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The Trojan Horse of Neo-liberal Capital in Kerala

December 1, 2007
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In mid-November, a pro-tribal outfit, the Adivasi Rehabilitation Council, demanded that the Kerala Government hand over to them, land leased to Hindustan Newsprint Ltd. The Adivasis had been given title deeds to this land in 2003, when A K Antony was chief minister, but it was never handed over. They dispersed after local revenue officials assured that this would be done.

But when nothing was done about it, the tribals regrouped and went into the land again, building little huts and vowing to start farming. Around November 26th, the 200-odd families were physically removed by truck-loads of CPM cadre.

J Devika on the need for a new perspective on Left politics:

When the CPM-led LDF coalition swept into power in the elections to the Kerala State Legislative Assembly in 2006, the victory was widely interpreted to be the individual triumph of V S Achuthanandan, who seemed to be nothing less than the personification of Principled-Opposition-to-the-State-and-Global-Capital. During the campaign, VS received the mantle of A K Gopalan, whose brilliant strategies of mass mobilization and militancy had made him the most admired and best-loved of all communists in Kerala. Throughout Kerala, life-size posters of a smiling VS proclaimed him Paavangalude Padatthalavan (NM – something like garibon ka masiha)

Though he did not really attempt to refurbish AKG’s left politics for the changed times, VS was viewed as an icon of struggle against both the ‘liberal turn’ in new institutions of governance, which happened through the 1990s, and the intensification of neoliberal development after. He seemed to be the panacea for all the ills that had affected politics in Kerala since the 1990s. The 1980s had seen the rise of new social movements in Kerala which broadened the notion of politics and forced formal politics to confront issues that were until then either explained as ‘backwardness’ or consigned to the domestic sphere. On the one hand, VS seemed to be reaching out to these concerns; on the other, he seemed to be reviving the radical critique of class and the state.

Yet, in an important sense, VS, as he loomed above every other mortal in Kerala’s political arena, was also the very symptom of depoliticization. The image of the solitary fighter of corruption and injustice that grew around him seemed to cancel out the very need for democratic deliberation. In that sense, this image of VS was a product of the ongoing ‘dramatization of politics’, and the CPM cashed on it brilliantly during the elections. Few saw, or wanted to see, that VS was always less than democratic even if he was sometimes more than a CPM man. Devoted as he had always been to ‘party discipline’, VS in power looked much less exciting than VS in the opposition – no wonder his admirers were sorely disappointed when he looked less than macho in confrontations with Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPM State Secretary and his loyalists.

Munnar seemed to be a decisive moment in the confrontation between the two. Land encroachments in the Munnar hill areas have been going on since very long; environmentalists have cried themselves hoarse about the issue. In 2004, a report was produced on the encroachments by Rajan Madhekar, Additional DGP (Intelligence), which identified elements among both the CPM-led LDF and the Congress-led UDF among the encroachers. The UDF government chose to ignore the report; and so did the LDF. Tourism was being hailed as a major commercial possibility in Kerala; no one was willing to risk being seen as ‘anti- (neoliberal) development’. The capital which flowed into the resorts in Munnar came from various sources, ranging from benami deals, to earnings of Gulf migrants and though the state was well-capable of forging environmental standards and enforcing them, nothing was done.

The trouble started when the UDF raised allegations about LDF leaders’ involvement in the land encroachments there. Nivedita P Haran, a senior IAS officer, was asked to conduct an enquiry and her report confirmed the allegations of large-scale encroachment. The report was approved by the Cabinet and officials supposedly guilty of creating false land deeds were suspended.

A full-scale drama opened with the appointment of three ‘dashing’ officers as the ‘STF’ – the ‘Special Task Force’ – to implement the recommendations of the report. All three were known to be incorruptible officers, above all, devoted and loyal to the Indian State and not the political classes – truly, a star cast that could have given any of the ‘three-hero’ Hindi movies of the 1970s a run for their money! Justifying his decision, much to the discomfiture of the CPM allies, a jubilant VS quoted Deng’s famous statement — a good cat catches the mice, please don’t bother about its colour. The Kerala High Court dismissed a petition seeking a directive to halt the demolitions, which further strengthened resolve to raze the illegal structures. The sight of huge, luxurious holiday resorts being razed to the ground in a few hours; the panic in the banks that had lent funds to the builders; the ‘secret’ meetings of the three heroes of the STF; their unshaken bearing amidst open and sly efforts to slow down the demolishing – all these provided juicy material for the media for weeks together.

Indeed, there was no time that gave better evidence for the observation that in the present, politics is much more a source of mass entertainment than a means of resolving social conflict and inequality! Meanwhile, discussions about the high-visibility drama thrived: had the day of retribution finally arrived for the corrupt? Or was VS trying to score a point against the Tatas? Was this a way of scoring a point against the CPM in Bengal, busy welcoming global capital and creating mayhem in Singur and Nandigram? Most talk revolved around VS – Munnar could only be his triumph or tragedy. VS himself claimed that Munnar would be ‘taken back’ from vested interests, that an ‘environment-friendly master-plan’ would be formulated for its development into a world-class holiday spot. This, it appeared, would be the second feather in his cap, the first being the negotiation of the ‘Smart City’ deal. However, it now appears as though there is no guarantee that Munnar won’t be turned into an exclusive resort where the denizens of Smart City may relax after their labours.

The Munnar ‘mission’ could not last too long – concerted pressure from elements in the CPM and CPI soon had an effect, and the STF was reigned in. The CPI found that its own office in Munnar was to be demolished and dispatched CPI Minister K P Rajendran to lead the recapturing. Finally in July 2007, the government decided to ‘halt the demolitions’.

In hindsight, what is surprising is the huge load of expectations that was placed on VS even by seasoned political observers, many of who knew well that he was the media-generated panacea to all social and political ills of the Malayalees. He was too unreal – a figure from which justice seemed to flow, without the mundane necessity of democratic debate. There was too little democracy in VS, and much less reasoned debate, and few seemed to mind –least of all, many leading activists of the new social movements. For them it now appeared that the hard work of public campaigning could be replaced by easier means—visibility on satellite television, the support of powerful politicians like VS. Few even saw that the strengthening of the state’s arm through the three dashing heroes of Munnar wasn’t the same as people’s politics.

The contrast was with Kerala’s land reforms, which was fought for and overseen by a political movement and with a lot of grassroots participation. There was no movement here; the environmental activists who had raised the issue very long back had encountered nothing but deaf, deaf ears. In fact all that the misadventure at Munnar did was to help shape the two features of governance necessary for the advent of neoliberal capital: one, the strengthening of the bureaucracy, and two, the unquestioned control of the state over the resource of greatest value to expanding capital — real estate. Kerala, of course, is a tropical paradise and in global terms the land here is perhaps among the most valuable in the world. The state’s arm was strengthened in other ways, too. For instance, ‘encroachment’ is now a term vague enough to serve as a justification for eviction in the name of ‘development’.

The struggle over the displacement for the Vallarpadam Container Terminal project at Kochi, which has reached a climax now, is worth watching. Displacement is happening all along the coast in Kerala for tourism, silently; adivasi protesters and landless people are subjected to police brutality. Our ongoing research shows that at any given moment in the present, there are at least eight to ten micro-struggles around environmental extraction going on in every district in Kerala – all led by people, especially women, who are far, far away from Kerala’s much-celebrated public sphere and civil society – which are fighting rock quarrying, sand mining, waste-dumping, wanton destruction of water bodies, large scale encroachments into common spaces of livelihood. But all this does not make much news precisely because often, there is no global giant on the other side but local oppressors well connected to political parties, the police, and the bureaucracy. And these people do not speak the languages familiar to Kerala’s fattened new elites: that of the feminized prelapsarian ‘concern for nature’, or a masculinized technocratic ‘cost-benefit analysis’. All this, while the much-touted structures of ‘deepening democracy’ – of political decentralization and ‘people’s planning’—either side with the exploiters, or watch helplessly, completely toothless to take on neoliberal extractive development.

Knowingly or unknowingly, VS has become the Trojan horse of neoliberal capital in Kerala! It’s time the new social movements in Kerala woke up to that.

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