A case of over-reach
By Valson Thampu
A Keralite is politically well schooled to know the differ-ence between a democratic exercise and an imperialist-expansionist expedition.
Amit Shah came to Kerala, casting himself as a conqueror. He did not go back like one. He would do well to know why. For, a wise man is not one who does not commit mistakes, but one who does not commit the same mistake twice.
Politically, Kerala is unique in many ways. Keralites were the first anywhere in the world to elect a communist government. They were the first to improvise a coalition government. Keralites, besides, crackle with the sort of political awareness that the rest of India will take decades to match. You only need to walk along streets anywhere in Kerala to see how even those on the lowest rung of the Kerala social ladder chew newspapers on the verandas of kirana shops.
Stop at random, if you have the time, at any of the wayside tea stalls, and hear for yourself how expertly people discuss matters political, covering the minutest nuances and details of public issues. Well, in one word, it is naïve to expect that the people of Kerala can be swayed by propaganda blitzkriegs and misinformation campaigns. Kerala is a hard nut to crack!
Also, Kerala is, barring occasional political skirmishes, a peaceful state, where people prefer to live in harmony with their neighbours, rather than spill innocent blood in the name of gods, for reasons that make no sense to them.
In olden days, this social serenity issued from inter-religious goodwill that came naturally to Keralites. Now, more or less the same thing continues largely because Keralites would rather enjoy their precariously maintained indulgent lifestyle, sustained by overseas remittances, than spoil their broth with brother killing brother.
A Keralite knows a cuckoo from a crow. He is not easily swayed by titles and titillations. If someone expects him to throw in his lot with what is attractively packaged as “Jann Raksha Yatra,” he is bound to ask some searching questions to be clear about the matter, rather than swallow slogans and strike out on to the street like an untrained puppy. He would say, “Well, as compared to people in most other states, we are living in enviable safety and peace. Whose ‘raksha,’ or safety, then, are you talking about? Do we really need you to discover that we are unsafe?”
Finally, a Keralite is politically schooled well enough to know the difference between a democratic exercise and an imperialist-expansionist expedition. I have heard from an assortment of people from diverse social strata in Kerala on this event. The one thing almost everyone asked me is this: why is Kerala being invaded? This made me think.
So, I looked into history and found the following. First, in respect of almost every military campaign, the reason given out for public consumption is not the genuine one. All military campaigns are marked by covert motives and propagandist misinformation. This would not have come so much to the fore, if the BJP did not have the sort of track-record in violence and thriving on the insecurity of the people, as notably in Gujarat and now, increasingly, in most other BJP-ruled states. A feeling of insecurity has escalated nationally in the last three years.
Second, all military campaigns begin with worship. From ancient days, before an ambitious conqueror sallied forth to annex new territories, he never failed to seek the favour of his patron-god. From Cyrus of Persia, to Alexander the Great of Macedonia, from Peter the Great of Russia, to Napoleon of France, to the great chakravatins of India, this pattern holds unfailingly and without exception. True to this tradition, Amit Shah, too, began his Kerala campaign with a pious act of worship, in full public view.
Third, the ambience conjured up was suggestive of anything but, ‘raksha’ or security. The entire exercise rippled with aggression. Those who heard the slogans that thundered in the air, were in no doubt on this count.
The organisers utterly miscalculated the regional pride and cultural self-respect of Keralites in importing VVIPs who, especially considering the extremely well-developed Kerala genre of satire and raillery, could only have invited derision. Even Alphons Kannamthanam, otherwise a Keralite, was seen, in this context, as part of an army of invasion.
The choice of Yogi Adityanath, though true to the BJP logic, could only have been counter-productive. That someone from UP — acknowledged by the inhabitants of that very significant state as a den of ‘jungle raj’ — should come and preach political good manners to Keralites is a strategy distinguished for its impenetrable blindness. The people of Kerala have neither forgotten nor forgiven Modi for comparing this most advanced state derogatively to Somalia. Yogi’s visit compounded that offence.
Almost everyone who took note of this strategic expedition to Kerala felt disappointed that constitutional functionaries were behaving like party foot-soldiers. Kannanthanam is a central minister. A government in a democracy is for the people as a whole. It is anathema to democracy that officers of the state — central ministers and chief ministers — do not see themselves in this light.
The sight of a central minister and a chief minister walking the streets shouting slogans like party enthusiasts is apt to be seen as a corruption of democracy. It has never happened in the past that any of our prime ministers conducted roadshows to advantage his or her party. If a lawyer ceases to practise law, after becoming a minister, shouldn’t a minister cease to function in the public space as a party militant? Can office time be legitimately diverted to partisan party work, without incurring governance impropriety, if not dereliction of duty?
Shah’s expedition to Kerala was bound to be a fiasco. It is likely that, insofar as this event caught the nation’s eye, it activates ramifications beyond the borders of Kerala. Being as shrewd as he is, Amit Shah would not fail to see that he over-reached himself in respect of Keralites. Kerala is today, he knows, what India will be the day after tomorrow.
(This appeared in deccanherald.The writer is former principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi)