I spent some days last week following Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani's Bharat Uday Yatra. My primary interest was in the Kerala leg of the tour, and it was an eye-opening experience. While I go back to my home state a dozen times a year (at least!), it is always to spend time with friends and family; seeing the state in the company of fellow journalists certainly offered a different perspective.
To put it very bluntly: 'God's own country' is in a hellish mess. A single revealing statistic tells the story of how the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front have brought the state to its knees: the unemployment rate in Kerala has now crossed 20 per cent. To put it in human terms, one of every five adult Keralites of working age is without a job. You have to go back to the days of the Great Depression of three-quarters of a century ago to find a comparable statistic in the modern era.
Am I exaggerating? If so, here are some relevant quotations from Freedom From Fear, David Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize winning work that forms part of the Oxford History of the United States. 'Nowhere did the Depression strike more savagely than in the American countryside. When the rain stopped, the wounded earth cracked open and dry grass crunched under men's boots.' Drive over the bridge spanning the Bharatapuzha near Shoranur and the effect of decades of environmental degradation are apparent to all but the blind. The decline of the agricultural sector in Kerala is one of the great untold scandals of our times, but after three years of drought the effects simply cannot be ignored. No, Kerala is not (yet) as bad as the Dust Bowl that parts of the United States became in the 1930s, but it is getting there.
Perhaps the most striking part of all this is the utter apathy with which Keralites treat the economic decline of their state. The Bharat Uday Yatra drew vast crowds but I am not sure how many of those people who came to greet the deputy prime minister will actually vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party. And this leaves the two principal formations (the LDF and the UDF) free to pursue their own agenda. Which at the moment seems to be not the interests of the state but the welfare of their own families. According to one bitter quip I heard, the 'D' in the names of the two alliances stands for Dynastic rather than Democratic!
The Congress (I) and its allies are fighting several seats this time; it is not just the twenty Lok Sabha constituencies that are at stake this time, but also a sprinkling of seats to the Rajya Sabha and to the Kerala assembly. From what I could gather, there is only one person who is guaranteed to win -- Karunakaran. The Congress party high command -- he seems to be back in the Congress (I) fold as I write -- has soothed him by promising him a Rajya Sabha seat for himself, an assembly seat and ministerial berth for son Muraleedharan, and a Lok Sabha ticket for daughter Padmaja.
Karunakaran has vowed that this will be his last electoral fray and he may be right if only because he will be 90 years old when his Rajya Sabha term ends. But with both Muraleedharan and Padmaja in the fray it will be a long time before Kerala forgets the Karunakaran dynasty. I will be following the results from the Wadakancherry assembly constituency and the Mukundapuram Lok Sabha seat with some interest to see how the second generation fares. The father, of course, is assured of a victory in his quest for the Rajya Sabha.
But do not think that the Karunakaran family is the sole flag-bearer for dynastic politics in Kerala.
The Muvattupuzha Lok Sabha constituency promises another interesting battle. Here, K M Mani, the leader of the Kerala Congress (Mani) has fielded his son, Jose K Mani, as the UDF candidate. Up against him is P C Thomas, the first person elected from Kerala to become a member of the Vajpayee ministry. The piquancy arises from the fact that P C Thomas was elected in 1999 on the Kerala Congress (Mani) ticket.
Keralites will know that this too, as in Mukundapuram and Wadakancherry, is actually a second-generation battle. Thomas is the son of P T Chacko, the revered leader in whose name Mani & Co had founded the Kerala Congress many years ago. Thomas, currently the Union minister of state for law, lost his father when he himself was little more than a child, but P T Chacko¹s memory was enough to endear him to many voters. About three years ago, however, he fell afoul of the powerful K M Mani when Jose K Mani began to exhibit signs of interest in politics. It is common knowledge in Kerala that Thomas was expelled to clear the way for Jose.
The Karunakaran and Mani families are part of a larger trend if you go by the results of the last assembly elections in 2001. At that time I remember counting the number of celebrity sons who had succeeded their politician fathers; I think nine or ten of the assembly members fit the bill. This included people from the Left too, such as Shibhu John and Babu Divakaran (sons of Revolutionary Socialist Party veterans) and P S Supal and Binoy Viswam (whose fathers are old Communist Party of India hands).
I used celebrity sons' advisedly since there was no daughter on the list. Kerala¹s politicians are male chauvinists par excellence. K M Mani, for instance, has six children as I recall, but only one of them is a son. Guess who got the nod! Seen in that light, Karunakaran deserves to be congratulated for refusing to be partial, giving Padmaja her due...
As I said, Kerala faces many problems. The state isn't as badly off as, say, Bihar but then it isn't being compared to Laloo-land but to neighbouring Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Why is it that the two latter states are battling it out to become India's Silicon Valley when Kerala had an early lead in education? Why did Ford Motors prefer to put up a plant in Tamil Nadu? Why does a state that is the first beneficiary of the monsoon now endure water shortage?
Kerala¹s voters deserve answers. But as long as they continue to vote for the same old LDF and UDF candidates, no leader is going to be bothered about his electorate. Why worry what voters think when there are more urgent issues -- like ensuring the dynastic succession -- to occupy you? The Bharat Uday Yatra created a stir as it passed through the state; but now that the dust has settled, it is back to the Putra Uday!