Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Kerala’s burgeoning middle class

IN the last century, most Keralites were dependent upon agriculture. Most of them were small farmers and poor farm workers. According to the Census of 2001, out of the population of more than 30 million, fewer than 2.4 million – about 740,000 farmers and 1,654,000 farm workers -- are now dependent upon agriculture. Economic Report 2006 puts the number of people working in the factories in the public and private sectors at 2.1 million. If these figures are correct, those engaged in agriculture and industry do not add up to even five million. In other words, less than a quarter of the work force of 20 million people is engaged in the productive spheres of agriculture and industry.

The proletariat that is constantly mentioned in our political discourse has been steadily shrinking for quite some time. As its strength declines, that of the middle class grows. In fact, Kerala is now a middle class society. Many people discuss contemporary political and economic developments without understanding this.

Marx saw the middle class a section without a future. He expected it to disappear gradually. He thought that a section of it would improve its condition and join the bourgeois and the rest, unable to do so, would end up as working class. Marxists who have accepted this line of thinking claim that the middle class is on the decline. However, statistical data shows that in many countries, including India and China, the middle class is expanding fast.

It was about three decades ago that China abandoned Mao’s path and started building a market-centred economy. According to a report of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by 2003 the country already had a 250-million strong middle class. This was 19% of the population. The Academy estimated that if the economy continued to grow at the same rate, by 2020 the middle class would constitute 40% of the population. India embarked upon economic liberalization 16 years ago. According to the National Sample Survey, by 2004-05 the country’s middle class exceeded 240 million. It is estimated that if the economy maintains the present growth rate, by 2025 the middle class will constitute half the population.

It is the fast growing middle class that prompts global capitalism to take immense interest in China and India. The world has not seen such a large consumer society as theirs until now.

The National Sample Survey had found that in 1999-2000 Indians spent as much as Rs. 7209.32 billion on personal consumption. Middle class consumers accounted for 42% of the expenditure. The survey threw up data that helps us to understand the size of the middle class in Kerala. Of the 240 million Indians belonging to the middle class, 16.7 million are in the State. The State accounts for only 3.1% of the country’s population but 6.9% of the middle class consumers live here.

The economic significance of the growth of Kerala’s middle class is easy to understand. Its political and social dimensions are not as easy to comprehend. Arjun Sengupta, well-known economist, who heads the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, has tried to look at this problem in the national context. His observations point to the need to undertake similar studies at the State level.

Sengupta points out that while the number of people who are ‘extremely poor’ and ‘poor’ (those who are below the poverty line) declined from 30.7% to 21.8% between 1993-94 and 2004-05, when the economy grew rapidly, the number of people who are ‘marginal’ and ‘vulnerable’ (those who are just above the poverty line) rose from 51.2% to 55.0%. As much as 88% of the Dalits and Adivasis, 85% of the Muslims and 80% of the other backward classes excluding Muslims belong to these groups. According to him, India stands divided: on one side are 210 million middle class and 44 million high income group, which offer a large expanding market for all kinds of consumer goods; on the other side are 836 million poor and vulnerable people, who, he says, are our aam aadmi.
Adapted from the column “Nerkkaazhcha”, appearing in
Kerala Kaumudi dated August 30, 2007

Monday, August 27, 2007

Minister's fate hangs in balance as State takes Onam break

FOR the second successive year, the Kerala Congress (Joseph), a constituent of the ruling Left Democratic Front, finds itself in the unenviable position of having to sacrifice a minister at the altar of public opinion during the Onam season.

Onam celebrations, marking the traditional harvest festival, began on Sunday, coinciding with Uthradam, also known as first Onam day. It was on this day last year that Kerala Congress leader PJ Joseph resigned as Minister for Public Works, following a public outcry over an incident of sexual harassment.

As Onam came again, the fate of T. U. Kuruvila, who had taken over from Joseph, was in the balance with the entire Opposition demanding that he resign or be sacked. Kuruvila's position became untenable after KG Abraham, a Kuwait-based Malayalee businessman, accused him of fraud.

Joseph's continuance as minister had vecome untenable after a senior woman police officer, who conducted a preliminary inquiry, found that there was substance in the complaint filed by a woman air passenger alleging that he had misbehaved with her during a flight from Chennai to Kochi.

Kuruvila was Chairman of the Housing Board under the previous LDF government. When Joseph nominated him as minister, Opposition members pointed out that the Comptroller and Auditor General had made adverse comments on his performance in that capacity.

On assuming office Kuruvila said he was only standing in for Joseph, who would return as minister after being cleared of the sexual harassment charge. Although the Chennai police registered a case on the basis of the woman passenger's complaint, there has been little progress in the investigation over the past year.

Kuruvila's troubles began when PC George, Kerala Congress (Secular) MLA, accused him of involvement in irregular land deals in the Munnar area. Few took the charge seriously as George had been engaged in a running feud with Joseph's party since he broke away from it a few years ago.

The situation changed when Abraham arrived from Kuwait and told the media that Kuruvila had persuaded him to buy land in Munnar and set up a resort. Accordingly he had entered into an agreement with Kuruvila's son and daughter and paid an advance to them. He alleged that they had not furnished documents relating to the land within the stipulated period.

Kuruvila's immediate response was to distance himself from his family's land deal. He claimed that Abraham was trying to wriggle out of the deal since land prices in Munnar had fallen following the recent eviction operations. If Abraham had any complaint against his children he could proceed against them, he added.

Abraham conceded that it was Kuruvila's children with whom he had signed an agreement. However, he insisted that the deal was negotiated by Kuruvila himself when while on a visit to Kuwait. Kuruvila's protestations of innocence became unsustainable as the media came out with details of the deal, made available apparently by Abraham or his agents. It transpired that Kuruvila had travelled to Kuwait, on a ticket provided by Abraham, to participate in the anniversary celebrations of his KGA group.

When Kuruvila's children entered into an agreement with Abraham to sell the land in Munnar, they did not even own it. They acquired the land subsequently. The huge difference between the price they paid for the land and the price to which Abraham had committed himself reveals the contours of a land mafia operation.

A more serious charge than that of profiteering has also surfaced. Idukki Collector Raju Narayanaswamy, who conducted an inquiry at the instance of Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, found that Kuruvila's family had pressured local revenue officials into completing the formalities of registering the land in their names. He suspended the village officer and transferred all other employees of that office.

There is enough material in the public domain to justify the demand for Kuruvila's resignation. However, his party wants no action taken until a full-fledged inquiry is held into the allegations against him.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the coalition, decided on Friday to refer the issue to the LDF. An LDF coordinate committee meeting is scheduled for August 30. Some observers believe the CPI (M) is delaying Kuruvila's inevitable exit from the Cabinet to mollify the Christian community, from which the Kerala Congress (J) derives support. – Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 27, 2007.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Why Kerala does not become Bengal

When West Bengal’s Left Front government celebrated its 30th anniversary, leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front in Kerala, gave public expression to a long-cherished goal of theirs. As in West Bengal, they would like to enjoy monopoly of power in Kerala, where the LDF has to take turns with the Congress-led United Democratic Front.

In the eyes of the Communists, Bengal’s place may be high. But the fact is that after 30 years of uninterrupted Left rule Bengal is still not able to match Kerala’s record in many spheres of activity.

It is the CPI (M)’s enormous hold on the rural areas that enables it to win elections continuously in West Bengal. Yet, according to official statistics, rural poverty in Bengal (21.98%) is thirteen and a half times the figure for Kerala (1.63%). The situation is even worse in Tripura (37.89%), the other Marxist stronghold. With regard to urban poverty, Bengal (8.98%) and Tripura (4.48%) are better placed than Kerala (9.34%). But Kolkata has the notoriety of being the only city on earth where men still pull rickshaws.

Bengal was the first place in the subcontinent to come under British rule. It was there that facilities for English education were first established. That helped Bengal to make an early start. But Kerala forged ahead of it in literacy. In health, as in education, Kerala is way ahead of Bengal. After three decades of Left rule, it has not been able to catch up with Kerala, where the Communists come to power only in alternate elections. Why so? The short answer to this question is: Sree Narayana Guru (1854-1928) and Ayyankali (1863-1914) lived in Kerala.

There is nothing on record to show that Narayana Guru had heard of Karl Marx and his theory. It is also not clear whether he was aware of the ideals that had inspired the French Revolution. But these ideals were not unknown to him. The concepts of Equality and Fraternity illumine the lines he inscribed at Aruvippuram: With neither caste distinctions /Nor religious hatred /All live like brothers/ In this model place. Although he did not specifically mention Liberty, the lofty ideal of freedom found expression in his advice to the people to seek liberation through education and organization. His concept of freedom, which transcends political lines, is particularly relevant in today’s context, when the nation is free but the vast majority of the people remain enslaved by political, economic and social interests.

All ideas that the Communist movement sought to advance were actually placed before the people by the Renaissance leaders of the Kerala even before that movement was born. Its founding fathers were still infants when, responding to Ayyankali’s call, Dalit farm workers struck work to win the right to send their children to schools. The Communist Party had not even been formed when Sree Narayana’s followers organized trade unions in Alappuzha.

The Bengal renaissance was an upper caste movement. Its leaders mobilized public opinion against social evils and pressured the British rulers to put an end to them. But they could not act purposefully against caste discrimination. The pioneers of the Communist movement in India came from caste supremacist groups and other feudal elements. Bengal’s Communist leaders too came from these sections, and included many who had been educated in England. It is be difficult to find among them someone like P. Krishna Pillai, one of the founders of the Communist Party in Kerala. The Communist movement in Kerala, too, attracted many from feudal, caste-supremacist elements. But even before they entered, Kerala society had been set on a progressive course by the stir created at lower levels by reformers like Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali and the constructive response of the princely regimes to their movements.

The Sachar Commission, which studied the condition of the Muslim minority, shows that even after a long period of Left rule, Muslims, who constitute 25% of West Bengal’s population, have only 4% representation in the State services. The Narendran Commission found that Kerala’s Muslims had not received full justice but they are better off than their counterparts in Bengal.

The Communist movement must try to make Bengal like Kerala, not the other way round.

Friday, August 24, 2007

CPI (M) decay reflected in corruption scandals

The following is a condensed version of an article appearing in the Annual number of the Janashakti weekly, published in August 2007

In an interview with Amrita television, CPI (M) Kerala State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan recently said, “Hundreds of thousands of people are connected with our party. Never in the past was there such decay in the party.”
The comment came as two scandals involving the party’s official organ, Deshabhiman were before the people. Later a third scandal too surfaced: the committee that organized the E. K. Nayanar memorial football tournament had taken Rs. 6 million from a real estate businessman.

According to the party, one was bribery, another loan and the third donation. The party sacked a deputy general manager of the newspaper in connection with the alleged payment of a bribe of Rs. 10 million by a money chain operator. However, it has not been willing to share with the police the information in its possession with regard to the deal. When the case of the loan of Rs. 20 million given to the newspaper by a man facing charges of lottery fraud came to light, the party said it would return the money. However, there is still no word of actual repayment. Pinarayi Vijayan’s statement about the football tournament makes it clear that the party views it as part of its political activities and not as just another sports event. Since all three transactions lacked transparency, all are treated as graft here.

There is a common element in all the transactions: the links between the CPI (M) and various kinds of financial interests. One man paid money to scotch a prosecution, another to prevent prosecution and the third threw money to make money. All three were engaged in business activities that are neither transparent nor honest. The party’s connections with them cannot be seen in isolation from the decay that has set in.

The Kerala unit is the CPI (M)’s largest unit. According to the documents of the last party congress, the State accounted for 316,305 out of the party’s 867,763 members in the country. West Bengal comes second with 274,921 members. The central leadership, one may assume, relies primarily on the largest unit for the bulk of the funds it needs. It must be concerned that the State party is dependent upon tainted sources for money.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Another channel under political ownership makes its appearance

The first day of the Malayalam calendar, which fell on Aug.17 this year, saw the birth of a new television channel, Jai Hind. It is the first channel under the auspices of the Congress party.

India has had a long tradition of social reformers and political leaders launching newspapers to propagate their viewpoint. The Communist Party of India went one step further and established its own newspapers. Today at least five political parties in Kerala have their own newspapers.

Seven years ago the State CPI (M) carried the process one step forward. It set up the Kairali channel. Today the television company promoted by the party runs three channels - an entertainment channel, a news channel and a youth channel.

With the launching of Jai Hind, the Congress became the second political party to make a foray into electronic media business.

Indiavision, a news channel, was founded by Dr MK Muneer, a leader of the Muslim League, but it is not a party organ. While Jai Hind was being inaugurated, Asianet, the first private channel in Malayalam, was celebrating its 15th anniversary. It was promoted by Dr Reji Menon, a Moscow-based physician turned businessman.

On his return to India, he assumed personal control of the channel. However, he later sold the controlling interest to Rajiv Chandrasekhar, a Bangalore-based businessman and Rajya Sabha member.

The CPI (M) and the Congress, which lead the two fronts that alternate in power in the State, took the decision to start their own channels when they were heading the State administration. Businessmen with interests in the Gulf States are among the major shareholders of the channel companies set up by the two parties.

The CPI (M) picked Super Star Mammootty as chairman of its company. It also accommodated several others who are not party members in its board of directors.

Jai Hind's inaugural ceremony, held in New Delhi and beamed live to Kerala, testified to its close links with the Congress. It was Congress President Sonia Gandhi who inaugurated the channel.

A galaxy of national and State leaders of the party adorned the dais. CPI (M) leader and State Education and Culture Minister MA Baby came to offer felicitations.

Although no senior leader of the CPI (M) is on the board of directors of its channel company, a member of its Central Committee has responsibility for its affairs. He exercises control through board members who are amenable to the party's influence or through senior editorial and managerial personnel, who are party members and, therefore, bound to carry out its directives.

The Congress party's control over its channel is more direct. Pradesh Congress President Ramesh Chennithala is the chairman of the company that owns Jai Hind. Another senior party leader, MM Hassan, is also on the board of directors.

Since its birth Kairali has been endeavouring to project the image of a commercial channel. Content-wise it is no different from the rest. It claims the interviews it did with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Mata Amritanandamayi are indicative of its non-party character.

However, at critical moments, its political interests become evident. A long interview it did with Pharis Abubaker, a real estate businessman, recently is a case in point. It was essentially a political undertaking calculated to further the sectarian interests of the Pinarayi Vijayan faction.

Abubaker used the interview to run down Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. When the Achuthanandan faction protested, the party's State Committee strongly defended the interview. However, following the central leadership's intervention, the committee later said the interview was a mistake.

With the arrival of Jai Hind, television viewers in Kerala have a choice of a score of Malayalam channels. Most of them are general channels, which offer a mix of entertainment and information.

However, there are also four news channels and an equal number of youth channels. There are also two Christian religious channels.

The impact of the media is a favourite topic of debate today. The media itself is doing introspection. Earlier this month the Kerala Union of Working Journalists organised a roundtable discussion on Media, Politics and Society.

The special annual number of Madhyamam, published a few days ago, features the views of eight media persons on the fallout of the Channel Revolution. Manorama News aired during the weekend an animated discussion in which leading media practitioners participated. In the absence of hard facts, the debates often turn into clash of opinions. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 20, 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

Central leadership intervenes in Kerala CPI (M) affairs

The central leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has placed before the state unit guidelines for the meetings at various levels to be held in advance of the party congress due next year.

It has also intervened and frustrated the State Committee's effort to absolve Central Committee member EP Jayarajan of responsibility in the party newspaper Deshabhimani's acceptance of money from a tainted source.

A close examination of the guidelines reveals that they have been drawn up with a view to ensuring that factionalism, which has been rampant in Kerala for many years, does not get out of hand.

The State party has been witnessing a struggle between factions led by State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan for several years.

As the two leaders publicly traded accusations, the Politburo took the unusual step of suspending both of them from that policy-making body. This resulted in a lull in the factional warfare, which was very short-lived.

As factionalism reared its head again, the central leadership decided to step in and save inner-party democracy.

When Pinarayi Vijayan became the State Secretary, many saw him as an agent of modernisation.

Achuthanandan, a member of the old guard, whose party ancestry goes back to the days of the Vayalar-Punnapra agitation of the 1940s, was widely perceived as a leader eager to keep the organisation on the Stalinist path. Over the years the popular perception underwent a change.

Achuthanandan, as leader of the opposition during the last United Democratic Front regime, took up a number of issues like encroachments on forests and government land and sex rackets.

In the process, he came to be identified in the popular mind as one who is ready to take up cudgels against the mightiest on behalf of the poor.

The alleged siphoning off of funds through a deal with SNC Lavalin, a Canadian company, cast a shadow on Vijayan. He was Minister for Electricity when the deal was struck.

He had personally led the team that had gone to Canada for negotiations. The Central Bureau of Investigation is now probing the scandal on the orders of the High Court.

Two scandals that surfaced recently seriously dented the credibility of the party's official leadership.

One is the alleged payment of a bribe of Rs 10 million by a finance company to K. Venugopal, who was deputy general manager of Deshabhimani, to help it in a criminal case.

The other is the acceptance by Deshabhimani of Rs20 million from Santiago Martin, a lottery operator wanted by the police in connection with some cases of fraud.

The State Committee pinned the blame for the first scandal personally on Venugopal and sacked him from both the party and the newspaper.

However, many people suspected the money was meant for somebody high up in the State party.

After a futile attempt to defend Deshabhimani's acceptance of Martin's contribution as a normal business transaction, the State Committee announced that it would return the amount.

Deshabhimani is under the control of EP Jayarajan, who is a member of Pinarayi Vijayan's inner circle.

The State Committee tried to shield him by claiming that he was not aware of the source of the money. During the weekend meeting, held in the presence of three Politburo members, the State Committee was obliged to give up the whitewash effort.

The central leadership is believed to have had a hand in persuading it to change its stance.

Under the principles of 'democratic centralism' adopted by the CPI (M) a higher party forum has the authority to override the decisions of the lower units.

However, on some recent occasions the State leadership was able to defy the national leadership and get away with it.

When the central control commission asked the State Committee to take back some members who were suspended from the party, it ignored the directive.

The central leadership acquiesced in this act of defiance. Observers saw it as indicative of its unwillingness or inability to act decisively against the well-entrenched state leadership.

They even suggested that since the Kerala unit is the party's main source of funds the central leadership is unable to assert its authority.

Against this background, the latest developments can be seen as the first sign that the central leadership is ready to intervene effectively to save the State party from factionalism. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 13, 2007.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Rival political fronts warily watch Mahdani's moves

RETURNING home with the halo of a living martyr after more than nine years' absence, People's Democratic Party's founder-chairman Abdul Naser Mahdani received a hero's welcome last week. Both the ruling Left Democratic Front and opposition United Democratic Front are watching his moves anxiously.

His initial statements were favourable to the LDF. He said he would continue to support the LDF government. However, he did not intend to join the front.
It was the previous LDF regime that arrested him in 1998 and sent him to Tamil Nadu for trial in the Coimbatore blast case. As an undertrial prisoner, he was denied bail and parole. He did not even get proper treatment for his many ailments.
There was, however, no bitterness in the statements he made at a press conference and a public meeting on arrival in Thiruvananthapuram.

Apparently mellowed by age and jail, he showed willingness to forgive and forget. He even offered to do what he could to help the persons being tried for the bomb attack in which he lost a leg.

Braving rain, thousands gathered on the Shamkhumukham beach for his public meeting. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan inaugurated it, and Water Resources Minister NK Premachandran presided. UDF leaders were not present. Mahdani said he would try to bring Muslims and Dalits on a common platform and work for their empowerment.
This is not an idea that goes down well with the fronts that alternate in power in Kerala since it may cut into their vote banks.

After the public meeting, he entered a hospital to recoup his health, which was shattered during his imprisonment. Details of his plan of action will probably be known in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, some small parties like KR Gowri Amma's Jandhipathya Samrakshana Samithi have expressed readiness to join hands with him.

Mahdani, now 42, burst upon the political scene in the early 1990s when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was mobilising support for the construction of a Ram temple at the site of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. He organised the Islamic Seva Sangh (ISS) on the RSS pattern. There were clashes between RSS and ISS supporters.

The bomb attack on him took place during that period. When the Centre banned the ISS along with some other Muslim and Hindu organisations following the demolition of Babri Masjid by Viswa Hindu Parishad volunteers, Mahdani floated the People's Democratic Party. Some Hindu backward caste leaders joined the party.

The response of the Indian Union Muslim League, an ally of the Congress, to the Ayodhya outrage was muted. Mahdani's fiery speeches posed a threat to its support base. Some observers saw his arrest in 1998 as part of an LDF attempt to placate the League. The LDF was trying to woo the League at the time. In an official publication, the LDF government actually mentioned Mahdani's arrest and transfer to Tamil Nadu as one of its achievements.

The blasts that rocked Coimbatore the day Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani arrived there on an election tour left 58 dead and more than 100 injured. The Tamil Nadu police said Al Umma, a local terrorist outfit, had planned the explosions.
It claimed Mahdani was involved in the conspiracy and had supplied the explosives. The only evidence the police cited in support of the charge against Mahdani was a telephone call from his office to Al Umma chief SA Basha.

Mahdani's explanation was that the call was for a telephone interview with Basha for a publication under his control. The gross violation of human rights in Mahdani's case was discussed at length in this column two years ago. ("A man on the Malayalee conscience," The Gulf Today, April 5, 2005). As his incarceration without bail or parole continued indefinitely, there was a groundswell of sympathy for him.

Soon after the present LDF government came to power, the State Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution seeking humane treatment for him.
Leaders of all political parties except the BJP hailed Mahdani's acquittal. The BJP leaders wanted the Tamil Nadu government to go in appeal.

Responding to suggestions that he should be compensated for wrongful confinement, Mahdani asked who could compensate him for the nine years and four months he had lost. He did not propose to sue Tamil Nadu for wrongful confinement, but might think of such a step if the State government appealed his acquittal, he added. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 6, 2007.