Socialist Kerala: A very different India

Published on People’s World, by Nadya Williams, Nov. 2, 2009.

… Stretching along the Indian Ocean, Kerala is a densely populated state on the southwest shore of India, way south of Mumbai and almost touching the very tip of the subcontinent, across from the island nation of Sri Lanka. Kerala (pronounced KER-a-la) is a land covered with coconut trees, dotted with tea and spice plantations, and dominated by mountains on its eastern edge, which drop down westward to the Indian Ocean, creating a huge alluvial plain of rivers, canals and inland seas – the Backwaters so loved by the tourists! I recently spent two-and-a-half months there and three weeks in the rest of India for comparison. Nowhere in Kerala can one find the huge income gaps, social unrest and deep levels of poverty found in the rest of India.  

To call Kerala a socialist state is by-and-large an accurate description. Indian independence from British colonialism came in 1947, with state elections in distant Kerala organized in 1957. By all accounts, these electoral processes have been free, fair and democratic since their beginnings more than 50 years ago. It was in 1957 that the Communist Party of India’s leader in Kerala was voted in as chief minister of the state government, to the displeasure of the West, and of the centrist national government in New Delhi.

The initial victory of the Left in the late ’50s was firmly rooted in reality: the beginnings of largely successful land reform; strides toward free, universal education; a growing public health system; burgeoning workers’ and peasants’ cooperatives; militant trade unions; a vibrant women’s movement; and a frontal assault on the gross inequities of the caste system.

Today Kerala votes for its state and municipal governments every five years, with the Left Democratic Front (a coalition of parties with the CPI-M and CPI at its core) vying with the United Democratic Front (also a coalition, but led by the nation’s dominant political group, the Congress Party of the Nehru dynasty). Power has seesawed between the two Fronts for the past several decades, with a “now we want a change” attitude amongst the electorate every five years, shifting control from the left to the center and back again, but never to the right …

… Some Westerners find Kerala’s particular brand of politics to be rather naïve and “cute.” Certainly I had to laugh when I met someone named “Stalin” (there tends to be a reluctance to let go of an uncritical admiration of Soviet-style communism). Isolated as they are, this can be excused; besides, Kerala’s implementation of Marxism and Leninism has been completely democratic and free – i.e. socialism at its best. Most importantly, nothing can take away from the hard work and remarkable achievements of this verdant land of socially conscious citizens. (full text).

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