Election season is the time when politicians go out to meet ordinary citizens. It is, therefore, a good opportunity for educating the politicians about the real aspirations and expectations of the people. The old style campaigning based on mega rallies and processions have now given way to house-to-house visits and direct contact with the voters. The mega rallies of the past certainly helped to galvanize party cadres but did not serve the purported objective of communicating with the public. At best it was a one-way communication that did not give the candidates the opportunity to learn at first-hand what the voters wanted. Political and ideological education of the public was deemed the most important activity of the local party leaders who were certainly effective in spreading the message of equality and arousing the conscience of the general public for fighting injustice. People are tired of these lectures and now want their leaders to listen to them and solve their problems rather than preach.
Top leaders becoming accessible to local leaders was the first stage in the transformation of Kerala politics. Over the years these ‘chota netas’ turned rent seeking middlemen and became quite prosperous at the expense of those who needed some job to get done. One of the charges levelled against the first communist government was that the ‘Cell Secretary’ had become powerful enough to dictate orders to the local police. Vimochana Samaram did not change this but local leaders of all political parties thereafter started to believe that this was their primary job and prerogative. This aspect of politics has now assumed alarming proportions and blossomed into a regular extortion racket. Most businessmen have something to hide and a large number of government officials have adopted corruption as a way of life. The politically connected extortionists take advantage of this weakness to enrich themselves. The fortunes of political leaders have grown so exponentially that most of them have deployed it in some side business, partly as a way of money laundering.
The ‘fixing’ business will continue to prosper so long as no political leader of any party is honestly interested in curbing this. Is there any communist now who survives on black tea and parippu vada or congressman who weaves his own cloths? All that is history just as honesty in politics has become history. Most of the common people, however, do not need the services offered by the political operatives for a consideration. They are now conscious of their real needs which are related to law and order, freedom from corruption in mundane matters involving interaction with government agencies, transport infrastructure, employable quality education for children, affordable healthcare and jobs. They are more concerned about knowing which Front will give them what they need rather than knowing who slept with whom.
In other words, the language of public discourse has changed from rights based governmental patronage to economic development. Even politicians who fattened themselves over the years mouthing socialist or communist slogans now recognize this change even if they lament the younger generation’s growing culture of apolitical attitude to life. The most significant manifestation of this change is the LDF manifesto which promises, among other things, wide roads which V.S. Achuthanandan had vigorously opposed for years. Pinarayi Vijayan and Thomas Isaac have radically altered the CPI(M) perspective in this respect just as Oommen Chandy has quietly buried the socialist baggage that used to be lugged around by Antony and Vayalar Ravi even after the 1991 liberalisation. BJP has been keen to live down its image as a ‘Hindutvavadi’ party and Kummanam started his innings as the state party president with a sashtanga namaskar before Catholicose Cardinal Clemis. Ostensibly the only agenda of the party in Kerala now is ‘development’. Prime Minister downwards all the BJP leaders have been constantly emphasizing this aspect and blaming LDF and UDF, who between them have ruled the state right from the beginning, for Kerala’s economic stagnation. Almost everyone recognizes that the so called ‘Kerala Model’ has not evolved to meet the demands of times.
We have now entered an era when inclusive development is the flavour and pragmatism is the hallmark of acceptability. All right thinking people hope that Pinarayi Vijayan will be the Chief Minister if LDF comes to power and Oommen Chandy if UDF comes to power. Though NDA is expected to do quite well in this election, nobody expects it to win enough seats to have a serious chance to form government. NDA will have to wait.
I met Pinarayi for the first time many years ago when I was Special Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and he was the Electricity Minister of Kerala. The meeting was arranged at his initiative as he was keen to understand the environmental issues pertaining to the Athirappilly Project. I found him proactive, decisive and full of common sense. I have no doubt that he will prove to be an excellent chief minister. Oommen Chandy has already proved himself to be an excellent chief minister despite being handicapped by the need to cater to all kinds of interests because of his wafer thin majority. Both of them will be able to serve the state well if they can focus all their attention on administration instead of being distracted by the manipulative politics of their rivals in their own parties.
Whichever Front comes to power would do well to realise that the key to its success will be its ability to work with the opposition and arrive at a quiet understanding with the principal opposition party on major policy issues. If there is a sincere desire, this should not be very difficult as the real differences are minor. They should agree to take out certain matters like corruption beyond the purview of the elected government and entrust to a respected neutral authority whose integrity will be respected by all. They should agree to punish wrongdoing by government officials whatever their political affiliations. Trade unionism should not be allowed to come in the way of giving a clean administration committed to public welfare. They should make an all out effort to discourage bandhs and hartals that disrupt the life of ordinary citizens who have to work every day to earn their living. The law of diminishing returns has started applying in the case of this much misused weapon. Neither any problem gets solved by these bandhs nor does the standing of any party improve in the eyes of the public because of these. The principal opposition may have difficulty in taking a public position endorsing such initiatives but there can be an unwritten understanding that it would not adopt confrontational politics against public interest.
Development will not come by organizing spectacular meets or announcing tax concessions. Investors would rather go for corruption free and speedy resolution of regulatory issues and predictable public policies. Development will come automatically when goons and quotations gangs are eliminated, crimes are punished in the quickest possible time, a world class road and railway network is created and educational institutions of excellence are encouraged. Development will come if unionism is not given precedence over public good and private initiative is recognized as the most dynamic factor in Indian economy. Keralites should give up the old habit of treating ‘profit’ as a dirty word. We can become the shining star of development in India if our politics can become issue based rather than confrontational.