Reasserting people's power
Indulge me for a moment. Imagine that in one of those lands which do not exactly have stellar liberal democratic credentials, like say, Burma or Syria, a regional governor who's accused of corruption and nepotism, shut down the capital city, declared prohibitory orders, cordoned off the central square, called out paramilitary forces to occupy schools and colleges, cut short public transportation schedules, put up police checkpoints on roads into to the city, raided community kitchens run by protestors, threatened media censorship on protest coverage, closed down public access to legislators residences.
It's more or less what is happening in Kerala under UDF government led by Chief Minister Oomen Chandy. Chandy, of course, is he who brought honor to Kerala, as the Govt of Kerala PR Dept's flex billboards claim, by nominating himself for a Unied Nations Public Service Award for "Preventing and Combating Corruption in Publis Service". And oh, what a fall it has been. Reeling under multiple charges of nepotism and corruption in what is popularly known as the Solar scam, Chandy administration has unveiled an unprecdentedly high-handed and rather bizarre response to defeat the agitation launched by the left parties.
Trivandrum is under siege. It would seem that almost overnight Kerala has become Kashmir or Tahirir. In the name of protecting the public from oppsotion's plan to surround the Secretariat building, the government has imposed a virtual state of emergency. Paramilitary forces have taken over schools and colleges. Mass make shift prisons have been set up. Hotels and businesses have been told not to provide any room and boarding for protestors. There were media reports of the police threaening residents not to host any out of town protestors. The list of goes on and on, when the Asst Director General of Police comes out with an ill prepared and entirely unconvincing press note denying that the police is closing down public toilets and public drinking water supply, one gets a sense of how bad the situation is.
It would be a mistake to look at the Solar scam as an isolated incident. The latest episode is not only entirely consistent with the undemocratic political culture under the UDF rule, the draconian repressive state apparatus and the neoliberal trajectory that has been forced upon Kerala. To put the focus on a Saritha Nair, Biju Radhakrishnan or Salim Raj, ignoring the broader context of decay is to fundamentally depoliticize the conversation and limit the possibilities of an alternative path forward. Similarly, for the LDF to fall into the trap laid by the government through its efforts to escalate tensions and provoke violence, will also be self defeating.
As I am writing this, LDF supporters from all over the state are streaming into the city in small groups. The plan is to have a lakh volunteers participate in the mass action. There is defiance in the streets. There's a steely resolve to force Chandy to step down. Over the afternoon, LDF leadership has promised to keep the agitation non-violent and the police have also toned down their high-handed crackdown a couple of notches. A new round of revelations about Oomen Chandy being in direct contact with Saritha Nair one of the key accused have surfaced on local news television. The UDF's efforts to contain this crisis as a private affair between some individuals some of them who merely happened to be staff members of Chandy and other cabinet ministers or close confidants is collapsing.
Whether this leads to Oomen Chandy stepping down or not, whether more skeletons in the Solar cupboard come tumbling down, one thing is clear. Never after the Indira Emergency has any administration in Kerala attempted to crack dwn on a mass protest using the repressive tactics UDF currently has. It is time to push back and defeat this assault on basic civil liberties. If the streets are not ours to take back, what's the point after all?