Twenty20 political machine in Kerala: Understanding the political rise of the apoliticals

As India debates issues related to donation to political parties and corporate influence on politics in the context of electoral bonds, Kerala is witnessing a unique experiment. Kizhakkambalam Twenty20, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) wing of Anna-Kitex group, that took a plunge into electoral politics in 2015, is writing a new chapter of corporate entry into Indian democracy.

Kizhakkambalam Twenty20 has gone beyond its self-declared target year of 2020 and is extending its reach far beyond its home panchayat of Kizhakkambalam. The experiment that started with a medical camp in 2013 is now in control of four panchayats and has fielded candidates in eight seats for the upcoming elections to the Kerala Legislative Assembly. The group’s political party, Twenty20, was recently endorsed by some of the Malayalam film industry's biggest names and a few of Kerala’s top business leaders.

Twenty20's success has been largely due to welfare programmes it undertook in the Kizhakkambalam panchayat. While it received many accolades for its welfare programmes, there have been isolated but strong voices alleging that the group functions in an autocratic manner. Its fortunes in the upcoming elections are beyond prediction due to the different dynamics of state elections; however, Twenty20 has clearly arrived on Kerala’s political stage.

In an age characterised by populist politics and democratic backsliding, Twenty20's rise and what it represents warrants our attention. How do we make sense of the rise of an apolitical CSR initiative in the highly politicized landscape of Kerala? What parallels can we find in history with regard to the organization and functioning of Twenty20? While its measures have been populist, what does the rise of 2020 augur for democracy at large? Finally, how does the rise of a corporate initiated political party transform us — the citizens? Answers to these questions are not easy, yet five years of its existence in electoral politics and its recent expansionary attempts offer us some clear insights.

The Twenty20 political party machine

While Twenty20 itself is new, historical events from elsewhere can be used as a window to understand its organisation and functions. There is an uncanny similarity between Twenty20 and what is referred to as political machines (political party machines or urban political machines) which governed most of America’s cities from late 19th Century to mid-20th Century. They were centralised organisations who ruled the municipal bodies through winning local elections. Twenty-first Century Kizhakkambalam is no 20th Century American city; however, one cannot miss loud voices from history while attempting to understand 2020 and its politics.

The most important feature of political machines was the centralization of power usually in the hands of one individual. This individual who was known as the city boss, more often than not was not an elected member of the city council. The machine boss controlled the city through nominees who pledged their allegiance to him. Twenty20 is controlled by party president Sabu M Jacob, chief coordinator of the company’s CSR wing and managing director of Anna-Kitex.

Like most of the city bosses, Jacob has not contested elections, but maintains a control over the elected members of the panchayat and government officials. There have been allegations that the panchayat “administration is under the control of Sabu M Jacob”. This control is further tightened as Twenty20 directly pays its elected Panchayat members. An important way by which city bosses maintained their popularity was by ensuring jobs to the voters of the city. Here too, the Twenty20 boss (Jacob) shares much in common with the American city bosses. Majority of the work force of Jacob’s company resides in and around the village and for them the boss is not just the head of the political party which governs the local body, but their employer as well.

The most striking similarity between 2020 and the political machines is the avoidance of a defined political ideology and the indifference to the creation of political policies. As a noted scholar remarked: “in the orbit of political machines, there is little serious discussion of political issues. People are drawn together by social activities of some kind or another [such as bowling clubs.] For those with a serious interest in politics, the atmosphere was repulsive.”

While the political machines were official affiliates to mainstream political parties, Twenty20 is unfettered in its avoidance of political ideology as it is an independent party by itself. Twenty20 has steadfastly presented itself as a party without any particular ideological positions and has derided political positioning as “emotionally driven decisions”. Twenty20 has thus far staved off from taking any position on a range of issues from Sabarimala woman’s entry to CAA. Despite emerging from a rural area, Twenty20 have no ideological positions on a burning issue like that of the three contentious farm laws. Every issue according to its president will be discussed with everyone and an amicable solution will be arrived at.

What underlies this apolitical positioning is the reluctance to acknowledge frictions and conflicts in the polity. By abstaining from having ideological positions, like political machines in the past, Twenty20 is hoping to unify the votes of individuals from conflicting social groups. Twenty20’s manifesto as well as ideology according to its president is “corruption free government and general development of Kerala”. As in the case of political machines, the campaign appeal of 2020 is more about patronage and the material benefits for electorates, containing nothing about social and political issues.

A related similarity between political machines and Twenty20 arises from the fact that both rely on welfare measures in a particular manner for gaining votes. Many scholars including sociologist Robert K Merton maintain that political machines sprang to life to compensate for the functional deficit of official governmental institutions and the resultant unmet needs of diverse social groups. While the emergence of Twenty20 is believed to be related to a protest the company faced due to allegations of polluting water bodies, the success of Twenty20 has been in meeting the unmet needs of many villagers through a slew of welfare measures. The measures such as the super market where things are sold at highly subsidised rates and “god’s villa” (a housing scheme for the poor) immensely contributed to Twenty20’s acceptance among the villagers.

Twenty20 had also distributed milch animals and laptops for students at a nominal rate. The political machine as well as Twenty20 demanded the voters to vote for them in return for these welfare measures. This arrangement was summed up by Frank Hague who was the party boss and mayor of Jersey City as “service 364 days a year in return for a vote on the 365th day”. The direct link between welfare measures and voter loyalty was brought to light when Twenty20 arbitrarily closed down the super market following villagers voting en masse against the wishes of Twenty20 boss in the 2019 parliament election. Yet another sign of reciprocity between Twenty20 welfare measures and support for the party is the requirement that only members of Twenty20 can access the super market.

Politics of monopoly control

The biggest difference between the political machine and Twenty20 is the fact that Twenty20’s welfare measures are funded by private money and runs parallel to the official state welfare. Unsurprisingly, this difference also becomes insignificant as it ties in well with yet another feature of political machines: Operation as a business monopoly. Twenty20 like political machines wants to monopolise the political landscape. Both want to position themselves as the only platform connecting businesses and citizens with the state. Political machine bosses such as Tom Pendergast of Kansas City ran private business and used the political power to further his business interests.

For Twenty20, this meant taking up the responsibility of welfare state and funding it using CSR money. For matters other than that of welfare, it occupied the local government so that it could monopolise rulemaking to its advantage. This combination of welfare measures and control of local government is essential for Twenty20 to ensure any events such as trade union strike or local protests are pre-emptively negated and its profit flow is unhindered. Running the welfare system as a private affair also meant that it could punish the detractors by locking them out of the welfare system.

To further cement their monopoly, political machines and Twenty20 have their own system of party workers and paid ward level volunteers respectively who act as the intermediaries between the state and the citizens. These individuals not only help political machines and Twenty20 to understand the popular pulse, but they also help to fine tone the welfare measures and ensure votes.

Twenty20 has knowingly or unknowingly emulated many aspects of political machines which governed US cities for almost a century. While it has many similarities with the political machines, 2020 is different in an important regard, using its CSR funds for welfare, it has initiated a movement in which citizens are fundamentally transformed. It has transformed citizens into consumers, replaced rights by discounts and more importantly created a community who is defined not by a sense of belongingness but by a membership to a privately run welfare programme.

In this community, the only form of politics is that of the Twenty20 boss. By privatising welfare, Twenty20 is becoming the political machine of the 21st Century.

The author is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. He is also a Fulbright fellow 2020-2021 in the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  



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