I arrived in Thrissur, Kerala on the day the state was slated to go for the Lok Sabha polls. I got down the train and the town greeted me with numerous banners, mostly projecting a sickle and hammer, along with a few hands coming out with a new set of promises and lotuses. Many roads were painted with election symbols. Frankly speaking, I don’t mind these defacing elements that surround me during elections. They are signs of multiple options in a vibrant democracy. We don’t do anything in moderation, do we, from birthday parties to weddings. So why single out elections.
For a long time in my life, I was an NRI, a Gulf (gelf, if that sounds genuine) Malayalee, a cliché in today’s times. At 27, I am a first time voter. So I am a part of that segment which every party is claiming as its own and is going all out to woo. According to reports, there are 23 million of us in India this year. It is easy to reach us through numerous social media platforms. May be, our importance is overrated. Many of us might not really vote this year. But we are India’s tomorrow and we will be around for the next few decades. Hence we matter.
For decades since independence, Kerala has voted for either the Congress or the Communists. In the 1950s, Kerala became the first place in the world to elect a democratically elected Communist government to power. That victory was celebrated by thousands and lakhs of labourers across the state, who benefitted from the Land reforms. Unions came into force and workers were empowered. Literacy growth was rapid and a matriarchal society found no problem with the education of girls. The intellectuals celebrated the rise of socialism in Kerala.
But the Utopia that was promised remained a mirage. In the 1960s, many new industries were shut down due to workers’ strike. Entrepreneurs didn’t have the courage the start something new. Kerala and Bengal marked the two red corridors of India and even a kid knows that red is a sign to stop. By the 1970s, it was clear for youngsters of my father’s generation that they would either have to fight like dogs for the job of a clerk in a government bank or find something else in a different part of the world.
My father left Kerala in the mid-1970s and landed in Saudi Arabia, via Bombay. He wasn’t alone. Every home in Kerala had someone like him. He was part of that generation that was forsaken by the government elected by its own people. Youngsters of his generation fled to find a living in various cities in the Persian Gulf. Some old grannies in Kerala still refer to gulf as Persia. They did mundane jobs, in fact any job that came their way, in an unknown country, with people talking an unknown language. Their relatives back home thought their sons were making a fortune. But in reality, they were all huddled, 5, 10 or 15 bachelors in a house, eating the cheapest food available, wearing the same two sets of clothes, so that money could be sent home every month. Today, Kerala can compete with any state in obscene display of wealth. But they all started in that cramped apartment in Muscat or Dubai.
I too, was brought up there. After my schooling, I came to Kerala for my under graduation. In my college days, every week, we would invariably get an off because of some strike or the other. As a student, I sympathised with the holders of the red flag, as every college-going person from Kerala does at that age and saw myself as a socialist in thinking. But education hardly happened and it was up to the student to make something out of his college life. After my graduation, I did not want to study further in Kerala as hartals spared no institution in the state. It was not just the Communists who stopped work. All the parties were a part of it.
Till the late 1980s, the entire country’s growth was stagnating and Kerala couldn’t be singled out. But then, in the 1990s, a pensioner’s paradise called Bangalore took off swiftly, without any warning. Soon Malayali students began swarming the city in search of jobs and to pursue their higher studies. New manufacturing units came up in Chennai and Malayalis were there too! Hyderabad shook off its past to emerge as Cyberabad. But why were Malayalis still going elsewhere for work? Why didn’t a place like Kochi measure up to any of these cities?
Because there was no work to talk of in Kerala. I went to Delhi for my post-graduation and after my placement in a leading private sector bank, I got posted in Calicut. I fought hard to change my posting to Chennai, as I knew that being in Calicut would leave me stuck there forever. It was not because I didn’t like my state, but because I wanted a career of my choice and a youngster in Kerala does not have the luxury of choice, when it comes to a career. For the last four years, I have worked between Chennai and Bangalore and keep visiting home every one or two months. It is next to impossible to get a ticket to any place in Kerala from Chennai or Bangalore.
A joke in Kerala is that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he realized that he wasn’t the first person to reach there. A Malayali had set up a tea stall there also! People of my ilk are all over the country and the world. I was wondering how Kerala has survived with a damp economy in its kitty since independence. The state hasn’t allowed any major industry to run here for long here. We still buy food grains and vegetables from the neighbouring states because agriculture is not promising. The truth is, Kerala has survived on Gulf money and has also contributed to the national income that way. Had it not been for the Gulf, Kerala would have become another underdeveloped state, perhaps caught in caste violence. Since money kept flowing in, no one really realized that no economic activity actually happened here. Our Communist politicians fought unsuccessfully against English medium schools. It’s another story that their leader Prakash Karat, a Malayali, talks and dreams in English. When Rajiv Gandhi talked of computerisation in India, the Commies fought hard to keep computers at bay. And today, when every neighbouring state of ours has grabbed every other opportunity, Utopian dreams of making India another China are still doled out. Imaginary monsters are invoked to keep people under fear of unknown demons. Communism survived in Kerala, when it failed even in its temple, the USSR, because an imaginary economy kept running with Gulf money.
Even as I work in a metro city, I long for Kerala. I have been an immigrant for the last six years and long for that permanence of home. I know there are millions of youngsters like me, who have been failed by their respective state governments. There are people like me in the entire Hindi belt, save the NCR, shorn of opportunities in their home ground. We left our homes for our higher education and we know we wouldn’t return to that place called home permanently till we retire. If all non-resident Malayalis like me decide to land up in Kerala at once, one fine day, the government will collapse in the mere thought of it. Where would they go? What would they do to make a living?
The auto driver who is taking me to a polling booth is a comrade. But this time, he wants to give Modi the benefit of doubt. “Too much of paranoia has been created about his ascendance. We have seen several experiments. Let’s see this one as well. After all, he has come with some proof of work in Gujarat. For long we have believed promises. Let’s try believing actual work as well.” But he voted for the Communists in Kerala this time, because he felt a vote for the BJP wouldn’t work here. “There is no leader here,” he says.
I wonder what still makes voters in Kerala vote for a failed model. But then, it is their choice and every country gets a government they deserve. If Kerala has to see a change, the voters need to change and the polity needs a change. As I stand in the queue to vote in a village school, I can smell arrack. A Malayali cannot complete a celebration without a drink, even if it is to celebrate democracy! I see a sketch of Mahatma Gandhi hung on the wall of a classroom, with the caption ‘Do or Die’. The entire nation is seeing this election as a ‘Do or Die’ battle.
We are asked to give way to an 80-year-old, lady as she is unable to stand for long. She must have voted in the first elections as well and continues to vote today. To not vote would be giving up participation and as long as you live in India, you need to participate and hope for better results. I cast my vote, with a hope that this time round, as the country progresses, Kerala should not miss the bus of development, regardless of the party in power. As for ideology, let’s discuss it in a drawing room over a cup of tea.