Thomas George was standing on the pavement near Subhash Park, Kochi, when he saw a procession of mourners following a coffin. While going past, in a white Ambassador car, Rajesh Kurup (name changed), the local MLA, also noticed the crowd. “He immediately asked the driver to stop,” says Thomas.
Clad in his trademark white shirt and mundu, Kurup got down, made his face look suitably sad, and joined the queue as it went down the road. After ten minutes, the crowd entered Rajendra Maidan. And it was then that Kurup got a shock: it was a film shoot that was taking place and not an actual funeral.
“That’s a Kerala politician for you,” says Thomas, with a laugh. “He will attend all funerals, including mock ones, weddings, and other ceremonies, but will rarely have any time for development work, or do something for the betterment of society.”
Agrees music composer Jerry Amaldev: “The majority of the politicians talk about doing something, but they are hardly doing anything. I have met many politicians but they have not made a positive impression on me. I come away with a sense of emptiness.”
Amaldev bemoans the poor civic facilities. “When you walk on the road, there are no footpaths, no proper drainage system, and the government hospitals are dirty,” says Amaldev. “If you give this entire state to a Singapore company, they will do a better job, and with less money also.”
One reason for the lack of performance is that there is not enough time. “There is a change in the government every five years, so there is very little opportunity for one group to do something concrete,” says businessman Deepak Aswani, a former chairman of the Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Plus, there are too many groups within parties, working at cross-purposes.”
There is also a lack of money. “87 per cent of the state budget goes towards salaries and other such payments,” says Aswani. “The balance 13 per cent is used for education, health and everything else. So the government has very little cash. They are dependent on central funds.”
But the biggest impediment is the polarisation of society into the Communist and Congress camps. “The public cannot think in any other terms except from the political angle,” says C J Chacko, the former deputy general manager of Syndicate Bank. “This has created a lot of problems for the development of the state. When one party comes to power, the other party will oppose them, because they think their role is only to oppose.”
Sometimes, this opposition comes in the form of destroying public property. “They feel that the property belongs to the ruling class,” says Chacko. “But this is not true.”
But there was a time when politicians did do something for society. “In the 1950s, the Left politicians initiated the land reform bill,” says Chacko. “Tenants became owners of the land. Then there was the Kerala Education and Kerala Agrarian Relations Bills which caused far-reaching changes.” Art gallery owner Latha Kurien Rajeev says politicians, like the late AK Gopalan and EMS Namboodiripad, of the CPI(M), transformed Kerala society. “They made it a welfare society,” she says.
But Chacko argues that the current-day politicians also care about the people’s welfare. “People like Oommen Chandy, KM Mani, and VS Achuthanandan are mass politicians and are always accessible,” he says. “They are always moving with the people.”
The good news is that when compared to politicians of other states the Kerala leaders are far better. “They are humble and approachable,” says Aswani. “In a neighbouring state, if you want to meet the chief minister you have to pay money for the privilege.”
The only problem of meeting politicians in Kerala is that there is no privacy. “They conduct everything like a sabha,” says Aswani. “All the visitors listen in to your conversation. Suppose you have a good project in mind. Obviously you will not want everybody to hear about it. But the politicians want to show that they are above corruption. What actually happens is they are not listening to you.”
Of course, there are exceptions like Finance Minister KM Mani. “Mani’s grasp is amazing,” says Aswani. “And, for his age [80 plus], he is able to able to understand each and everything. He would be an ideal chief minister, but his party is small. But he could be like [former Chief Minister] Achutha Menon who belonged to a small party but ruled for a long time.” However, one disturbing trend is the dynastic nature of politics these days: sons of leaders are groomed to become leaders. “Politics has become a lucrative profession,” says Latha. “But that should not be the case. It should be a service to the people. We have not put politicians in power so that they can make money for several generations of their family to live comfortably.”
What is adding to the problem is the absence of creditable and educated people in public life. “The intellectuals and professionals are leaving everything to the politicians, who come up through student union politics and, sometimes, from criminal backgrounds,” says Chacko. “Qualified people should come into politics and make a change.”
But that is going to be a difficult task. “Unfortunately, good people treat politics with contempt,” says Aswani. “I know of a friend of mine who was a topper in college. But the guy who was on the backbench and never came to class became a minister. The academic qualifications of most of the ministers are not good enough for them to be a MLA or a Minister.”
So, the only hope is of the young taking to politics. But when Latha tells her 15-year-old son, Mrinal, that when he grows up, he should be a politician, the boy is shocked. “Amma, are you crazy?” he said. “Who wants to be a politician?”
Latha’s reply is idealistic: “Mrinal, if young people like you don’t go into politics and save our country, there will be nothing left for your children.”