Saturday, November 6, 2010


"Strengthen the unity of the Left - foremost political task" - Interview with Thomas Isaac


Interview with T. M. Thomas Isaac, Finance Minister of Kerala and Central Committee Member of the CPI (M), conducted on 2nd November 2010 by R.Ramakumar, following declaration of results to the 2010 local body elections in Kerala. The results to the elections can be seen here .

RR: How would you analyse the results of the 2010 local body elections in Kerala? There is an argument that while the Left has gained compared to 2009 Loksabha elections, it has lost compared to the 2005 local body elections.

TI: I completely agree with that statement. When compared to 2005, it has been a major setback for the Left Democratic Front (LDF). In 2005, we got about 49.2 per cent of all votes polled. In 2010, this has come down to 42.3 per cent – a fall of 6.9 per cent. Now, in 2005, the Democratic Indira Congress (DIC), a breakaway group of the Congress led by K. Muraleedharan, was with the LDF. They collected something like 4.7 per cent of the popular votes at that time. That group has left us now, and in addition, a number of other political parties have also exited the LDF between 2005 and 2010. These include the Indian National League (INL; which had 0.4 per cent of votes in 2005), Kerala Congress (Joseph) (which had 1.8 per cent of votes in 2005) and the Janata Dal (which had 2.4 per cent of votes in 2005). Together, all these four parties accounted for about 9 per cent of the votes in 2005. This time, all these parties, or a majority section in these parties, contested in alliance with the UDF. So, it comes as no surprise that we have a setback when compared to 2005.

In 2005, the Left had won a huge majority of local bodies in the State, at all levels. That was, of course, an unusual outcome for Kerala. In Kerala, the balance of power between political fronts is not one where anyone has brute majority. So, we are also not new to setbacks. Even in 2000, when we had a setback in the local body elections, we obtained only 42.6 per cent of the votes.

But yes, when compared to 2009 Loksabha elections, there is a definite improvement. In terms of vote share, we have gained by 0.4 per cent. But in terms of votes, the situation is better. In 2009, we got about 67.2 lakh votes. Now, in 2010, we have got about 77.8 lakh votes – an increase of about 10.6 lakh votes. In Kannur and Alappuzha, the UDF has actually got lesser number of votes than in 2009.

Now, the UDF has got only 3 per cent votes higher than the LDF – a difference of about 7 lakh votes. That is a normal margin given the balance in Kerala.

RR: Do you see any kind of pattern in the results of 2010? By pattern, I mean both geographically and across classes?

TI: Yes. Class-wise, there has been a shift of upper-class Christian votes away from the LDF. But we should also not read this as a shift of votes of the entire Christian community. Across the coastal areas of Kerala, the LDF has made decisive improvements and this is where the poor Christians, who are mainly fishermen, live. They have not heeded to the Church’s call to vote against the LDF. Basically, we see that sections of Christians in central Travancore as well as in the highlands have voted for the UDF.

The bottom 30 per cent of the people of Kerala – the poor – has always voted for the Left. That base has not been shaken in any way in these elections. The fact that the Left has got 42.3 per cent of the votes shows that its mass base has remained intact.

What has happened is, actually, a shift in the votes of the middle class votes away from the LDF. That has indeed happened. It is one issue that the Left has to sit and address. Two factors have contributed to this phenomenon. First, the decisive movement of the upper strata of the religious minorities away from the LDF. A part of the middle class have followed them. Secondly, the Left has to introspect whether it has been able to address the real concerns of this large and growing section of Kerala’s population.

RR: That is one of the things one has heard repeatedly after the election results were declared; that while the Left has been able to address most of the concerns of the poor, it has lost its grip over the middle class. The problem is posed as one of employment generation, infrastructure, condition of roads and so on. Generally, the failure in bringing in new investment, which the middle class has not taken kindly to. Would you agree?

TI: Yes, this is partly true. The present LDF government has considerably expanded the welfare and social security system of Kerala, which has had broad acceptance among the poor. But let us take other sectors. I will name two for illustration. One, the need to create better infrastructure. Two, the expansion in the new-growth sectors, which creates “high-quality” employment. Regarding infrastructure, major steps have been taken, but it will take some time to show up. Major projects in drinking water supply are also well on their way.

The condition of roads has seen deterioration. But this has been a crisis in the making for a while. In Kerala, the nature and pressure of traffic has changed dramatically in the last two decades. The number of vehicles per kilometre has risen. Then, the number of heavy trucks that ply in the roads today, containing export commodities and construction materials – even on the village roads – has risen sharply. So, even though local and district roads have seen improvement, it has not been adequate to meet this kind of traffic density rise. This has led to a breakdown in the conditions of these roads. We have now started a major repair and maintenance plan. Now, it will take some time for Kerala to get out of it because we would need to have a different set of new technologies for road construction, which is costly in investment. So, it will take a few years for this transition to be complete.

But I must tell you that, on an average, even if we leave out the major projects, the amount of investment from the State budget – the total expenditure in public works and drinking water – has always been somewhere near Rs 500 crore a year. But last year, as part of our fiscal stimulus package, we gave administrative sanction for public works worth about Rs 6000-7000 crore. This is something unparalleled in the history of Kerala’s economy. The results of this investment and its multiplier effects would be visible very soon in the State’s economy.

So, we are making efforts to address the concerns. Roads and infrastructure are going to improve. This year, Kerala had a very heavy monsoon and the rains have just subsided. No repairs could be done till the rains stopped. We would definitely see a change in the next few months.

As regards the generation of quality employment the new growth sectors, there has been growth. But as regards IT and some high-value sectors, well…there have been some problems. We have not been able to meet the expectations of the people. We are going to do serious introspection on how it has happened, why it has happened, and will take a very definitive policy stand on this before the assembly elections in 2009.

RR: Let me come to another general perception. This is about the mediating role of non-developmental factors. One has been surprised by the defeat of the LDF in many panchayats, where the developmental achievements were so much appreciated and visible. I am referring to panchayats like Elappully in Palakkad. So, does development matter?

TI: See, one has to understand that after the rise in devolution to panchayats in 1996, the power of panchayats has considerably increased. So, one would begin to see the anti-incumbency factor at work even in the panchayats. Performance and good governance have become important criteria. If you don’t govern well and not meet the aspirations of local people, you will pay for it.

But that is not all. There can be very powerful political factors that could upset the local balance altogether, even if you provided excellent governance. You spoke about the Elappully panchayat. Here, the Congress and the BJP had come to an understanding to defeat us. This was not an isolated aspect in Elappully. Take Vallachira panchayat in Trichur or the Kannadikkal panchayat. In Vallachira, the Congress and BJP candidates contested on a common symbol – Mango. In some other panchayats, the common symbol was Apple. In general, the BJP transferred their votes enmasse to the Congress, in return for Congress votes in a selected number of seats here and there, where the BJP had interest. So, if we take the BJP votes in 2010, it is much lower than in 2005. Still, their geographical spread is much wider in 2010 than in 2005. So, one important reason for our poor performance in our best-performing panchayats was the tacit understanding between the BJP and the Congress.

In some other panchayats, where we lost in spite of good governance, we have to self-critically examine the factor of factionalism, which persists in some regions of the State within the CPI (M). This also may have played a role in our defeat in some places.

RR: Talking about factionalism, are you referring to internal issues, or the recent exit of some persons from the party? I am referring to Onchiyam, Shoranur and so on…

TI: I am talking about internal issues. The influence of those who have left the party recently – in Onchiyam and Shoranur – is greatly exaggerated. In Kerala, in the more recent periods, greater leaders have left the party. M.V. Raghavan left the party. Gouriamma left the party. They all had much more respect among people than those who left recently. Those renegades have not been able to defeat us even in their strongholds. The overall impact of persons leaving the party has been very limited.

But there are hangovers of internal factionalism. The root cause of factionalism in the party has been identified as parliamentary deviation. Parliamentarianism continues to be a major deviation to be addressed during our rectification campaign. This has resulted in the wrong choice of candidates in many places, without looking into their character and popular aspirations. These are the issues that we will be addressing during our rectification campaign. We are taking it up as early as possible.

RR: What is the status of the implementation of the rectification document?

TI: Self-critical assessment is completed at the State Committee level. On the 5th, 6th and 7th of November, all the district committees are going to introspect and discuss the document. So, effectively, the rectification campaign is going to start now.

RR: It is clear that the Left faced significant gang up against it from two sources: one, the communal forces (of all varieties) and two, the mainstream media. How would you see their relative importance?

TI: There has been a very formidable gang up against the Left in these elections. One, as I told you, some political parties have shifted away from the LDF. Two, the Church came out openly against the LDF, mainly due to the efforts of the government to ensure social control in the higher education sector. In central Kerala, the Church very actively campaigned against the Left; also among the migrant farmers along the highlands.

Among the Muslim community, there has not been a consolidation as among Christians. But even here, you would find that the upper strata of the Muslim community have shifted away from the Left. There has been Jamaat-e-Islami, SDPI and many such communal outfits that have openly taken a stand against the LDF. So, it was a very powerful gang up of communal forces – both Hindu as well as minority.

One of the accused in the case, where a Professor’s hand in Thodupuzha was chopped off by SDPI activists – his name is Anas – has won from the Jail. He contested as the SDPI candidate in the Vanchinad block-panchayat division in the Vazhakkulam block in Ernakulam district. Follow this carefully: in the elections to the lower tier (panchayat wards), the UDF swept 7 out of 8 wards here (the one ward won by the LDF was for just 3 votes). But when it came to the second tier – the block divisions – things changed. The UDF had won 4309 votes in the panchayat wards. This came down to 2089 votes at the block level. At the same time, the votes of the SDPI candidate went up by 3992 votes. Clearly, there was a trade between the UDF and SDPI. The SDPI voted for the Congress at the panchayat ward level; the Congress voted for the SDPI at the block level. So, the gang up was strong.

Despite this, we have improved over 2009.

RR: Can you please state in summary the policy of the Left in Kerala as regards minority politics. I mean, the nature of politics that the CPI (M) pursues vis-à-vis the minority-identity-based formations.

TI: See…in the last two decades, there has been a steady increase in the support of the minority community towards the Left. Our influence among the minority community was very limited, and it had begun to expand even in the Muslim-dominated districts like Malappuram. This happened due to three reasons. One, the special attention that the Left paid to certain concrete demands of the Muslim community, such as the implementation of the modified Sachchar committee report, pensions for madarsa workers and so on. Two, the uncompromising position taken by the Left against the BJP at the national level. Three, at the international level – this is important in Kerala because of our strong connection with West Asia – our unrelenting opposition to imperialism was appreciated by the Muslim community, because of the way the community has been targeted by imperialism.

This shift was halted by the 2009 Loksabha elections, when the threat of the BJP receded considerably and there was an improvement in the relationship between the Congress and the Muslim community. This was also a time when the Left began to take sharp positions vis-à-vis the strands of extremism within the Muslim community in Kerala as well as against the Jamaat-e-Islami, which was attacking the Left. A few vested interests have, successfully, portrayed this as an anti-Muslim stand of the Left.

But still, there has not been any pan-Kerala consolidation of the Muslim community against the Left in 2010. In so many Muslim-dominated panchayats and regions, the Left has won decisively. Take the results from the Kozhikode and Trivandrum. Muslims in Vadakara and Quilandy in Kozhikode and in Beemappally in Trivandrum have all voted enthusiastically for the Left. So, unlike the Christian community in central Travancore, there was no consolidation against the Left among Muslims.

RR: And the media?

TI: Absolutely. The media has influenced voting patterns in Kerala tremendously. And, for the time being, the entire mainstream media is ganged up against the Left. Now, we have about 5 24*7 news channels and 16-17 channels in all. Three new channels have applied for registration. We have two major anti-communist newspapers in the State – Malayala Manorama andMathrubhumi – printing more than 20 lakh copies everyday. You know the kind of vitriol that they print against the Left everyday. So, the media has been a major ally of the UDF in the elections.

So, the Left is forced to search for (a) media literacy programmes; (b) search for alternative media forms; and (c) the possibility of intervening in the mainstream media itself. In a recent book that I co-authored, we had taken three case studies of the role of media in Kerala: the SNC-Lavalin case, the Indo-ASEAN free trade agreement and decentralisation. We tried to objectively analyse the media campaigns in all these three cases, and our findings fit well with Chomsky’s propaganda model. So, we have started to take the critique of media rather seriously.

RR: One of the things played up by the media recently was the agitation in Kinaloor in Kozhikode over a road widening plan…

TI: Yes…and we have won there with great majority. I had gone there myself and talked to people. It was a game played on us by the UDF and Jamaat-e-Islami. A lot of misinformation was spread and the people there have rejected the designs of the media, UDF and Jamaat-e-Islami.

RR: So, what do you think is the path that the Left would tread from here to the 2011 Assembly elections? Anything specific?

TI: One, and the most important, is the completion of the implementation of the rectification process. We want to strengthen the unity within the party. That is our foremost political task. Two, we are going to have a comprehensive discussion on why certain sections of the minority community voted against us and undertake corrective measures. Three, we want to state unequivocally the Left’s developmental position, not just with respect to welfare measures, but also with respect to generating quality employment and improving infrastructure. We are going to have our third edition of the International Congress on Kerala Studies in the first week of January 2011. Finally, many measures that we announced in the last budget are yet to be fully implemented. We will do that. The road repairs have to be urgently addressed. We also have the final budget coming up next year; you can see what is going to happen there.

RR: Are you hopeful of a good result in 2011?

TI: Definitely. As I told you, the difference between the two fronts this time is just 3 per cent of the votes. This gap can be filled by the Left just by putting its own house in order. And also addressing a number of misconceptions about the Left among the minorities and exposing the relationship between the UDF and the communal forces. I am hopeful.

RR: Thank you very much.