Opinion

The Kerala Youth and the Congress

One among the two things that surprised me the most when I returned to Kerala (yeah, people do that) after around 17 years of studying and working outside the state was how the political attitudes of the youth had changed (the other was the absolute decline of public transportation), especially in terms of the shift in voting patterns. The most marked among this was how many of the old bastions and traditionally “solid” strongholds of the Congress party (and the UDF), which here specifically mean the three “Central Travancore” districts of Pathanamthitta, Kottayam and Idukki and parts of Ernakulam, were turning their sights towards the left. Here is an illustration of election results of these constituencies for 11 elections over the past 45 years.

Election trends of central travancore assembly constituencies from 1977 to 2021.

The red cells indicate parties belonging to the CPM-led LDF and the green ones, the Congress-led UDF alliance. This alliance was formed during the 1980 elections and since then, many parties keep switching between the two alliances, but de facto, LDF is equated with left/CPM and UDF with left-center/Congress. You can see that since then other than in 1980 the pattern has been fairly consistent with the left parties making steady inroads into UDF bastions. And it would be fair enough to surmise that it would be impossible for the left parties to make such strong gains in these places without a significant portion of these old Congress supporters either switching loyalties to the left, or are not voting at all. If you ask which ones of this is correct, the answer is, both. We will run another analysis on this table later on in this chapter.

Changing Political Equations

Half a century ago, a grand social coalition was forged by the rich and upper classes of Kerala as they came together in opposition to the policies of the first EMS ministry. This first government of the newly created state of Kerala, which was also famously only the second-ever elected Communist goverment in the world, had just enacted the land reformation ordinance and announced a radical educational policy that the upper classes of the Nairs, the Syrian Chrisitan communities and rich Mappila families of Malabar found dangerously to their interests. From the platform of this coalition, the Congress as the principal opposition launched the Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Struggle), as it is called, demanding the annulment of these policies and the resignation of the government. For nearly a month the state was rocked by violent strikes and protests that resulted in several incidents of police firing and deaths. In July 1959, Prime Minister Nehru invoked Article 365 and dismissed the EMS government. Though both land reform and education acts would ultimately go through, the success of the Struggle and victory of the Congress in the following elections resulted in this social coalition consolidating into the Congress’ core support base, making the Congress and later the UDF the party of the Malayali upper classes. Through the years and decades that followed, generations of these communities and families would keep voting for the Congress, the various Kerala Congresses, the League and the UDF. It is this base that the Congress counted on to bring them back to power every other election.

If you were to analyse this support base on the basis of age, the equivalents of the boomers who grew up with the Vimochana Samaram and came to age in the 70s form the base of the party support and also constitute its top leadership, who were also the active “ruling” demographic in the state during the crucial quarter century of 1991-2016. Their support base then starts thinning out as you progress across the Gen-Xs (born late 1960s to 1979), the Millennials (born between 1980 and 1993) to end up nearly non-existent among the Gen-Z (today’s coming of age voters). What the Congress today does not seem to realise is that the next generation, the youngsters of these traditional strongholds seems to have broken tradition and abandoned it, no matter how their parents voted. It would seem to be ridiculous to suggest that people from age-old Congress families would suddenly vote for the left, but we will have to go by the numbers here. If we were to look at that table again, you would see that UDF absolutely dominated the region from 1991 until 2016 when then Boomers called the shots. The decline began since the early 2010s when the Millennials started coming to prominence and the liberation struggle generation started to fade away. Since it is unlikely that older supporters would vote for left parties, it would be safe to presume that it would be the youth from this base who are voting for the left.

It is well known that professional timber and logging companies often plant new (fast-growing) trees in place of the ones they cut down to ensure future supply and continuity of business. Similarly, to ensure that their political landscape does not end up barren in the future, visionary political parties spend quite a bit of effort trying to recruit young voters through youth wings, campus politics, young firebrand leaders, and constant streams of marketing and propaganda. It looks like the Congress hasn’t been doing enough in that space. Where have all of its young voters gone?

The Generational Shift of Kerala Youth

Like I had written before, the Kerala youth have undergone a massive “generational shift” in the past decade. Let us acknowledge that these kids are the most privileged in the country. They grew up in near-first world prosperity in a largely urbanised region with nearly no want, thanks to the high HDI, remittance-consumerist economy and the feeling of prosperity that surrounded them. They live in a world with revolutionary opportunities for personal mobility, socialising, entertainment, education, etc., and know nothing about the angst, poverty, struggles and trepidation that shaped the generations of their parents and grandparents. They have no idea how it was to grow up in the Kerala of the 1960s and 1970s, back when Kerala was one of India’s poorest states. And they don’t want to know. As far as they are concerned they view the present has always existed as it is, and they want to keep the good times rolling, they want for themselves what other parts of the country enjoy. They often compare Kerala with western countries and question why Kerala has not become like those places. Their wants, aims and needs are more materialistic than ideological or ideal or political and mostly view anyone who opposes those as regressive. And unfortunately, many seem to view the Congress in that light today.

Many values and policies what the Congress once stood for have all been appropriated by the left. It is the left that are talking about building six-lane highways and high-speed trains and airports and Metro rail, who are commissioning LNG pipelines and inland waterways, who are building tech parks and bringing large IT companies, and are even liberalising investment opportunities and talking about digitisation and industrialisation. All this is in stark opposition to what their policies were once upon a time, often remembered to be strikes and hartals and lockouts and closures (against ATMs, tractors and computers, against expressways and railway lines, even against malls and supermarkets!) Irony is that most of those projects and policies were originally conceptualised by the Congress and its allies who today seem to have since lost their way and the grip on the narrative, which now firmly in the hands of the left. The Congress nowadays does not even seem to be sure what they stand for, are reactionary towards everything and try to play catch-up instead of even trying to put forward a narrative. All this has resulted in the funny situation that the average youngster nowadays sees the left as the progressive party!

It could also be possible that the endless stream of information through the internet and social media, coupled with the highly political nature of Kerala society has made them more outspoken, informed, opinionated, free-thinking and independent than any before. It is possible that this could have resulted in the loss of influence and control their families had over them, and in that their political allegiances are no longer dictated by things like community contracts and historic consciousness as it was with their previous generations. In other words, even if their mothers and grandmothers were staunch Congress voters, they might no longer be because they simply refuse to go “just because”, because they do not connect with Congress’ values and policies anymore. Their aspirations are simply different.

The Congress needs to realise that the days of the liberation struggle and the angst associated with it are ancient history. You can no longer spook the young into voting for it by invoking the ghosts of events three generations old. That was a different time with different problems. A large majority of the youth today don’t even know about the liberation struggle, much less the reasons for it, forget connecting with it. And even if they do, they would probably support the Land Reformation acts and the Mundasserry Education policy today. In fact, one youngster once told me that they should’ve made an equivalent reform in the medical sector as well back then, and many feel that land redistribution was equitable and the land ceiling is fair because land is “anyway a burden”. Today’s kids ask things like “What has Congress to offer, than the same old dirty politics of endless group fights, nepotism, blame-games and corruption?“, “What is the ideology of the Congress?“, “What is their vision for the state’s next ten years and beyond?“, “What development plan POCs have they presented yet?“, and interestingly, “Why do they try to shoot down even good things being done by the government?” Like I said, informed and questioning.

The biggest silent transformation has been the clean decimation of Kerala’s hartal culture. While there were 120 hartals in 2017 and 97 in 2018, there were only 12 in 2019, only two in 2020 and just one in 2021 (so far), and not one among these in the last three years were called by the left parties! No, earlier LDF used to call for harthals with equal fervour no matter whether they were ruling or not. There is even a name for it – sarkar harthal.

Would all this mean that irrespective of their social, religious and financial status, many young people across Kerala in general and from traditionally Congress-supporting families in particular are politically aligning themselves to the left in terms of viewpoints and attitudes? Of course, this “generational shift” does not have widespread impact and can be considered an outlier as nothing is ever black and white, and there are quite many political angles that need to be taken into consideration like the political realignment games played by some of the church-based groups, alliance politics (though KC(M) supporters did have an option to vote for the UDF) and that young Christians do not consider the left parties as untouchable as their parents did.

Migration

The bigger and more potent reason for the fall in Congress’ Central Travancore vote shares is because those voters are simply not there anymore. If you were to ask around the region, you will find that there are no young people here anymore, at all. Every family will have nearly all their children settled abroad. Well, this is true, but something more extraordinary has been happening in the recent past, that is different from the well-known and classic Kerala migration narrative. in the past decade, the entire generation of Central Travancore Millennials have all emigrated to the highly developed Anglosphere countries of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Yes, all of them. And this is especially true about the Syrian Christian community which sees nearly all of its young, especially the girls (as opposed to the Malabar trend) migrating and settling abroad. There is simply no one born after 1982 remaining in Kerala or even in India anymore. They’ve all left.

Oh well, of course they did. Most educated young people have been leaving Kerala for other states and countries (Gulf) looking for work as soon as they graduate since the beginning of time; so what else is new?”, you might ask. The difference is that “traditionally”, the Gulf Malayali or the Bangalore Malayali “migrated” strictly for work, and nearly all of them intended to return to Kerala in the future. Not anymore. This wave of “western” migration we are currently witnessing is permanent in nature. Those who left are not coming back. They all stay back to acquire residency and citizenship of those countries. They invest in their lives there. Their children grow up as Brits or Canadians or Australians or Americans. And the passing of their parents mark the end of their family and community in Kerala. Even the second generation of Christian Malayalees (mainly from the Pathanamthitta district), children of those who went to the Middle East in the 1970s and 80s looking for jobs are migrating directly to the west from the Gulf without ever having lived in Kerala at all. When I graduated 20 years ago the go-to-place was Bangalore or sometimes Chennai, and there was no concept of emigrating at all unless it was on an “onsite” opportunity. Today’s youth are not in the least interested in all that, as they have realised that Bangalore is just another Indian city and moving there is actually a step down in their lifestyle.

As always the Congress (and Kerala Congress – all of them) are clueless about all this. They don’t seem to realise that their entire vote base has migrated abroad. Scene from a distant relative’s home during the last elections. Local Kerala Congress (Joseph) members come for canvassing.

“Chetta, so all seven votes from your house will be for the <party symbol>, right?”
“Well, it will be only two this time, because they (two married children, their spouses and the youngest unmarried one) are all in UK and Canada.”
“Ah, that’s OK. In the future there will be atleast ten votes from this house! When are they returning?”
“It might take some time because of Corona.”
“Yes, yes, where will they go without returning. All this (gestures around the large house and tracts of overgrown land) has to be taken care of right?”
“Yes, yes, sure they will come back soon.”

The old man looked very forlorn when he said this.

It goes without saying that none of those kids will absolutely be ever returning. The eldest even recently bought a flat somewhere in the outskirts of Toronto, to which anyone with any knowledge of the real estate scenes of those parts, will agree that is not something that can be anything but a lifelong commitment. What no one seems to be considering or realising is how this “great Mallu migration” is affecting the Congress party and its vote base because it is their vote base that is migrating and acquiring citizenship of foreign countries. And it will only get worse as none of the younger generation of the Syrian Christian community have any intention of staying back, and are even less interested in anything that has to even remotely do with Kerala politics and the parties and communities that their parents and grandparents built.

The current scenario is that the numbers of the Boomers that built the base of the Congress party is dwindling every year going forward, and their children and grand children who would have carried it forward have either migrated abroad or shifted their political allegiances. The Congress and its compadres meanwhile are living in the happy wonderland of delusion, confident that thousands of their secure traditional votes which they can fall back upon are hiding among the masses. They think that those who have left (pun intended) and migrated with their families will always come back. They won’t. And when things go wrong, as it did during this election, they completely fail to see the actual picture and immediately revert to the position of caste and religion and group based arithmetic and calculations and allegations of vote-shifting and so on, unable to realise that those rigid calculations do not apply to today’s society anymore. This disconnect by the leadership is mainly the result of a because the world is today a different place from when they grew up.

The Leadership Disconnect

The Congress party in Kerala is currently led by its third generation of leaders since independence, all of whom came up through the heady, turbulent days of the 1960s, 70s and early 80s student politics. It was a different time back then, when Kerala campus politics was absolutely hardcore and mirrored the extremely passionate, highly flaring and often violent mainstream political battles the state is so famous for. There was hardly a day in any major college that did not see a protest, a strike, street fights or even pitched battles between rival camps of politically affiliated students unions slugging it out over issues, elections, people and ideologies, characterised by flying tempers, violence and quite often, loss of life. Campus politics was a full-time, dedicated activity intended to launch career politicians through realpolitik battles of outwitting rivals in both opposing and their own unions through high-stakes political powerplays. It were these experiences that created and moulded the political outlooks of all senior leaders of today’s Congress. This, overlaid with the community-contracts of the 1960s makes it impossible for anyone who came through that system to view politics as anything but tables, lists, calculations and formulas of alliances and management of “who is with who” of people, communities and groups.

Then there is the groupism within the Congress party which in Kerala is at another level. Group policy and infighting over it dictates everything from who becomes Panchayat President to overarching government policy, taking up much of the time and energy of the party and leaders. It is tiring when all the news you hear about the party is about how a handful of very senior leaders who have been leading the party as long as anyone can remember are fighting amongst themselves for their groups. It gets tiring pretty quickly.

Today it is often said that the fate of the Congress in Kerala was sealed on the 16th of June, 2015, when the then CM of Kerala came on TV and announced that Kerala will introduce total prohibition in the state within ten years, and bars etc. would not be allowed to renew their licenses. This move was viewed as a regressive step not just by the population of this hard-drinking state but in general across the world. It also led to massive corruption allegations that would ultimately lead to the fall of the government in the next election. It is said that this decision was the result of the ruling faction trying to score one over a rival faction who had been proposing “mild” prohibition.

In 2003, the Kerala High Court ruled that college managements can prohibit political activities on campus (which was followed up by an actual ban in 2020). The state liberalised its higher-education sector around the same time, leading to the widespread establishment of new self-financing private engineering colleges. The current generation of Kerala youth who have not experienced active, hard-hitting politics in campus have hence turned out to be not as politically inclined or motivated as their previous generations were. They are hence not readily receptive to or identify with particular leaders and their group-based, politics-for-politics sake political powerplays and so on. The absence of political discourse in the campus has created this generation that is more materialistic and pragmatic than those of the past and want what the rest of the world enjoy (like Pubs, for instance). With their thought-processes stuck in the moralities and worldviews of the 1980s it is nearly impossible for today’s leaders to understand the mindsets of their young constituents or to connect with their future voters. Inward-looking and self-absorbed, it is all that this hampered vision that prevents the present group of Congress leaders from seeing the writing on the rubber tree.

So what should the Congress do? As opposed to the popular narrative all is not lost. There is a huge constituency of middle and upper-middle class Millennials who grew up disconnected from anything political back then, and are only now trying to find a political affiliation that matches their views and beliefs, and do not find any groups of today palatable. This is the cohort the Congress should be targeting. It is also working in some urban pockets in Ernakulam district. In fact, Western Ernakulam district is among the few places where traditional Congress votes are still intact. And this is where the Congress in Kerala should go. One has to imagine that in another five years, first time voters will likely have no living memory of a non-left government, they will also have no living memory of any non-left leader in action. All they will have heard of the Congress party will be of corruption and blame-game by a bunch irrelevant old guys. If they still think that they can ride to power on this legacy and a broken social contract then, well.

COCCYX: I would say that Congress party would probably win some youth votes if they promised to open atleast two IELTS coaching centres in every panchayat, but of course, the Congress does not seem to know that. Also, after the election results the mood among Malayalee communities in the West was very sombre because that is where all the Congress supporters are today. If the Kerala elections were held amongst them, the UDF would’ve thumped home in every constituency, 140/140.

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Rex

I emigrated a couple of years ago. I bet this ‘voter drain’ is going to affect other states as well in the coming years – I myself keep exhorting everyone I know to do their best to emigrate, there is nothing left for an educated taxpayer there. Better be in a country where you get something in return for the taxes you pay, least of all good climate, rule of law and respect for orderliness.

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