News APP

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp

Available on  gplay

Rediff News  All News  » News » Writer Paul Zacharia on Kerala's fascinating politics

Writer Paul Zacharia on Kerala's fascinating politics

Last updated on: April 6, 2011 14:30 IST

Image: Paul Zacharia
Photographs: Courtesy Shobha Warrier
'Communism does not charm Kerala's youth today'...
'If Gulf money stops coming, half of Kerala will stop eating'...
'Thank god for the Muslim League'...
Writer Paul Zacharia takes on the fascinating world of Kerala politics in a no holds barred interview.

Paul Zacharia, one of the leading literary figures in Kerala, is also a political commentator. His views on issues -- whether it is on politics or Kerala society are always pungent, and unique.

In this exclusive interview with's Shobha Warrier, Zacharia takes on Kerala's politicians in his combative style.

How do you explain the entry of Communism in Kerala and the world's first democratically elected Communist government in Kerala?

It was a part of the worldwide awareness of socialism and possibilities of Marxism. That percolated down from the 1917 October Revolution.

Kerala was one of the earliest places to become literate and have translations of the Communist Manifesto as early as 1920, which is just three years from the October Revolution.

There were also translations of Das Kapital available in Kerala. So, the ideology influenced upper class intellectuals like the Namboodiris and Nairs who were educated. They were the people who spread the Communist ideals first.

Please ...

'Keralites are unaware of their responsibilities, but...'

Image: A tableau in a Communist rally in Kerala showing two farmers forming the hammer and sickle
Photographs: David Wilmot/Wikimedia Commons
How do you think it changed the face of Kerala?

It changed the face of Kerala in a major way. There was no democracy then; at that time, Kerala was being ruled by enlightened kings. By then, the missionaries also had started their work on education in a big way and education was available to even the lowest castes and also women.

Narayana Guru started a kind of social revolution, which no other part of India had seen.

Communism entered the picture with something more than what the liberalism of the kings, Narayana Guru's social reformation or the missionaries' work in education, offered. That is, taking the side of the economic underdog who belonged to the lower castes. That is how Communism made a mark.

It is the upper caste Brahmins, Nairs and a fair sprinkling of Christians who spread the ideals of Communism, which is quite strange. This was revolutionising society, making people aware of their social and economic rights and also as human beings living in a caste-society.

You spoke about rights. Today, many lament that it is because of the influence of Communism that Keralites are more aware of their rights and not responsibilities and duties. Do you agree with the accusation?

I would say that it is only partially true. Yes, when Keralites became aware of their rights, workers' rights and trade unionism started. Yes, they are not that aware of their responsibilities, but I would say, all the political parties played a part in this and not Communism alone.

Communism started it, but soon other parties also found that to come back to power, trade unionism is needed. Everybody exploited workers ruthlessly in order to create a vote bank.

'Parties have made the worker an enemy of industry'

Image: CPI-M activists carry a party prop
Has it affected the growth of the state adversely?

Certainly, it has affected the growth of the state in a major way right from industrialisation. Even today, it affects growth. Workers are brainwashed by all political parties that privileges come first and work, later.

Right from the ministers, all are party to this brainwashing. These workers are not only their vote bank, but money bank too for their monthly collections.

If you look at Kerala's neighbours -- Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka -- which are highly industrialised and provide employment to lakhs of people, nobody dares to start an industry in Kerala. Is it one of the ill effects of Communism?

Though all the political parties are responsible for it, the leadership was originally in the hands of the Communists. Even today, when you say nokku kooli (an unofficial labour norm under which wages are paid to trade union activists for allowing investors/builders to download material using either machines or their own labour), we associate it with Communists, but across the board, all workers practise nokku kooli.

All these things were started by the Communists once, but have been taken over by other political parties too.

So, it is not a good climate for industries in Kerala. The responsibility of making the worker an enemy of capital and anyone who starts an industry, lies with all political parties, I hold all of them responsible for it.

'If Gulf money stops coming, half of Kerala will stop eating'

Image: The Kerala assembly
Do you see this changing as its neighbouring states are getting industrialised?

I don't see this changing. It has become a habit and people have learnt to take it easy. All the economic problems of the state are because there is no creation of wealth. It is all covered up and softened by the money that flows from abroad.

How long can an economy sustain on money from abroad?

So much money comes from people who work in all parts of the world, right from Japan to America to the Middle East to Europe. That money keeps the economy going and nobody feels the pressure.

Till now, this economy has survived. If the upheaval in the Gulf changes to some kind of an unpredictable situation, it can create an economic tsunami here.

If that money stops coming, half of Kerala will stop eating. That will be a dangerous situation.

Many of the things that are happening in the state like the real estate boom or building activities and even the tourism sector will suffer. It can hit the Kerala economy very hard.

Kerala's entire revenue is spent on the salaries of government employees, that is, money coming from 3 crore (30 million) Malayalis is spent on paying the salaries of 2 lakh (200,000) plus people.

Kerala is described as a consumer society dependant on other states for everything. Is it also sustainable?

Everything is sustainable as long as money flows from abroad. The money that comes in, I am told, is seven times the value of the Kerala budget.

Another seven times comes in through black channels. It is this money that runs the state.

'EMS was not a people's man; he was a theoretician'

Image: CPI-M leader E M S Namboodiripad with Chinese Communist leader Peng Zhen, May 10, 1983
Do you consider public education, public healthcare and land reforms as the biggest achievements of this state?

Yes, these are the biggest achievements of Kerala. Land reforms was from where everything started. It was part of a social, political consciousness and a humanitarian commitment.

The early Communists like V T Bhattathiripad were humanitarians. They were concerned with the actual state of the poor and wanted to change society. When the Communists came to power, they automatically took charge of some of the ills of society.

But with power and money and the need to come back to power, the humanitarian element went out of Communism and we saw the political management of these issues.

Humanitarianism vanished from Communism. Whatever they did, they did with a political agenda.

Do you consder E M S Namboodiripad (the first Communist chief minister in India) as the tallest Communist leader Kerala has produced?

Not at all. He was basically an intellectual who spent more time writing. He was one of most active minds of the party. There are a couple of things about which he was very positive like Janakeeyasuthranam (the People's Plan Campaign). It was one of the most forceful and power packed democratic movements of Kerala.

He is said to be the man who pioneered it. He was not a people's man; he was a theoretician.

I would say A K Gopalan was the tallest Communist leader Kerala has seen.

'The Left doesn't hold any more charm for today's young'

Image: A CPI-M party office in Kozhikode
What drew the young of Kerala till the 1970s perhaps to the Left ideology?

Communism came in as a progressive movement in literature and art and paintings and theatre. The progressive movement always had a Left ideology. And that became the modernist movement later. The young found the thinking of the Left attractive and something rebellious.

Do you feel today's young are not attracted to the Left ideology?

I don't think the Left holds any more charm for today's young because that social order of deprivation and lack of opportunities is not there any more for a great majority in Kerala.

The deprived people in Kerala are the tribals and a few fisherfolk. The leaders who lead the movement at that time had an aura of idealism and sincerity around them. Now, you are talking about professional politicians.

Also, today, a lot of party workers are employed by the party to do certain things and they are paid for the work. The Left has converted itself over the years into a party of the middle and upper middle classes and the salaried class like government employees, school teachers, non-gazetted officers, etc.

Those who are in the trade union movement want their things to be done while the party is in power.

So, it's not ideology that draws them to the Left?

Ideology does not matter to these people. All that matters to them is their service conditions and the permission and opportunity to be corrupt.

'The Communist party is today like any other party trying to get power'

Image: Communist pamphlets on an electricity post
In many parts of the world, Communism is dying though it is bing revived in several places in Europe. Do you feel the Left as an ideology has lost its relevance in today's world?

Yes, it died in many parts of the world. If social security is provided irrespective of caste and creed and age, and if people are taken care of well, you don't need Communism. What you need is an economic manager then.

That is what you see in well managed countries like Sweden or Germany; everybody is taken care of irrespective of ideology. And they pursue a very powerful socialistic ideology.

How do you compare the Left ideological movement which started in the 1940s in Kerala to what it is today?

In the 1940s, people were full of ideals and they wanted change. And they did change a few things. By the time they came to power, like others, they also started enjoying power. They became as corrupt as any other political party.

I don't say all are corrupt. In the present ministry (in Kerala), there are many who are not corrupt at all.

The Communists of today are not even a shadow of what they were in the 1940s. It is like any other political party trying to get power.

'P J Thomas was one of the most honest officers Kerala has seen'

Image: A worker gives finishing touches to a party banner on a wall
Kerala has been alternating between two fronts -- the Congress-led UDF and the CPI-M-led LDF -- making no one accountable. Do you see the same thing happening again?

It will be terrible if we have (V S) Achuthanandan as the CM again and the party against him. Then, Kerala is in deep trouble for the next five years.

It was as if it (the Communist Party of India-Marxist-led United Democratic Front) wouldn't come back at all after the panchayat and Lok Sabha elections. The picture changed when the Congress got itself into trouble again and again with all the selfish elements coming out.

When the elections come, the Congress invariably gets suicidal tendencies.

Do you think the 2G spectrum scam will have an impact on the Kerala assembly election?

No, not at all.

What about the controversy over the appointment of P J Thomas, a Kerala cadre IAS officer, as Chief Vigilance Commisioner?

People are very unhappy about the ill treatment he has received, as he was one of the most honest officers Kerala has seen. Everybody knows that here.

This issue may go against the Congress.

'VS failed to tackle corruption'

Image: Kerala Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan
Doyou think Kerala Congress-B leader Balakrishna Pillai's arrest and the revival of the Ice Cream Parlour case could impact the election?

The Balakrishna Pillai arrest may have some sort of impact. (Kerala Chief Minister) V S Achuthanandan's image as a corruption fighter is bright though corruption is rampant at the secretariat.

You cannot ask for a piece of paper without paying a bribe. He has failed completely in tackling corruption in government offices.

Do you feel not only in Kerala but all over India, people have meekly accepted corruption as part of their lives?

We have accepted it as a part of our lives. It will not go away in years unless a strong government comes to power and if the ministers give the signal, officials will tow the line. It is possible. You only need political will.

People in Kerala react to anything that happens in the world. What has the society achieved through activism?

When all kinds of ideas are thrown around, discussed and debated, it keeps a society transparent. Operating its mind is very important.

Mostly, people don't tackle issues at the ordinary person's level, but this is what keeps Kerala in a boiling kind of situation.

Any society where ideas are constantly created and discussed and debated, whether it is right or wrong, will be a better society than an inactive and static one.

'Thank god for the Muslim League'

Image: Politics is everywhere in Kerala
Photographs: Courtesy
For such an active and progressive society, caste-based parties rule the roost. How do you explain this?

What you have in Kerala are not caste-based parties. They use caste, that's all.

What is the difference?

Had they been caste-based, other castes will not vote for these parties. That is not the case in Kerala. We have parties that claim to be secular using caste and religion very cleverly at the time of elections.

How do you describe the Muslim League? Is it a secular party or a communal one?

The Muslim League is a secular party in Kerala. It is the biggest buffer Kerala has against communalism. I would say thank god for the Muslim League.

Had it not been here, I don't know what all kinds of communal elements would have come here.

Shihab Thangal, Mohammed Koya, etc created the Muslim League as a very liberal vote bank. It may not be drawing non-Muslim votes.

Just because it has adopted the name Muslim League, it doesn't become a communal party at all. It keeps the majority of Muslims inside the firewall beyond which there are all kinds of elements who want to capture the Muslims from the Muslim League and take them to the area of fundamentalism.

In the last election, the CPI-M wiped out the Muslim League that gave strength to an organisation like the National Development Front.

'Talk of Muslim fundamentalism in Kerala is rubbish'

Image: 'Islam was never conservative in Kerala'
Photographs: Dominic Xavier/
It is also reported that Muslim fundamentalism is on the rise in Kerala and jihadis are being trained in Kerala, and Kerala may go the Kashmir way...

That is utter nonsense and rubbish. Yes, the Jama'at-e-Islami in the last 13, 14 years has been silently at work creating a very conservative Islam in Kerala.

Islam was never conservative in Kerala, it was part and parcel of the Kerala milieu.

Though it appeared as a very sober body of Islamic thinkers, what the Jama'at-e-Islami is doing is at the grass-root level, is bringing in madrasas and brainwashing a whole lot of youngsters, bringing in the purdah and great dependence on mullahs, and brining so much religion into daily life.

This has been done very silently and invisibly. It is the seed that is sown by the Jama'at-e-Islami that has resulted in hardcore fundamentalism professed by the NDF. No doubt about it.

'BJP would like to see Kerala turn a Kashmir'

Image: A CPI-M memorial
All that doesn't mean that Kerala will turn the Kashmir way.

It is the BJP rubbish that talks like that because it would like to see Kerala turn into a Kashmir.

That is because Kerala has a lot of Muslims, a lot of Christians and a lot of Communists.

The fundamental agenda of the Sangh Parivar is to see that Kerala is reduced to a situation that is worse than Kashmir. Lots of news about jihadis being trained in Kerala is created by certain media in confluence with the Sangh Parivar.

I am not saying there are no fundamentalists here, but it is still a transparent community, and the Malayali identity is the foremost here.

As a society, is Kerala a liberalised society or a repressed one?

Kerala is a liberalised society in many ways except in terms of sexuality and the way they treat women. The media plays a major role in keeping it repressed.