In the sable darkness of the broken ribbon of a highway snaking across the north of Kerala, car headlights like mutant glow worms bounce about, blinding drivers. State transport buses leave you reeling in their tailwind, as they careen past the plush Audis, BMWs and Mercs favoured by the rich in this part of the fabled Malabar region. Yet this is a state with crippling unemployment and Gulf money alone does not explain the opulent lifestyles of the select few.
The runaway growth of mafias, whether in the sand business, construction or money-lending, under the benign eye of political parties is something everyone knows about, but few in the public eye ever speak about. So, as campaigning comes to an end in the enervating heat and dust, we are left with a sense that this most naturally magnificent of states is on a downward curve, let down by its unimaginative leaders and hobbled by its crippling social problems.
The run-up to the assembly election has been one of unrelenting negativity. The geriatric challenge from the Left Democratic Front (LDF) is tired enough to lull you into somnolence. Antediluvian rhetoric about exploitative capitalism, marauding private sector enterprise and shortchanging workers has ceased to have any relevance to the problems that Kerala faces. But if you thought that the United Democratic Front (UDF) was cutting a dash in the ideas department, you could not be more off the mark. Beyond telling the people everything that the LDF messed up on, it has no positive agenda.
The only amusing sidebar is the jousting on age, the octogenarian chief minister VS Achuthanandan being the butt of ageist jokes and his rasping riposte on youth being a deterrent to responsibility. Nothing at all, it would seem, is on the dhobi list for the people who despite knowing better seem to wait for some sign from their leaders much like in the plot of Elippathayam (Rat trap), the iconic film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan. In it, the protagonist, unable to deal with adversity in a feudal set-up withdraws like a rat into a hole. He is then unable to communicate with anyone including the villagers who wait for a word from him. But he doesn't stir from his intellectual slumber. This goes on for the most part of the film after which it comes to a gory end. If there are gory endings in Kerala, it will only be for people of the state which has very high alcoholism, unemployment, domestic abuse and morbidity, among other problems.
To its credit, the LDF government has provided a sort of subsistence lifestyle for the people, giving them higher pensions, some livestock and other forms of petty dole. But this has only served to knock the initiative out of them. Across Kerala, you will find many able-bodied young people whiling their time away in public spaces, their only occupation being to queue up for liquor when the shops open or head to the nearest toddy shop. With the alcohol comes domestic violence, which most women suffer in silence for fear of disapproval in an ultra-conservative society.
Despite high literacy levels, most people here seem to have little initiative or drive. Part of it has to do with the fact that militant trade unionism has wiped out private enterprise and hobbled agriculture in the state which now suffers from water scarcity. The tourism industry seems the only one which is thriving, but then it not nearly enough to even begin to address the problem of unemployment.
The dank, depressing, overgrown towns in the state form a startling contrast to the Gauguinesque beauty of the lazy lagoons with their Chinese fishing nets and the silvery waterways, once the lifeline of Kerala. On the election trail, one can't escape the gigantic hoardings on both sides of the serpent-tailed highways, almost all of them advertising gold. The women on the billboards seem to wear jewelry by the tonnage rather than grams, endowing them with the air of caparisoned pachyderms so popular in temple festivals. Bizarrely enough, the main model pedaling gold is not any sylph-like creature from the catwalk or nubile starlet, but a podgy Mohanlal, one of the most popular matinee idols in the state. At 50 plus, the jowly, pasty-faced actor is so in your face across the state that you might be forgiven for thinking you have wandered into a set of Attack of the Clones.
The lack of aesthetics does not end with the portly actor selling you necklaces and earrings, it extends to the sartorial horrors that you witness among people in general. Synthetics rule in the nausea-inducing humidity and frills and furbelows are a fashion statement, not to mention excessive amounts of sequins and zari. These eyesores are considered the height of glamour in Kerala where most people look like they have escaped from a particularly tacky C-grade movie set.
It may be fanciful to say this, but along with this abandonment of taste has also come a jettisoning of liberalism, whether it comes to embracing the market economy or accepting women as equals. This explains why both the LDF and the UDF have fielded a negligible proportion of women in the elections with the chief minister not hesitating to make the worst kind of sexist remarks against his female opponent.
The state which has produced some of the most erudite politicians, litterateurs, feminists, educationists and artists has today come to accept and celebrate mediocrity and sloth. Those who have made good have had to leave the state or have had the good fortune to be born into privilege. Kerala does not need just a change in political rhetoric and intent. It needs a paradigm shift in mindset which need not be politically driven. Its people have to stop being content with the small goodie bags given out in instalments by the political parties, they need to shake off their inertia and demand their rights.
The other less privileged states have left Kerala in their dust and there seems little prospect of it moving ahead at more than a snail's pace on its broken highways.
A new government will be in place very shortly, but whether Left or Right, it is clear that god will help those who help themselves. Something that should not be lost on people in the now clichéd 'God's Own Country'.