Monday, March 30, 2009

Claims and counter-claims leave voters confused

Gulf Today

As the Lok Sabha poll enters the final phase, the high-pitched campaigns of Kerala's two electoral fronts, which are fairly well matched in terms of popular support, are generating more heat than light. Nominations in the state, which goes to the polls on April 16, closes on Monday.

Most of the candidates of the Left Democratic Front(LDF) and the United Democratic Front(UDF) and the parties outside these alliances have filed their nomination papers.

However, the final line-up will be known only on Thursday, the last day for withdrawal of nominations.

Last week the decibel level of the campaigns rose as both the LDF and the UDF held a series of constituency-level conventions, where they hurled charges against each other.

The news channel debates provided candidates of the two fronts as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) the opportunity to present their cases before the public.

Early on, the media focused attention on the ties the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) had forged with the People's Democratic Party(PDP) of Abdul Naser Ma'dani, much to the annoyance of its LDF partners, the Communist Party of Idia(CPI) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party(RSP).

Since his acquittal in the Coimbatore bomb blast case, after being in jail for more than nine years as an undertrial prisoner, Ma'dani has made Malappuram his main area of activity, raising a direct challenge to the Indian Union Muslim League(IUML), which has been the major political force in the Muslim-majority district since Independence.

Mahdani played a key role in the CPI-M's decision to put up Husain Randathani, a college principal, as the LDF-backed independent candidate in Ponnani.

He was the star attraction at the LDF convention in that constituency, which was inaugurated by CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.

There was a spate of reports in the media, based on statements reportedly made by some youths during police interrogation, alleging that suspected terrorists had contacts with Ma'dani or his wife.

It is not clear how the testimony, which was recorded by the police months ago, reached the media at election time.

The Ma'dani connection cast its shadow on the CPI-M and the state government too.

While Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the allegations against the PDP leader were not new and there was no need for any investigation, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan said the allegations would be investigated.

Ma'dani, on his part, said he was ready to face any investigation.

The CPI-M national leadership stood by the state unit's electoral understanding with the PDP but found it necessary to declare that there was no proposal to admit it into the LDF.

The Mahdani factor put the CPI-M on the defensive.

But, more importantly, it diverted popular attention from other issues which were expected to dominate the campaigns of the two fronts.

At week's end, both sides were trying to shift the focus to other issues.

In a bid to turn the spotlight on the Lavalin case, a UDF delegation met Governor RS Gavai to complain about the inordinate delay in responding to the Central Bureau of Investigation's request for permission to prosecute Pinarayi Vijayan, whom it has named as an accused in the corruption case.

There were indications earlier that the UDF would take full advantage of the Lavalin case, which is the first corruption case in which a CPI-M Politburo member has been named as an accused.

It had described Lavalin as an even greater scandal than Bofors.

With the news of a suspicious arms deal with Israel breaking, the LDF believes it has a powerful weapon with which to counter the Lavalin scandal.

The Israeli deal is twice as large as the Lavalin contract.

All India Congress Committee general secretary Rahul Gandhi, on a visit to Kerala early this month, claimed that the Congress-led government at the Centre had sanctioned the state schemes worth Rs 400 billion during the past years, but the LDF government here was no able to deliver the goods. He did not specify the schemes.

In this year's budget, finance minister TM Thomas Isaac announced that the state would make investments to the tune of Rs100 billion. He too did not specify the schemes.

Campaigners on both sides fling these figures in election speeches.

Is Abdul Naser Ma'dani an extremist? Was there corruption in the Lavalin deal? Has the Centre given Kerala a few hundred billions? Is the state government investing 100 billion? Amid the claims and counter-claims of the campaigners, answers to such questions elude the voters.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Two-front system faces challenge from inside and outside

Gulf Today

The two-front system that has dominated Kerala's electoral scene for more than two decades is facing severe challenges from inside and outside, casting a shadow on their future.

Although public attention is centred on the fronts, elections in the state are now multi-cornered. In the 2004 Lok Sabha poll, there was no constituency which had fewer than five candidates. Out of the 20 constituencies, 17 had six or more candidates each.

For long, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been striving to break through the solid phalanx put up by the rival alliances, the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress party and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). So far, it has not been able to win even an assembly seat.

When the BJP-led coalition was in power at the Centre, the party got one of its state leaders, O. Rajagopal, into the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh and made him a minister.His promotion of the state's interests earned him a personal following but it was not enough to win a Lok Sabha seat.

The BJP contested 19 Lok Sabha seats last time and garnered 10.4% of the votes polled.
However, all candidates excepting Rajagopal and another forfeited their deposits. In the assembly elections of 2006 the party's vote share dropped to 4.8%.

The BJP is not the only national party looking for a breakthrough in the state.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was in the arena last time with 14 candidates. All forfeited their deposits. The party's vote share was less than 0.5%.

The BSP is in the field again in a big way, and Mayawati was in Thiruvananthapuram during the weekend to boost its candidates' prospects.

The party, which captured power in UP last year by reaching out beyond its traditional Dalit base, is planning to replicate that experiment in Kerala. It has fielded this time two experienced non-Dalit politicians, A. Neelalohithadasan Nadar (Thiruvanathapuram) and KK Nair (Pathanamthitta).

Neelalohithadasan, who began public life as a Congressman, shot into fame decades ago by defeating Communist Party of India (CPI) veteran MN Govindan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram by mobilising the support of his backward class Nadar community. A Janata Dal (S) minister in the last LDF regime, he had to quit the party and the government following allegations of sexual harassment.

KK Nair, who was first elected to the assembly from Pathanamthitta as an Independent, had kept a government led by K. Karunakaran in office when it was reduced to a minority. The price he extracted was the formation of Pathanamthitta district.

Since neither the LDF nor the UDF showed interest in an alliance with it, the Nationalist Congress Party NCP), which is a recognised national party, is in the field all by itself.

The party's state president, K. Muraleedharan, who repeatedly threatened to contest all the 20 seats, has now decided, in consultation with the national president, Sharad Pawar, to put up just four candidates.

Apart from these national parties, some local players are also in the picture. They include breakaway Left elements.

Both the fronts are in disarray. The LDF's problems are organisational. There is deep discontent among its constituents.

The Congress has no serious problems with its UDF partners. However, there is discontent in the party over the choice of candidates.

The CPI-M had its way in Ponnani, but its cosy relationship with Abdul Naser Mahdani's People's Democratic Party(PDP) has embittered the CPI and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. Mahdani was the star of the LDF show at Kuttipuram, which was inaugurated by CPI-M secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.

The PDP leaders were not seen at the LDF conventions in the CPI constituencies.

The CPI-M has to contend with the threat posed by dissidents in the Onchiyam area of Vadakara, who have set up a parallel party unit. It has also to reckon with the influence of dissidents in the Shoranur area of Palakkad, who demonstrated their popular support in the municipal by-elections.

The Left co-ordination committee floated by the dissidents is fielding candidates in five constituencies, including Vadakara and Palakkad.

The Marxist Communist Party of India (United), another dissident outfit, is putting up two candidates.

The CPI-M apparently faces more threats from inside and outside its front than the Congress. However, it is doubtful if the Congress machinery is capable of taking full advantage of its rival's discomfiture.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

‘Traditional’ ulema and ‘modern’ Islamic education in Kerala


In contrast to the Jamaat-e Islami and the Kerala Nadwat ul-Mujahidin, the ‘Sunni’ ulema of Kerala, like their counterparts in north India, were slow in taking to modern education, sometimes even castigating it as ‘un-Islamic’.

Numerous ‘Sunni’ ulema in fact issued fatwas against Jamaat and Nadwat leaders who encouraged Muslims to take to modern, in addition to religious, education. However, in recent years, the situation has been drastically transformed.

Today, leading Kerala ‘Sunni’ ulema are actively involved in promoting modern education, including the modernization of traditional madrasa education.


Muslim Education Society's work commended

Yoginder Sikand, in an article circulated by highlights the record of the Muslim Education Society (MES) of Kerala, which he sees as a commendable community initiative for educational empowerment.

One of the major factors for the high literacy rate among Kerala’s Muslims—who are among the most educated Muslim communities in India—is the vast network of educational institutions that Muslim community leaders have established across the state, he says. Of these, the largest and one of the most influential is the Calicut-based Muslim Educational Society.

Over to Sikand’s article

Monday, March 16, 2009

LDF realises united we stand, divided we fall

Gulf Today

With the two Communist parties engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, the Left Democratic Front, which rules Kerala, is caught in the worst crisis in the three decades of its existence.

Realising that the front's future is at stake, the national leadership of the two parties have urged the state units to resolve the differences amicably. Mediators are working on a face-saving formula.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the front, and the Communist Party of India (CPI), the second largest partner, fell out on the issue of a common candidate to challenge the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in the Ponnani constituency, which it has always won.

Trouble began when the CPI-M, at the instance of People's Democratic Party (PDP) leader Abdul Naser Mahdani, who has offered support to the LDF, sponsored Husain Randathani, a college principal, as an Independent candidate for Ponnani.

The CPI refused to endorse Randathani as giving Ponnani to him will reduce its share of seats from four to three.

It proposed AP Kunhamu, who was associated with a pro-CPI bank employees union, as the LDF-backed independent.

CPI-M blackballed Kunhamu, saying he is close to the National Development Front NDF), which it considers an extremist outfit.

However, on Sunday, Randathani, apparently at the CPI-M's behest, made an attempt to win the CPI's favour.

Matters came to a head when CPI state secretary Veliyam Bhargavan, after heated exchanges with CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, walked out of the LDF meeting which was to have finalised division of seats.

At a press conference, he announced that the CPI would put up candidates for all CPI-M seats if the LDF did not accept its candidate in Ponnani.

He also said the party would stay away from the LDF's district conventions scheduled for the weekend.

Pinarayi Vijayan sought to mollify the CPI by offering to protect its share of four seats. However, he did not withdraw his party's support to Randathani, who has already started campaigning.

Vijayan reminded Bhargavan that when the CPI fought alone last time most of its candidates had forfeited their security deposits.

When the LDF began talks on seat division, the Revolutionary Socialist Party demanded that the Kollam seat, which the CPI-M had taken from it in the last elections, be returned.

It threatened to pull out NK Premachandran, its nominee in the state cabinet, if its claim was overlooked.

The CPI-M ignored the threat. The RSP decided to swallow its words and remain in the government.

The CPI-M asked the Janata Dal (S) to return the Kozhikode seat, which its leader, MP Veerendrakumar, had successfully contested in the last two elections, and take Wayanad instead.

Since the LDF does not seem to have a winning chance in Waynad, the JD (S) turned down the suggestion.

It said it was ready to give up its cabinet berth and all other posts held by it as a member of the alliance if it was denied the Kozhikode seat.

Taking into account the CPI's boycott threat, the CPI-M postponed the district-level conventions of the LDF.

However, it activated its cadres in all constituencies other than those of the CPI. In Ponnani, the party cadres are active in Randathani's campaign.

As the week drew to a close, the CPI district committees were busy drawing up lists of candidates for all the seats. The party's ministers were said to be clearing pending files in preparation for vacation of office.

The CPI-M considers these moves part of the CPI's pressure tactics. It expects the CPI to remain in the LDF as there is no viable alternative before it. Under the seat sharing arrangement worked out by the UDF, the Congress is to contest 17 seats, the Muslim League two and the Kerala Congress (Mani) one.

The Congress has not finalised its candidates so far. With a large number of aspirants in the field, the task is by no means easy.

Some observers believe the party is wilfully delaying the selection process, going on in New Delhi, to know the outcome of the rift in the LDF.

The Congress has already enlisted the support of AK Abdullakutty, Kannur MP, whom the CPI-M recently expelled.

It is also reportedly considering giving him the party ticket to contest from Kannur or Kasargode.

Two factors threaten to scuttle middlemen's efforts to find an amicable solution to the problems in the LDF. One is Husain Randathani's refusal to withdraw from the contest and the CPI-M's reluctance to forsake him. The other is Mahdani's threat to put up candidates in all constituencies where the CPI contests if it does not accept Randathani in Ponnani.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Environmental campaigns to the fore as poll approaches


ALL over Kerala, agitations have been on for years to assert the people's right to clean air and clean water. By and large, the authorities' response to their struggles has been unsympathetic.

With the Lok Sabha elections approaching, the long-suffering people are planning new campaigns to draw the attention of the political parties to their plight.

The Theeradesa Paristhiti Samrakshana Samiti (Coastal environmental protection committee) of Pallithura, near Thiruvananthapuram, held a convention on Saturday as part of the plan to step up their agitation for closure of a clay factory, which has been polluting their neighbourhood.

Many residents of Pallithura are fisher folks who had moved there from Thumba after making way for the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. They have been up in arms against the clay factory from the time it was set up. They allege that the factory obtained clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests by making false representations. They also claim that it started operations even before it received consent from the state pollution control board.

According to the Samiti, about 30,000 people live within a distance of two kilometres from the factory. It says hundreds of people had to be taken to hospitals after breathing obnoxious gases emitted by the factory when it began trial run. The police registered a case against the Samiti leaders and other villagers after an agitated mob reportedly stormed the factory premises. Later, there was an explosion in the factory, resulting in two deaths. While the factory management said it suspected sabotage, the Samiti attributed the explosion to lapses on the part of the management.

On a petition by the Samiti, the High Court directed the district collector to inspect the factory along with the complainants to ascertain if the management was abiding by the conditions stipulated by the ministry of environment.

The inspection turned into a unilateral affair as the district administration denied the Samiti permission to take with it an expert to guide it on technical matters. The management said later the inspection team had found everything was in order.
In the adjoining district of Kollam, the Paristhiti Samrakshana Ekopana Samiti (Environment protection co-ordination committee) has been agitating for nearly five years demanding an end to clay mining at Velichakala.

According to the Ekopana Samiti, mining was done up to a depth of more than 30 metres. This led to a drop in ground water level, causing acute water scarcity. Chemicals used by the company which was engaged in mining polluted the Palliman river and the nearby canals.

Following protests by the people of Velichakala, the company suspended operations at one stage. At a meeting convened by the district collector, it was decided to allow it to resume mining, subject to conditions stipulated by the state pollution control board and the mining and geology department.

The Ekopana Samiti is agitating also on other issues like protection of the Sasthamkotta Lake, ban on sand mining in west Kallada and declaration of Maruthumala as a wild life conservation centre.

The agitation by residents of Plachimada in Palakkad district against the multinational Coca Cola, which is said to be the longest popular struggle in the state's history, will enter the eighth year next month.

The Coca Cola plant at Plachimada was set up in1999. On April 22, 2002, villagers, led by Mylamma, an Adivasi woman, took up cudgels against the soft drinks giant, alleging it had depleted and polluted their water sources.

Mylamma is no more, but the agitation she launched continues.
The plant is not operating at present. The villagers have vowed to continue the struggle until the company pulls out altogether.

Plachimada has cast a shadow over former United Nations under secretary Shashi Tharoor, who is reportedly seeking the Congress ticket to contest for the Lok Sabha from Palakkad.

Last month, Velur Swaminathan, secretary, Plachimada Adivasi Samrakshana Sangham (Tribal protection council) and R. Ajayan, convener, Plachimada Samara Aikyadardya Samiti (Agitation solidarity committee), in an open letter, took exception to Tharoor's association with the Coca Cola company. In an open response to the letter, Tharoor said he was associated not with the Coca Cola company but with a philanthropic foundation set up by it. He also took the opportunity to put across the company's response to the agitators' demands.

This provoked S. Faizi, who has been expert member of the Kerala Groundwater Authority, to join the debate. He said Tharoor's contention that the company had done nothing wrong was not correct. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 9, 2009

Monday, March 2, 2009

Political campaign assumes character of carnival

Gulf Today

FEBRUARY was a month of marches in Kerala. Several political parties launched marches from Kasergode to Thiruvananthapuram during the month to galvanise their organisations for the Lok Sabha elections. Some of the marches had the trappings of a carnival.

Over the years campaign styles in the state have changed considerably. Early on, the Communists, taking the cue from the Soviet and Chinese parties, started organising parades by volunteers in red uniforms holding aloft huge red banners.

Lately, many parties have adopted styles pioneered by film star politicians of other states. They install huge cut-outs of their leaders, as MG Ramachandran did in Tamil Nadu, and undertake road journeys in decorated vehicles, as NT Rama Rao did in Andhra Pradesh.

The Kerala Congress (Jacob) was perhaps the first in the state to go in for cut-outs. When its leader, TM Jacob, led a march some years ago it erected his cut-outs in the capital.

Soon other parties followed suit. Cut-outs of leaders of political parties and caste organisations are now a familiar sight all over the state. A long march from Kasergode to Thiruvananthapuram, covering a distance of more than 550 kilometres, is today a well-recognised means by which an organisation with the capacity to raise the necessary funds can put across a political and social message.

The march usually takes the form of ride in a motor vehicle, stopping on the way to hold street corner meetings.

K. Muraleedharan holds a record for marching under different banners. His first march was as president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee. Later he left the party with his father, former chief minister K. Karunakaran, and carried the banner of the Democratic Indira Congress. He is now marching as state president of the National Congress party.

A march led by veteran Communist leader AK Gopalan from Malabar to Travancore during the freedom movement had helped to forge a sense of unity among the people of Kerala, then scattered in three different administrative units. However, the Communists were slow in joining the game of pre-election march.

State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan became the first Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader to employ the march as an election tool when he led a march before the assembly poll which brought the Left Democratic Front to power in 2006.

Local party units erected his cut-outs and put up hoardings greeting him all along the route. That marked the beginning of a change in the style of the party, which was not affected by personality cult even when it had charismatic leaders like AKG and EMS Namboodirpad. At every halt Vijayan received memorandums from the people.

He also met religious leaders and businessmen over breakfast and dinner. That road show prompted a national financial daily to report that "Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala's Buddhadeb-in-making, is fast emerging as the LDF's chief ministerial candidate." However, things did not work out that way. Responding to popular demonstrations in favour of VS Achuthanandan, the party's national leadership revised its earlier decision and allowed him to contest for the Assembly and become the chief minister.

Vijayan, who strengthened his hold on the state party during the organisational elections last year, decided to lead another march in advance of the Lok Sabha poll. Just before the march began, the Central Bureau of Investigation said it was naming him as an accused in the Lavalin case relating to a deal the State Electricity Board had struck with a Canadian company when he was power minister.

Party committees at all levels made elaborate arrangements to make the march an even greater success than the last one. As doubts prevailed about Achuthanandan's participation in it, Vijayan declared, "All those who are in the party will be in the march."

Impressed by the immense mobilisation, the party journal People's Democracy declared the march had become an exciting campaign, "creating new waves of rejuvenated political enthusiasm."

The rally that marked the end of the march was a political extravaganza. Introducing yet another element borrowed from outside, general secretary Prakash Karat and Vijayan stood on the dais with sceptre and crown. Achuthanandan turned up and said just enough to stave off possible disciplinary action for not endorsing the party's stand that the Lavalin case is politically motivated.

In the display of pomp and power, the CPI-M was way ahead of the other parties. This testifies to its superiority in human and material resources.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 2, 2009.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Kerala continues to throw up paradoxes

Forty years ago the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) noticed that Kerala has achieved social progress comparable to that of the West without industrialisation. It asked experts to study the phenomenon, hoping it will yield a new model of development.

Economists like Amartya Sen offered explanations for the paradox of social advance without economic advance. However, a developmental model that others can replicate did not emerge.

Kerala continues to throw up paradoxes....

These are the opening paras of an article I wrote for IANS.

The article can be read at one of the following sites:

Yahoo! India News

OR News Hopper
Sindh Today