Debating India

KERALA

Devil’s Own Workshop

Paul ZACHARIA

Monday 26 April 2004, by ZACHARIA*Paul

Out there on Highway 47, the good Christians eye the BJP. And the Nairs let clannish loyalties take them anywhich way: crusty comrades, or a born-again Hindu who doles out Jesus-Atal Easter cards.

Thiruvananthapuram on Easter Sunday morning is at its most placid as our taxi rolls through its up-and-down streets, past eternally pink Victorian structures, sarkari office monstrosities spawned by the PWD and sleepy middle-class homes guarded by hefty coconut trees. The good-looking church at Post Master General Junction is bristling with new wave cars waiting for their pious masters and mistresses praying their way to heavenly merit-and promotions-inside, before the freshly risen Christ. The sun is not yet hard-hitting but it has been sticky and steamy at 7 am. On both sides of the road, walls announce the three main guys trying to make it again to the Good Life as empee this year: V.S. Shivakumar, sitting Congress empee,O. Rajagopal, sitting Kendriya Mantri but no empee, and P.K. Vasudevan Nair, former CPI empee and former Kerala CM. Nair, a decent man despite politics, has been brought back on the road in his old age because Thiruvananthapuram has a whole lot of Nairs. So’s Rajagopal a Nair. So’s Shivakumar. I feel bad for Rajagopal because it looks like he’s going to be defeated here a second time, most of the Nairs being either udf Hindu or ldf Hindu and not parivar Hindu.

Actually it’s not the Nairs but the Nadars of Tamil origin who make the big difference here with their clannish consolidation. They come in two varieties, Christian and Hindu, sometimes both in the same family, so as not to take a chance either way regarding heaven. And they are mostly with the Congress. Shivakumar, a young, ambitious and hardy career politician of the hardcore Congress type, has got the Nadars with him. Though I am a vimarshak (critic) of the parivar, I have a soft corner for Rajagopal because though Kerala hasn’t given him a place under its God’s Own Sun and his own party has been treating him badly, he has been working hard for the Kerala cause up there in Delhi’s power bazaar. I don’t want to put any hard-earned money on it, but the chances right now are that Shivakumar will win. Malayalis are not a particularly grateful people.

Thiruvananthapuram has a fourth contender, a second Rajagopal, from the SUCI or the Socialist Unity Centre of India. The suci has a crazy yet frighteningly primitive political psyche committed to opposing any change that can affect existing socio-political decadence. The keys of its kingdom are held somewhere in West Bengal’s murky politics. It has fielded candidates in several Kerala constituencies which, to me, is a bad omen. Because, they are potential Pol Pots. While grimly guarding the status quo, they also make big money by organised street collections round the year, upstaging perhaps even the Tamil and Telugu beggar groups brought to Kerala daily by chartered buses. I know people who say that the collections are a cover and the real money comes from somewhere else. Wow! That’s being as respectable as the vhp, I think to myself.

But, I remind myself, if Malayalis can form a Kerala wing of the Shiv Sena with generous help from the erstwhile royal family and the media, (mind you, leading Malayalam newspapers now have Mumbai editions) even as the Shiv Sena bashes up Keralites in Maharashtra, and have it contest the elections here, is suci’s presence a surprise? Our unemployment problem is at the root of it all, I console myself. We have become lecherously opportunistic. We are ready to take out a franchise on anything that offers us the Great Pleasures of Life. Since it’s useless to shed tears for Malayalis, I refrain from doing so.

We head north along NH 47. My friend Ravi Pala, a television producer, glares at the green-green view and the KTDC hoardings and mutters, "What the shit do they mean, ?God’s Own Country’?" "What’s the problem?" I ask. He says, "Ours is a Devil’s Workshop.

On a 999-year lease from Shri God." "Who," I enquire, "are the devils?" I want to know if I am one. "The politicians," he says. "That’s alright," I say, "but what about you and me who vote for them?" "Shit!" he says, "true! what about us?" On this positive note, we start speeding along the killer highway normally teeming with blood-thirsty drivers, and pedestrians asking to be mercy-killed. "Jai Shri Ram for not banning Sundays yet," I say, looking at the thin traffic. "Ho!" Ravi says, "wait till A.K. Antony becomes the President of India." "Hmm," say I, "or the RSS signs an agreement with Southern Baptists."

The NH, mysteriously, is in good repair and everywhere are lined up hoardings of mainly two products-marble and gold jewellery. There are two market leaders in marble. One fights with hoardings featuring Sumo wrestlers and the other hits back with wwf monsters. The Malayali’s house-building extravaganzas consume more marble than all the filthy rich kings and barons of Rajasthan ever did. And we have the highest per capita for gold shops in India. And you call us poor? We reverently pass on one side the stupefying, triplicated marble mansion enclave of Manichen, the liquor baron who rose as usual from rags to riches and went down pulling with him Marxist ministers, ministers’ PAs, MLAs, MPs, policemen and excisemen. He’s in jail, but must be funding this election too-he can’t be in jail forever.

Even before leaving Thiruvananthapuram suburbs, we had passed into Chirayinkeezh constituency where the aged and rambunctious workhorse of the CPI(M), Varkala Radhakrishnan, is fighting to keep his seat. Chances are he will keep it. As in Thiruvananthapuram, here too there is none of the fever and the rage; at least, not yet. Parties seem to have put their money into wall-writing alone. Posters are few. No banners at all. Candidates are keeping their money bags shut. I think they want to put everything into the last 10 or 12 days. They know how short people are on memory. But give The People one grand consolidated excitement in the end and they will rally round to save democracy and party power. It’s the Congressmen who are suffering. The High Command seems to have told them to find their own money-how terrible! Normally the candidates used to put most of the Rs 15 lakh-or-so dole into the bank and bully the business community for the expenses. There goes one feelgood factor for the Congressmen!

Now the highway hits Kollam constituency where the notable detail is that the Congress candidate, Sooranad Rajasekharan, almost split the party in Kerala recently.

His arch-enemy, who did not get the Kollam seat, announced that Rajasekharan had paid Rs 10 lakh to Padmaja Venugopal, daughter of K. Karunakaran, for the seat. That led to much drama. Rajasekharan does appear to be a moneyed man. He has lots of posters everywhere and has a glad and contented smile on the face depicted therein.

Kollam is a famous cashew town and the hometown of former cashew king and later biscuit millionaire Rajan Pillai who was smoothly slaughtered in Tihar jail a few years back. We have breakfast in Kollam and who do we run into but the famous Kanippayyoor Krishnan Namboodiripad, master of Vaastu, along with Suresh, director of the learned Vaastuvidya Gurukulam at Aranmulla. I pay my respects but do not ask him who he will vote for. Suppose he says something I do not want to hear! Tricky business, politics. Now we speed up towards Mavelikkara, a few kilometres east to the highway. That’s where Krishnakumar, former IAS officer and Congress minister in the Union cabinet, now a BJP candidate, is fighting Ramesh Chennithala, CWC member who has held that seat for a couple of terms, and C.S. Sujatha, CPI(M), perhaps the only beautiful and bright woman in the glum and shoddy Marxist line-up. We pass the signboards to Amritapuri where the parivar’s darling, Mata Amritanandamayi, has her multi-million technicolour empire. We are in no mood to be hugged and told sweet nothings.

Krishnakumar meets us in his election office opposite the Chengannur railway station, surrounded by an impressive team of field managers. He is matter-of-fact, in control and energised by the communal arithmetic which he feels could give him a victory. He is a Nair, Chennithala is, and Sujatha too. Again the problem is that most Nairs here are of the non-Hindutva variety. But his personal reputation could swing Nair votes. Also the Christians equal Nairs, and in general Christians in the state have been goose-stepping towards the BJP. So, who knows? Krishnakumar shows us his latest field weapon: an Easter greeting card with the picture of the sacred heart of Jesus on top, greetings in the middle and the smiling faces of Atal and Krishnakumar below. It has been delivered to Christian homes by RSS/BJP workers. It certainly looked a bright idea. Christians could be waiting for nice signals like this, like in the good old Bible days.

We now rush the long distance to Moovattupuzha along the Main Central Road, past Thiruvalla, which like Chengannur is a centre of big-time Christian wealth of the NRI kind.

Past Changanasherry where the HQ of the powerful Nair Service Society is. And past Kottayam, rubber capital, media capital and Arundhati Roy capital, where CPI(M)’s youthful glamour-man Suresh Kurup is expected by all to win the seat again. Kurup is known to have such a nice-boy-next-door image that even Catholic nuns are said to vote for him en masse. With his elegant greying beard, his face has a Jesus touch. Would it have paid to look like Marx, I ask Ravi. He is fast asleep.

Moovattupuzha is where P.C. Thomas, NDA minister, is a sitting MP. He had quit Kerala minister K.M. Mani’s Kerala Congress (M) to become mantri in Delhi though he belongs to the highly conservative Syrian Catholic community. Mani has fielded his fledgling, politically unready son Jose and has turned this into THE fight of his political career. The CPI(M)’s candidate is V.I. Ismail, a soft-spoken, almost shy, comrade who had been earlier defeated by Thomas. Moovattupuzha has over a lakh-and-a-half Muslim votes and these had gone to Thomas. Now that Thomas has turned saffron, the terrifying question for him is whether they will stay with him or go to Ismail, the soft Marxist. We meet Ismail and Gopi, CPI(M) district secretary. They ooze confidence. They feel Thomas is a sitting duck this time. Whether Thomas wins or loses, I know the result will hold the key to future politics in Kerala.

It’s time to run or we wouldn’t get to Thiruvananthapuram even past midnight. And satan never sleeps on NH 47. We touch Mukundapuram as we drive towards Kochi. This is Padmaja country. From the posters I can see Karunakaran’s efficient and suave daughter has had an image-rebuild. She seems to have had a smart new designer hairstyle and a facial and looks like your pony-tailed kid sister. Good show, I thought. She faces Lonappan Nambadan, Christian comrade and one of CPI(M)’s crustiest war-horses, equipped with an acid tongue, in this Christian-dominated constituency. If Nambadan does manage to floor her, that will be something of a calamity for the already shaking K. clan.

Via Kochi, Alappuzha and Kollam, our taxi crawls through the mad highway’s slaughtering army of unblinking headlights towards Thiruvananthapuram. I get the uneasy feeling that all that we saw today is not what democracy is all about. But I am petrified by the thought, if not this, what else? "You still believe in devils?" I ask Ravi. "Sure," he says sleepily. "Well then," I say, "we have done a day’s work in the devils’ workshop," and stared at the murderous rows of oncoming headlights.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, April 26, 2004.

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