fostered by the popular media to a very great extent.

The new middle class is extremely consumerist as well. Unbridled consumerism and dissatisfac-tion with the ‘inefficiency’ of the welfare state are the main reasons for their predilections for economic liberalisation. Therefore, the intervening state and the political groupings (read Left), which oppose privatisation, exasperate them. Self-aggrandisement and egotistic individualism have become their etiquette. Graver still is the fact that increasing consumerism in the wake of globalisation is a reason for pushing many of the middle class families towards the debt trap, criminalisation and family suicide. The influence of such a middle class contributes to the decline of public sphere.

Civil Society and Public Sphere

HISTORICALLY speaking, two parallel public spaces existed in Kerala—the civil society dominated by the elites at the macro level, and the public sphere under the influence of the radicals at the micro level. Actually, in the early twentieth century a large number of social activists mobilising common people through the library movement, progressive art, literature and theatre association and trade unions organised a radical public sphere. In the cultural life, it offered strong resistance to the conservative forces.

Thus, public sphere helped the radical/class politics to strike roots at the local level while civil society was vulnerable to communal politics. The political triumph of the Left in Kerala, especially in 1957, was contributed by the persistent cultural and ideological interventions with the help of the public sphere.

A radical public sphere would be helpful to rationalise the perspectives of civil society. Obviously, it prevents the civil society groupings from conspiratorial relations with the state and political parties. Besides, it can facilitate fruitful interaction between the Left and the civil society regarding the incorporation of developmental issues of the marginalised people into the political agenda. Most importantly, public sphere can introduce alternative modes of communication sidetracking the culture industry of the popular media.

Local Democracy and Public Sphere

PETER MCLAVARTY’S (2002:304-18) observation—that public sphere should be ‘artificially’ developed by the state (ruled by progressive forces) on occasions while civil society is impervious to rationality and concerns for common good—emphasises the responsibility of the Left. In this respect, participatory development does provide food for thought.

Participatory development programme, especially the People’s Plan campaign, was considered an important step to advance the unfinished agenda of democratisation of the Kerala society. (Tornquist and Tharakan: 1996) After the debacle of the Left in the 2001 Assembly election, the UDF Government (2001-06) spoiled the real spirit of the programme by replacing the ‘campaign mode’ with a ‘bureaucratised Kerala Development Plan’. Thus, a stocktaking of the participatory development in the past one decade gives mixed results.

Certainly, the drawbacks of the participatory model, for instance, failure of the programme to raise an emerging leadership (qualitatively different from the conventional type) in State politics; continuing asymmetry of power between the local political structures and the macro level political, bureaucratic and juridical apparatus; inability to organise popular agitations in spite of the emergence of numerous issues at the local level; and the inadequate power and resources of the LSGIs to contravene the dictates of the free market economy are quite distressing. Ironically, the programme failed to attract the middle class due to its sole focus on the poorer sections. Finally, the criticism from a group of radicals about the intersections of the model and neoliberalism troubled the Left while it was in the Opposition (2001-06). Through fabricated stories, the media also propagated that participatory democracy was becoming an impediment for the CPI-M.

Objectively speaking, participatory development provides zero-sum opportunity to neither neoliberals nor the Left. Therefore, there is little ground to juxtapose local democracy to radicalism. (Isaac: 2007) The success of the Left depends on mounting ideological resistance against neolibera-lism at the grassroots.

Transformation of the participatory model of development from a mechanical programme solely concerned with the technical aspects of economic development, into a popular movement for cultural and ideological intervention at the grassroots is the biggest challenge. Open and undistorted communication in ‘Grama Sabhas’ and neighbour-hood groups has a decisive role in deterring the adverse media industry. It would also be helpful to remove, in future, the confusion about the possible overlapping between the Left’s vision and the neoliberal model of decentralisation. Therefore, regeneration of public sphere implies radicalisation of the participatory development model.


THE symbiotic relationship between the public sphere and the Left in Kerala is a part of history. The split in the communist movement in 1964, non-ideological coalitions and the preponderance of middle class values were the major obstacles to regenerate public sphere at the initiative of the Left. However, grassroots democracy gives a new chance for the Left to become the gravitational force in the public sphere. A great majority of local bodies (both urban and rural) under the political leadership of the Left really enhance the possibilities of mobilising women, adivasis, Dalits, fisher folk and eco-refugees as well as the middle class. Since local politics consists of a myriad of interest groups, public sphere is to be situated beyond ‘exclusive party politics’ and within the ‘inclusive politics of class’.

Regeneration of public sphere naturally brings ideology back into the development discourse. Vulnerability of the cultural life of the ordinary people to reaction and conservatism necessitates more critical and ideological interventions. In fact, the regeneration of public sphere offers a silver lining for democratisation of the Kerala society in the future.


1. Some writers develop ideas about the role of public sphere, which is indirectly connected to, but not fully encompass, commonly held ideas of civil society. The conceptual differences between public sphere and civil society are manifold. However, it is to be agreed that the efforts to juxtapose public sphere to civil society have ideological moorings, certainly Marxist. Actually, the apprehensions about the undemocratic tendencies of the state ensued by the irrationalities of the civil society compels one to juxtapose public sphere to civil society. In other words, public sphere is necessitated by those practical situations in which the liberal euphoria about state-civil society interaction becomes counterproductive to democracy and development.

2. Greater devolution of resources to the LSGIs by the LDF Government of 1996-01 justifies this point.

3. The plight of the Education Bill introduced by the present LDF Ministry to regulate the profit-seeking private self-financing professional colleges is the best example.

4. Recall here the apathy of the new middle class towards political activities. Ironically, they are eager to participate in the devotional activities of the ‘human gods’ and the charitable mercenaries of the churches.

5. At the same time, the increasing representation of women in the LSGIs is a remarkable achievement.


Habermas, J., 1989: Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

International Congress on Kerala Studies (ICKS), 2005: Dr K. N. Panikkar et al., Discussion, “Politics and the Public Sphere for Development”, AKG Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

Kellner, D: “Habermas, the Public Sphere, and Democracy: A Critical Intervention”, <> . Accessed on 2-12-2006.

Mathrubhumi daily (Malayalam). 2007: “Poverty Eradication: A Profitable Venture of the World Bank- Thomas Isaac”, Thiruvananthapuram edition, January 31, p. 5.

McLaverty, P. 2002: “Civil Society and Democracy”, Contemporary Politics, Vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 304-18.

Prabhash, J. (Malayalam) 2004: “Degenerating Politics and Deteriorating Society”, Samkalika Malayalam Varika, Vol. 34, No. 8, December 24, pp. 54-57.

Tornquist, Olle, and P.K. Michael Tharakan, 1996: “Democratisation and Attempts to Renew the Radical Political Development Project: Case of Kerala”, EPW, Vol. 29, No. 28,29,30, July 13, 20, 27.

Tharakan, P. K. Michael, 1987: “Communal Influence in Politics: Historical Background Pertaining to Kerala”, Religion and Society, Vol. 34, No. 1, March, pp. 3-9.

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

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