Only a true political awakening and a rejection of democracy being hijacked by big business interests, can lead to genuine change. Otherwise, we run the risk of letting corporates and multinationals loot and plunder our land and its resources.
As civic polls in Kerala coincided with the state elections in Bihar, news of what's happening at the grassroots scene in the south was overshadowed by the rout of the Hindutva forces. All of us were rejoicing that the communal agenda had failed to work and perhaps, in our bonhomie over Bihar, we have not paid the attention that Kerala's elections deserve.
In a column that is specifically dedicated to raising issues surrounding women, there are two things about the Kerala polls that stand out and, in a sense, provide a foil for each other.
On the one hand, we have the victory of Pembilai Orumai (Women's Unity) in Idukki district. These were the women plantation workers in the tea estates of the Tata-Kannan Devan estate—they had organised themselves independently to take on their employers and had proved that even if male-led, bureaucratic, corrupt trade unions ignored their demands, they could succeed through their own mobilisation and commitment. They managed to bring the tea giant to its knees and simultaneously ensured that none of the so-called trade unions could take credit for their struggle.
Pembilai Orumai's initial no-men, no-union protests—unrelenting, uncompromising, decentralised, with no single leader—sparked the fire of revolt in women workers around the state. Women in shrimp-peeling factories called their own strike, women in other tea plantations were striking work against their bosses, and it looked like a fire that could not be contained. So, the grassroots victory of the women workers heralds a new beginning not only for women's political empowerment, but also for the working class.
On the other hand, we have a story that seems to have captured the imagination of India's pro-business media. Anna Kitex, a corporate group with interests ranging from textiles to spices, that supplies clothes to outlets from Target to Walmart, decided to field candidates as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative in the Kizhakkambalam panchayat in Kochi. They contested in 19 wards, and won in 17 of them. This marks a dangerous shift in grassroots, decentralised democracy in India.
No longer are corporates using the facade of election funding, or lobbying with political parties to achieve their interests, but by contesting directly, and fielding their own candidates, they have become political players in and of themselves. This is alarming because this erases even the semblance of difference between state and the capitalist class and, inevitably, makes the corporate into the state itself. Tomorrow, we could well live in an India where it's no longer about Congress or BJP or the laidback Communist parties or regional powers, but an election between Tata and Reliance, an election between Adani and Essar. What Kitex has achieved is to annihilate even the go-between.
What's upsetting is also the mainstream media's uncritical coverage—calling Twenty20 as "people's power", "people's front" and so on. The media continues to write that the company fielded 19 independent candidates. In what way are these candidates "independent"? Are they not merely mouthpieces and puppets of the corporate body? A media that seemingly tries to commit itself to secularism, the separation of religion and the state, seems to have no qualms about the separation of big business and the state being completely erased.
Also, the media has gone into a tizzy because of the predominance of female candidates, forgetting that such a pandering to female representation provides a very suitable cover for a company to pursue its own money-making goals. Corporate Feminism becomes a nice mask to hide the vicious intents of Anna Kitex. The other word behind which they take shelter is "development", but that's the word that's often used to mask naked anti-environment policies.
Also, the company's CSR initiative has not only allowed it to now dictate decisions about politics, but it has also turned out to be a major PR exercise. Just a year ago, news about Kitex was about the people's protests against the pollution that it was causing to water and wet lands, about how the panchayat had refused permission to this company to operate because it was contaminating the environment. Now, by gaining direct control of the panchayat itself, there's no one to stop Anna Kitex's juggernaut. Their assault on the environment will go unchecked, with no organised dissent. A company with an annual turnover of Rs 1,200 crores ($200 million) has virtually become the panchayat itself and used the vehicle of democracy to achieve their own ends.
Only a true political awakening and a rejection of democracy being hijacked by big business interests, can lead to genuine change. Otherwise, we run the risk of letting corporates and multinationals loot and plunder our land and its resources. Merely because they use the word "development" and field a lot of women candidates does not take away the actual danger that they represent to the people at large. Even as we enjoy the electoral losses of the communal forces throughout the country, we must sit up in alarm and vow to fight the danger that corporate companies and big businesses pose to Indian democracy.