Tuesday, January 18, 2022

‘Communist needs to change’: Scholar sets template

There is a clamour among family members and neighbours for selfies with the MLA.

Written by Amrith Lal | Alappuzha |
May 18, 2016 1:35:43 am
kerala assembly elections, kerala elections, CPM, CPM candidate from Alappuzha, kerala CPM, Thomas Isaac, indian express elections Thomas Isaac meets voters in Alappuzha.

It’s the height of the campaign but Thomas Isaac, the CPM candidate from Alappuzha, has kept the morning aside for children. As he has been doing for the past three years, he is visiting students who have got A+ in all subjects in the Class X state board exams. There are a whole lot of them in the constituency, but he makes it a point to meet each one of them. The children get a shawl, books and sweets. There is a clamour among family members and neighbours for selfies with the MLA. Women raise their grievances — a delayed pension, a house in need of repair, jobs. The petitions are collected and remedies assured wherever possible.

At Mannanchery, a lower middle-class neighbourhood bordering the Vembanad backwaters, he assures a woman who seeks help to rebuild her crumbling house: “In July, the budget will be presented. Thereafter, I will take up your case. We will get funds from the state scheme or the panchayat.”

His car is flagged off by Nasir, a disabled youth. “Sir ingottennirangi vanne (please step out of the car),” Nasir calls out to Isaac. He wants the MLA to address the pension needs of another disabled youth. Isaac steps out to chat with Nasir. “This is a better way to connect with people than going around asking for votes,” he says.

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Tipped to be the finance minister if the Left gains office, Isaac, who held the portfolio in the V S Achuthanandan ministry during 2006-11, has a following that extends beyond the CPM cadre. His easy demeanour, accessibility and willingness to engage even with non-partisans and shun dogma have won him a constituency in the state. Articulate and bilingual, he has written over a dozen books that analyse the politics of development from the prism of the Kerala CPM’s practice. While admirers describe his political ideas and development projects as the blueprint of a new Left, his critics — sectarian communists outside the CPM to ideological puritans within the party — see them as revisionism and a dilution of class struggle. However, his work has made a real difference on the ground, which explains the confidence of aides like Jayaraj, who expect Isaac’s victory margin to double from 16,000 in 2011.

“The world has changed and the communist too needs to change,” Isaac explains. Trained in economics, Isaac, who was SFI state present in the 1970s, taught at the reputed Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram for many years, before joining electoral politics. His big break was when he spearheaded the people’s planning campaign, the CPM’s last big idea in Kerala, that sought to take development and governance to the grassroots with largescale mobilisation and involvement of ordinary people in the 1990s. Though the programme was mentored by E M S Namboodiripad, it was attacked by a section of the Left as promoting class collaboration. The party lost interest in decentralising planning and government, but Isaac invented a new politics that promoted local, small-scale initiatives in agriculture and industry by involving people in the production process. For instance, an agriculture initiative in Kanjikkuzhi, a village outside Alappuzha town, turned the panchayat into a major producer of organic vegetables and seeds. A neera plant to process and sell the coconut-based drink was set up with capital raised from local women self-help groups. The Karappuram Farmers Producer Company, with a dozen local women on the rolls, produces neera, virgin coconut oil, honey, squash and numerous other byproducts of coconut, which are sold under the Marari brand. This intricate network of production and marketing units has generated not just local employment but revived agriculture in the region. These cooperative enterprises, sensitive to market trends, have also spotted an opportunity in the growing fascination for organic products — especially fruits and vegetables — among Malayalis.

Isaac succinctly explains the politics of these initiatives as part of building a Left political alternative within the feudal-capitalist economy in the country. “I believe that democratic decentralisation can the main instrument for social intervention. One way to intervene and change social systems is through public participation in them,” he says. The task is to retain the Left heritage in a neo-liberal world by encouraging better social participation, he adds. He speaks about launching a second edition of the people’s planning programme with focus on total sanitation, protection of water bodies and organic cultivation. He looks at Latin America as some sort of a laboratory that can help Kerala with solutions to many of its problems. The participatory budget making and Cuba’s success in providing quality healthcare at low cost are examples he singles out. As finance minister ,he too had tried innovations like gender budgeting, a first in the state. This time, he held 21 development dialogues for voters to question him on the manifesto he had prepared for the constituency.

Besides a comprehensive social sector agenda, the manifesto talks about preserving Alappuzha’s architectural heritage and building museums to showcase its multicultural history.

Alappuzha was planned and built as an industrial port town in the 18th century by Raja Kesava Das, then diwan of Travancore. Various communities were invited to settle in the town to build its economy and conduct trade in spices and coir. By the 20th century, it became home to a large industrial working class. The earliest trade unions in Kerala were formed in the town by coir workers and the industrial action in 1938 and thereafter helped the communist movement gain deep roots. The agricultural hinterland saw major peasant mobilisations. These mobilisations culminated in the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising that saw workers led by the CPI taking on the Travancore administration in 1946. Isaac has built on Alappuzha’s long tradition of public action to involve people in all aspects of governance. For instance, he promoted the idea of people’s lab to provide clinical services at cheap rates, which has now spread across the town. Pratibha Theeram is an after-school study facility to help children from underprivilleged background or broken families to study started with the help volunteers and party cadres. A major intervention was in waste collection and disposal, where a volunteer-driven mass movement for waste segregation and disposal was initiated in the town.

In recent times, he has taken to the social media to rally people around his causes. In April, some of his notes were collected and published in a book form. Facebook Diary is as much a chronicle of smart political interventions as it is a collection of reflections of a scholar politician. Such initiatives, he believes, is much needed as old-style street demonstrations and rallies. Even as he led a march of coir workers from Alappuzha to Thiruvananthapuram, he also called for a boycott of products of firms who refused to respond to workers’ demands through social media. The firms worried about their foreign market soon complied. As a smart politician, he has also been quick to recognise the emergence of a large middle class and its influence on political discourse in the state.

For many in the state, Isaac, 63, is the chief minister the CPM ought to project, but it is a discussion that scares him. He knows that he represents the idea of a new Left that even Kerala CPM is not fully convinced of.

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