Interview with Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan.
The Left Democratic Front has won an enjoyable victory and a lot of people think it was authored by V.S. Achuthanandan on his own terms. Do you also see it as a personal victory, one that could therefore also pose a challenge to the new government in Kerala?
A number of important policy initiatives and decisions taken by the United Democratic Front government were against the interests of the State, especially against its economic interests. As the Leader of the Opposition I had intervened personally to expose several such activities meant to rob the State of its scarce resources. This included illegal transfer of forest land, large-scale felling and sale of forest trees, sandalwood smuggling from government land, encroachment of prime beach-front property by hotel owners, and the government's promotion of online lottery agencies at the cost of the State lottery. Similarly, I had forced the government to act on the corrupt and the racketeers - for example, in the kidney racket, against the spraying of the pesticide endosulphan in cashew plantations in Kasargod district which posed a serious threat to the health of the local people - and most important, to take action against sex racketeers.
Sex rackets had become a major threat to the dignity and security of women in Kerala. This was why I had to intervene on several occasions, seeking justice during the course of the Kozhikode sex racket case. The response of the government was always to turn the other way or to try and protect the guilty. It is as a reward for the silence of the two Chief Ministers A.K. Antony and Oommen Chandy that the [Indian Union] Muslim League as a party decided not to fight against several controversial decisions of the UDF that went against the interests of the disadvantaged sections in Muslim society. The fight has not ended and we will have to pursue it, perhaps in the Supreme Court, and we have the example of the Best Bakery case in which witnesses reneging on their statements, as in the ice cream parlour' [sex racket] case, are being punished.
Similarly, it was the Opposition that took up the cause of the farmers of the State reeling under the impact of a sharp fall in prices as a result of the trade liberalisation policies of the Central government and that of the growing army of unemployed youth in Kerala. In fact, the UDF government, which had promised to create 15 lakh jobs in five years, went ahead and imposed a ban on government recruitments.
Therefore, all such instances of effective intervention seeking justice whenever the government failed had resulted in the people looking up to the LDF Opposition in general and to me with a lot of interest.
Is the rout of the IUML the result only of the failure of leaders such as former Industries Minister P.K. Kunhalikkutty? Or do you think it reflects the growth of communist counter-influence among minority communities in Kerala? Will the Left then be able to sustain it in future?
The Muslim League leadership has proved time and again that it exists only to protect the interests of an affluent section among Muslims, to provide them more business opportunities, more contracts, more schools and colleges, and the League leadership thrives on keeping them happy. But a large majority of Muslims in Kerala are poor and are suffering under the impact of neoliberal policies. The Muslim League offers no solution to such people. In fact, what is significant is the failure of the UDF government to address the problems of the poor sections of people all over Kerala, not just among Muslims in Malappuram. The Opposition struggles were aimed at helping such people, among them farmers, farm labourers, and other ordinary people of the State. By ensuring at least temporary relief to them, the Opposition was able to obtain their trust. They have come to know that if the LDF comes to power, it will protect their interests in a better manner. That is why the influence of the Left among all sections of people, not just among Muslims, is set to grow further.
It was from the early 1980s that the Left movement began to look critically at what was until then called the Kerala "model" of development and the crisis of stagnation in agriculture and industry, the worsening fiscal situation and the growing unemployment that had come in its wake. But the problems persist, perhaps more sharply, even as a new LDF government assumes power in 2006. What is your perspective on these problems and their solutions?
We will give priority to work out measures to help the farmers of the State who are suffering under the impact of falling prices, mounting debts and, as a result, suicide of family members. We want to help them stand on their feet, to overcome their debts. We propose to put pressure on the Central government to impose tariffs on the import of agricultural commodities that directly affect our farmers. There is certainly a solution to their problems, the important aspect of which is to attract the attention of the Central government to their suffering. We will organise the people of the State and conduct struggles in the context of this important need. Similarly, we will take all effective measures possible for the rejuvenation of our traditional industries such as coir, cashew, handloom, fisheries, khadi and so on. We are also thinking of imposing controls on the self-financing college managements that demand huge donations from students, making higher education inaccessible to the children belonging to the poorer sections.
While over 49 per cent of the voters supported the LDF in this election, a substantial section, over 43 per cent seems to have favoured the development agenda put forth by the UDF. As Chief Minister now, will it not be your responsibility to accommodate the aspirations of these people too and will it not restrain you from implementing the LDF agenda in its true spirit?
It is true that during the reign of Oommen Chandy there was this resounding sloganeering, "Development!" "Development!" But what went on was the surrender of the State's resources before profiteers and the sharing of the spoils. Actually, Oommen Chandy's policies were all anti-development. The UDF may have succeeded in convincing a large section of trusting people otherwise. The State's resources were protected only because of the effective intervention of the Opposition. The UDF failed wretchedly in employment generation, though it had promised to create 15 lakh job opportunities during its tenure. The Global Investors Meet [GIM] organised with much fanfare failed to attract investors, though the promise was to bring in at least Rs.26,000 crores of investment that provided jobs. Not even 25 jobs were created. The `investors' who did come were only interested in the government's offer for the sale of our natural resources, including water from the Periyar river and the Malampuzha dam.
The flagship development initiative of the previous LDF government was the People's Plan Campaign it undertook soon after coming to power. Will the new government continue to pursue that initiative or do you think it ought to be reworked?
That programme had attracted a lot of criticism and complaints when it was implemented. We will examine those criticisms, remove any room for complaints and try to implement real decentralisation in its true spirit for bringing democracy and development to the people at the grassroots.
Oommen Chandy's argument was that the "UDF believes in creating wealth first and then distributing it while the LDF is merely trying to distribute poverty and unemployment". Economic stagnation being the most important problem that Kerala faces today, how is your government going to tackle it?
They did say that there was the need for creation of wealth, but did they create wealth? The wealth that they created went into the pockets of corrupt politicians and officials. Public debt mounted from Rs.23,000 crores to Rs.54,000 crores during UDF rule. I challenged them to explain to the people where exactly they had utilised the additional Rs.34,000 crores that they accumulated as debt. There was no answer at all from the government. The UDF did not offer relief even to the 1,500-odd families of farmers who committed suicide because of mounting debts in the wake of falling prices and drought. Thus the UDF tried to sell dreams, the LDF proposes to gather maximum resources from a variety of sources here itself and improve tax collection to help farmers and farm labourers, fishermen and those engaged in traditional industries and for the development of our education and health sectors. We will not discourage investors. We will ensure that their investment is safe and that they will get their due income from it. This is how we propose to go ahead.
While in the Opposition, you had been highly critical, for example, about the Smart City IT mega project proposal and existing ventures such as the Coca-Cola unit in Palakkad district. Are you against all such mega projects?
We will accept all mega projects that are useful for the development of the State. The units of Coca-Cola and Pepsi are located in a drought-prone area where the water shortage is made worse by the draining away of the scarce resource under the Parambikkulam-Aliyar river water agreement. It is in such a locality that people's drinking water sources are further depleted by the large-scale utilisation of ground water by the units of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Such projects allow investors to exploit people for profits and are of no use to the people themselves. The Smart City proposal has several clauses in it that are harmful to the interests of the people of Kerala and we will go ahead with it only if the promoters of the project are willing to reconsider them. If this condition is met, we will welcome any project that will help achieve at least some progress for the people of the State.
There is a view that the Left Front government in West Bengal is able to attract a lot of foreign direct investment and private investment for development and move with the times in a globalised economy for the development of that State, while the LDF in Kerala lags behind or perhaps chooses to resist such opportunities.
You may recall that even as early as 1967, Birla, the biggest capitalist in India, was invited to Kerala by the most prominent communist leader in the country, EMS [Namboodiripad], to provide direct employment to 5,000 people and indirect employment in ancillary industries to 15,000 people. Similarly, the country's first land reforms legislation was the initiative of the EMS government. Similar reforms were subsequently introduced in West Bengal, which helped the Left movement there to spread its influence in the rural areas of that State. But in Kerala, land reforms could not be implemented as intended because the Centre dismissed the EMS government. That weakness still exists in Kerala. Similarly, industrialisation initiatives of the Left in Kerala too have been weakened by the frequent change of power in Kerala. Therefore, the Left in Kerala, unlike that in West Bengal, could not implement its programmes in their true spirit and could not claim credit for them as true-blood Left initiatives.
You are now about to lead a new LDF government in which the two communist parties together claim 78 of the total 140 seats and smaller coalition partners have been denied a berth in the Cabinet or are offered insignificant roles. Do you believe that smaller partners, with their own divergent priorities, also have been responsible for diluting the development agenda, mainly of the Left coalition governments in the State? If you may remember, this was one of the vehement suggestions and points of conflict at the Second Kerala Studies Congress organised by the CPI(M) in Thiruvananthapuram a few months back.
The main reason for such a perception is that the LDF government that came to power in 1996 could easily be shown in a bad light because of the encouragement that the then Education Ministry gave to private educational institutions at the cost of government institutions. Moreover, there were also allegations of large-scale corruption in the sanctioning of private educational institutions. At the same time, because of interventions of the then Finance Ministry, which handled the finances of the State, a situation arose in which cheques issued by the government began to bounce. The Opposition could use all such negative aspects of the then government to eclipse effectively that administration's good deeds and gain the affection of a majority of people in the 2001 elections. But, in general, if you look at the reforms implemented in Kerala, whether it be in land reforms, total literacy, industrialisation, public distribution system or decentralisation, you can see that they were all undertaken by Ministries led by communist parties or the coalitions led by them. [In 1996, the Education portfolio was handled by the only Kerala Congress faction in the LDF led by P.J. Joseph, while the Finance Ministry was run by the CPI(M) itself.]
In the context of your reply, then, another question may be relevant. In popular perception, your role in the victory of the LDF in this election is undeniable. But already an impression is gaining ground that in your Ministry you are being surrounded by colleagues who may not entirely agree with your views on many important issues. Will this be a hindrance for you in doing what you intended to do with the new government?
I think it need not become a hindrance. Because, as the person who played the main role from within the LDF to expose the anti-people and anti-democratic policies of the UDF government, especially as one who took a strong stand against atrocities on women openly, even in the courts and elsewhere, I think people have a lot of admiration for my role. I think they have a good opinion about the LDF in general and, as the person who led it, about me too. But as a result of some subsequent steps, doubts have been created whether the things that I brought forth can be implemented. But I am the Chief Minister and therefore I have a supervisory role on the others handling different portfolios and nobody can prevent the implementation of the things that I intended to do.