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Turning Karatwheels

Instead of the N-deal, the CPM should focus on economically stagnant states like Kerala, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2007 23:14 IST
Lalita Panicker

The diktats are coming thick and fast from A.K. Gopalan Bhavan in the capital, the Kremlin of the CPI(M)’s politburo. Even as the 123 deal is glowing in the dark, politburo supremo Prakash Karat wants the government to notify the Forest Rights Bill. And then darkly hints that when the nuclear deal goes through, the Left would not be there. Nothing wrong with promoting forest rights. Or for that matter giving the government a few sleepless nights over the Indo-US nuclear deal.

We have now got used to the Karatian worldview. It does not stop at the borders of India, it encompasses ties with Iran, the nuclear deal, the spread of US hegemony and on-again, off-again opposition to economic reforms. Can we be forgiven for thinking that somewhere along the way, the CPI(M) has forgotten the issues that concern the very people from whom it derives such unprecedented power?

West Bengal’s feisty chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee doesn’t let Messrs Karat and Co. forget. So for every ‘suggestion’ from the high command, he comes up with his own Plan B. No mindless industrialisation and reform, shouted the comrades from the capital. We’ll get the capitalists in but make sure that their human face doesn’t slip, countered Bhattacharjee.

How often we hear from armchair socialists that we cannot have development at the cost of the common man. West Bengal is at least trying to ensure that the benefits of opening up the stultified economy eventually go to the common man. But what of the state which so unquestioningly looks for guidance to the party HQ, especially Prakash Karat, behind whom the Kerala CPI(M) has solidly thrown its weight?

Yes, much in the manner of the strict and undoubtedly erudite theoretician that he is, Karat routinely tells the squabbling comrades in his home state to pipe down or else. But what use the sterling stand against the nuclear deal when India’s supposedly model state, now under the Left Front’s watch, is steadily losing that rather silly moniker God’s Own Country? Should the politburo not concern itself a little more with what is going so wrong in Kerala that is fast becoming a socio-economic nightmare?

Its octogenarian Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan may have a squeaky clean image, but oh, what a disaster his Left Democratic Front (LDF) government has been. First the sheer inertia in governance, something which the LDF had promised to put right in order to attract investors. Well, they are not queuing up at the door as things have slowly started unravelling in the state. Then the unedifying spectacle of the two LDF factions — one led by the chief minister and the other by state chief Pinarayi Vijayan — at each other’s throats. And scandal upon scandal whether in real estate, the lottery or the sex one in which there are allegations of the murky role played by LDF worthies.

The once fabled healthcare system is in a shambles as the manner in which the mass outbreak of chikungunya was handled shows. The health system struggled to keep up as over 100,000 people were affected and more than 100 died. The state of government hospitals was exposed in the media when it came to light that dogs and cats were roaming around the natal wards as new mothers had to make do with bedding down on the floors with their newborn babies. The minister for health famously said she couldn’t care less.

Now many may say that all this notwithstanding, Kerala fares better than, say, Bihar. But the downward slide has begun. It is estimated that over 12 lakh neo-literates in the state have slipped back into illiteracy giving a lie to all that business about 100 per cent literacy.

But it is the social problems that are really casting a dampener on Kerala. It was brought out starkly this Onam, the harvest festival, when alcohol sales hit a record high. Alcohol consumption in Kerala is the highest in the country, putting even robust Punjab in a shade. It is common to see a liquor shop every few yards in all Kerala towns and come sundown, scores of inebriated men lurch out from these.

The downside of this sort of daily binge drinking is tensions in the family and a very high incidence of wife-battering. Which is one of the reasons why the suicide rate at 32 per 100,000 people, largely among housewives, is thrice that of the national average. Living on the past glory of Gulf remittances and the boom it brought, many Malayalis have painted themselves into a hopeless debt trap from which death often seems the only escape. Many returned from the Gulf and built palatial homes with little thought to their upkeep when the funds dried up. So in came the shyster blade companies with their promise of easy loans. With no prospect of being able to pay back, many preferred death.

The Gulf migration also created dysfunctional families with the mother often as the head of the household. Unable often to control her children and missing a husband who would be gone for long periods, many women experienced a marked increase in psychological disorders and alienation from their spouses. The local media, hungry for sensationalism, often plays up cases of suicides and wife-battering with ghoulish delight. Psychologists feel that such publicity spreads the feeling of despair often triggering off copycat suicides and other incidents of violence.

Politics is the topic of fervent street-corner conversation in Kerala. Where else would you have people who make a career out of being political hangers-on all their lives? The truth is that many young people who have not been able to get jobs outside the state have no choice but to hang around the fringes of politics in the hope that one day they will make good. Most often they don’t and are condemned to lead lives of increasing bitterness and frustration.

Many had hoped that the LDF, especially with its backers at the Centre, in the form of Messrs Karat and Co. would be able to address some of these socio-economic issues. Job creation was quite a mantra when the Left was pounding the streets the last elections. This is something that could halve the state’s problems. But as of today, well over a year-and-a-half into the LDF government, the result has been spectacular inaction. Even the few avenues of employment like the cola factories were sought to be shut down by zealous comrades till the courts stepped in.

The Left at the Centre has got a golden opportunity today even as the countdown to the elections begin. Instead of trying to wring concessions out of the UPA government on the Hyde Act, it should focus on trying to get a better deal for states like Kerala that have become economically stagnant. Without this the 24-Karat golden era could well end for the CPI(M) at the next polls. But it would seem that the comrades at present are content to adopt the policy of letting the Devil take the hindmost when it comes to God’s own country.