Trying to untangle the complexities of the Kerala political and economic puzzle
(Note - this entry was written back in November with thoughts that I'd figure things out more the longer I was here but that ended up not being the case...)
India proudly wears its title as the the largest democracy in the world. I might be wrong, but I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of that fact. The state of Kerala has three branches - a democratically elected parliament for the legislative branch, a governor and deputy governor heads the executive branch, and a high court that serves as the judiciary branch. When I first learned that we were coming to Kerala, I was surprised to discover that the political party in power in this state was the Left Democratic Front (LDF), a coalition party led by the Communist Party of India - Marxist. This caught me off guard - in my formative years as a youth during the dark days of the cold war, I came to associate communism with one-party totalitarian states such as the USSR and East Germany. I'm not old enough to have experienced the McCarthy Era, but I've been around long enough to know that many Americans associate communism with much that is evil in the world. So it struck me odd that here in the world's largest largest democracy, one of the more advanced states in the country has been controlled by the Marxists on and off for much of the last 50 years.
We had dinner last night with the family of a colleague and I used the opportunity to get some answers to my questions about the sickle and hammer party. Why Kerala? Bengal is the only other Indian state where the Communist Party is influential. It seems to go back to the time of British rule where a few landlords controlled most of the land while most people were poor farmers of laborers. One can imagine the appeal of the communist message to the lowly and oppressed and during the early days of independence, the party gradually rose in popularity. For Americans accustomed to a two political system, it's difficult to imagine a country with 100's of political parties, many small offshoots of larger parties where a particular politician split away and started his own party. The LDF is actually a group of parties led by the Marxists - some people run as independents and when elected, are in a position to bargain with the larger coalitions for a few favors in return for their vote. Indian politics seems to be all about getting elected, making deals to solidify your position, and then do little until the next election to so no one can hold it against you.
The recent elections were strictly local elections but were seen as a political indicator of what might be in store in the next legislative elections. The communists lost a little ground in the local elections but remain the party in power at the state and many local areas. So how do the Communist Party policies differ from other parties? Apparently not very much at all distinguishes LDF from the Unified Democratic Front (UDF) which is the other main party here. As it was explained to me, the Communists are in power now but only by a slim margin. Over the years, they have held or lost a slim majority at the state level. I was told that their leaders have become as wealthy and corrupt as the other politicians - there's not much to distinguish them. The general opinion of politicians here is nearly universally negative. Because the parties in power are coalitions and are fearful of taking any actions that might alienate a member or be controversial one way or the other, very little actually gets done. People become fed up with the status quo after five years and sometimes put the opposition into the slim majority only to repeat the cycle all over again. Politics here is all about payoffs and political favors - if you are in business here and a candidate comes looking for a campaign contribution, you better think long and hard about refusing because if that person wins, the permits you might need may not get processed or there may suddenly be complaints from neighbors about noise from your business that leads to fines or other hassles. I hear about this stuff time and time again - little gets done in India without someone getting paid off to make it happen. It's just the way it is.
Labor unions in Kerala, empowered by years of communist control, are suffocatingly strong - little can be done without their consent and they can shut down the state (and do several times a year during work stoppages called harthals) in response to some action they disapprove of.
Despite all of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the politicians, over 70% of the voters came out to vote and degree and extent of the campaigning was simply amazing. No vertical surface anywhere was without a campaign poster.
The best way to prevent an opponent from posting next to you is to completely wallpaper the surface with your own posters.
The strategy works for light poles as well.
One of a fleet of noisy campaign vehicles
Not a lot of originality in the poster design, but at least they are smiling.
Notice how each candidate has a unique symbol to represent their party or the candidate themselves. This symbol appears on the ballot as well and helps less literate voters find their favorite candidates. The woman on the left seems to belong to the Microwave Oven Party. The woman on the right is taking a different approach - she's going hypnotize voters into siding with her.
Graffiti artists are in high demand during campaign season.
When all of the stone walls, telephone poles, and sides of buildings were completely covered, candidates (or rather their legions of volunteers - there are a lot of people around with not much to do) strung very long ropes along the roadsides and attached posters to them hanging like shirts - sometimes walls of this political laundry are built by stacking ropes 3 or 4 high aside or over the roads.
In addition to the massive amounts of visual clutter created during the campaigns, many campaigns also send out small trucks with massive speakers tied to the back that blast out at ear-shuttering volume an unless flow of campaign chatter, party themes songs, and sometimes, the candidate will even be on the back waving. From the school's location here on the top of a hill, we heard near continuous assaults on the human ear in the villages nearby in the closing days of the campaigns. Just for kicks, I decided to go out and sit near the front gates of the school to get a good look at the setups. I have some video of one of these trucks that passed me three times while I sat out there. I felt like an old friend by the time he passed by for the last time.
Notice the woman carrying the sticks on her head as the truck passes - here's a better view of her.
After I took her photo, she wanted money and was really pissed at me because I didn't have my wallet with me.
While all of this is going on, a different citizen of our neighborhood was gathering water the way many people do = from the well.
Here's another mobile source of political noise on the main highway
So Kerala is rather unique in it's repeated support of a democratically elected communist party. It's also unique in a couple of other regards.
Much economic and political analysis has been conducted on the reasons for some of Kerala's unexpected advances in the well being of its citizens. Kerala is distinguished from many other developing nations/states across the globe by a number of very positive attributes. The literacy rate here demand attention - in India, the literacy rate stands at 64.8% (75.2% for males and 53.6% for females) while in Kerala, the rate is the highest in the country at 90.8% (94.2% for men and 87.7% for women). The health and life span of the people in Kerala are en par with developed countries and in fact, a significant medical tourism industry brings many people from developed countries here for cheaper medical services. As the same time, the average annual income of a Keralite is about $300 per year. Is this the happy consequence of Communist rule? Hard to tell...Women have always enjoyed a more prominent status in Kerala culture - historically, this has been a matriarchal culture in which women, especially mothers, have played an important role. This fact certainly has contributed to the emphasis placed on education and the well being of children and families. Another factor to consider when trying to understand Kerala's relatively positive condition is the role of remissions from Keralites working abroad. One in every five rupees here is earned outside of India, mostly in the Gulf States, a stream of income that enables a higher standard of living for many families as well as funds for education and health services. Given the difficulties of dealing with powerful labor unions, economic development in the state falls well short of it's potential - many foreign companies don't want to deal with the labor issues that can be stifling. So to summarize, political, economic, and social elements all contribute to a somewhat complicated puzzle that easily confounds an uninitiated visitor from the second largest democracy in the world
Like the US, India is also divided into states, each having a long individual cultural and political history long before the establishment of modern India as an independent country. Most Indian states have one or more of their own languages - Malayalam is spoken only in Kerala - as well as individual religious or historical influences that makes many wonder what holds the collection of unique pieces together. It's been apparent to me over the past few weeks that one major component of that glue is the process of democracy itself despite the culture of ineffectiveness and corruption that is so pervasive. Just another of India's fascinating enigmas.