Kerala is a state on the south-western tip of India, a state soaked with humidity on India’s oceanic rim. The heat, even in the winter months, is unbearable for the common westerner. Especially if you’ve just stepped off a 25-hour bus ride on India’s notoriously pot-holed roads and have experienced a bad case of food poisoning throughout the night from the Tibetan beef dumplings you had the day before. The Valium you took in that first hour of the drive didn’t help, obviously.
But after the first day of noxiousness, you awaken to the rabble of feet and that hazed feedback from the handheld speakerphone. You don’t understand the language, but it’s obviously a rally. You ignore it and go back to sleep. As a foreigner coming from Australia, you really don’t have a vested interest in the event.
That is until the next day, when you notice the posters damning the authorities for arresting and gaoling three “anti-imperialist, anti-corporation activists”, who had tried to stop an arts biennale from going ahead in the town, and the posters with Saddam Hussein’s face on it (for which you will never find an explanation).
It will appear you’re in a different era when you’re driving past numerous factories, auto-rickshaw and bus stands all displaying hammer-and-sickle flags on high metal poles with their trade union initials on the tip.
These bewildering political propaganda pieces are common face in Kerala, a state that democratically elected the world’s first communist state government in 1956. Amartya Sen, the preeminent Nobel-Prize-winning Indian economist, once said it was India’s most socially progressive state. And, quite obviously, its most politically charged.
It is not uncommon to see an American WWII-style jeep driving around with a massive speaker clunked on top of it, hammer-and-sickle flags in tow, blaring out undecipherable slogans. And the infrequent bookstore will stock old soviet literature, like “What is Capitalism?”, a book with such classic lines as “Capitalism sprung from the ruins of the feudal society, after germinating within the entrails of the feudal system.”
For India, left-wing politics has always been a mainstay on the political landscape. Socialism was embraced by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and has been always managed to remain a viable and prominent perspective on the Indian economy. There appears to be none of the Cold War stigmatism that prevails in the west. Glancing at various newspapers during my stay, the Communist Party of India still seems to revere the Soviet Union. One long-standing leader of a Socialist party and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu — the state next to Kerala, which covers the eastern seaboard — named his son Stalin after the dictator’s death and, in a recent newspaper article, proclaimed him to be the new heir to the party’s throne. News reports frequently call the self-proclaimed Marxist split of the Communist Party of India a Stalinist party, and have been investigated for internal political assassinations over the years.
It’s fascinating that modern political parties still adhere to a long-defunct political ideology. But, then again, it’s all relative. For example, ask a Liberal what their opinion of a Green would be (they’d call them a Communist, presumably).
It’s a different world in India, a different structure of society to our own. The people of the developing world have more at stake than the people of the developed world, it would seem. Their lives are usually fraught with unknowns; job security, the supply of food, the price of things we may well take for granted here in the west. These daily worries are the fuel for political movements in India.
Students and the younger generations are just as active in daily politics as early generations, and Indian politics has always been cited as one of the most chaotic political landscapes. India’s largest youth organisation is the DYFI, the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — CPI (M). The organisation’s official stance is anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and free education. These are stances the majority of youth in Australia will sympathise with, but they are less likely to hold weekly rallies with a turnout of over a hundred or even fifty. The DYFI has over 10 million members, which is nearly half the population of Australia.
Political apathy in Australia is a problem to which there seems no foreseeable cure, but an extremely obvious cause. Labor and Liberal are at each other’s throats and not many people under the age of 25 really care. Perhaps it’s 21 years of economic growth without a stutter. Our youth haven’t had to suffer at the hands of an economic downturn.
The apathy has been obvious for the last few years and I can only hope that in a few more years we’ll at least have a political climate we can talk about without having to firstly declare how detestable it is. In India, the political scene is plagued with corruption, with a dash of sensationalism mixed in. But, while their democracy may not be working to its best ability, there are still people there who are willing to give it their whole and to fight “the good fight”.
Comparing it to our politics, we come out seeming quite petty and transfixed on. We don’t focus on the grand scale of making our country better and fairer, but on the personalities of a select few that — more than likely — bear no resemblance to most Australians.
– JK Buckley