US-India Global Review

32 US-INDIA GLOBAL REVIEW JANUARY-MARCH 2018 miered in 1952, drew big crowds and helped the party win its first election five years later. Another decade passed before the "Communist Manifesto," Marx's account of the contradictions of capitalism, was even translated into Malayalam, the local lan- guage. And while Kerala's communists borrowed the symbols of the Soviet Union - they read Soviet Land magazine, followed the march of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and sent rice to the Cubans - they also embraced their own local heroes and followed their own distinct path. Unlike communists in China, Latin America or Eastern Europe, party leaders in Kerala never seized factories - the "means of production" in the words of Marx - or banned private property. Instead, they competed in elec- tions with the center-left Indian National Congress party, winning some years and losing others. Communism became for many a piece of their identity. In the 1970s and 1980s it wasn't uncom- mon for parents to name their chil- dren "Lenin," "Stalin" or, in the case of one girl, "Soviet Breeze." Pictures of early Soviet leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were hung on the walls in party offices alongside Indian heroes such as the party's founder, Krishna Pillai. In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party had been some- thing remote - "a mysterious and implacable external power," as one scholar put it. In Kerala, the communist party is made up of people like Isaac, the finance min- ister, whose iPhone was now ring- ing. "Yes, comrade," he answered. ‘A better life for people’ He had finished his speech honoring the party's founder and was now in his government van heading off on yet another 14- hour day in the life of a local politi- cian tending his base. His driver pumped the horn in a nonstop staccato to clear a narrow path through streets clogged with smoke-belching motorbikes, dent- ed cars and puttering rickshaws. Isaac often describes his deci- sion to join the party in the early 1970s as an act of rebellion. His parents were devout Christians who owned a modest textile facto- ry, and before joining the party, Isaac had been a seminary stu- dent.Among his first acts as a communist was to organize a strike at his father's mill. "If you don't negotiate with these workers I will be with them on the picket line," he recalled telling his father. He is 64 now, and still very much an idealist. He owns no land, having given away a small parcel of property that he inherit- ed from his parents. His two daughters, who moved to the United States 20 years ago, after Isaac and his wife divorced, worry sometimes about their father's lack of savings. He had been unable to contribute to either of his daughters' college educations and visits to see them in the United States have been rare. Only in the last few years has Isaac allowed himself a handful of luxuries, like a personal car, the iPhone and an iPad that he uses to check the day's cricket high- lights and update his Facebook page. His first stop was a ribbon-cut- ting at a family-owned driving school. Then he made a two-hour drive to the village of Kollam, where a party leader had asked him to stop by his son's wedding. Isaac, who became an atheist when he joined the party, posed with the newlyweds under a statue of a pale, gaunt Christ on the cross, because in Kerala the com- munists had never sought to stamp out religion. Soon he was back in the van rushing down a narrow, potholed road past makeshift tea stands, coconut sellers and clusters of simple, cement homes, each one with electricity and indoor toilets. Kerala is one of the few states in India where this is true. "This is what it means to make a better life for people," Isaac said, pulling on a neck pillow for a quick nap. As he approached his home town of Alappuzha the road widened and Isaac's minivan sped past a mural of Che Guevara, the ageless hero of the Cuban revolu- tion, and a billboard of Colonel Sanders, the ageless hawker of capitalist fried chicken. Near the city's edge, Isaac's van stopped at a state-supported cooperative that manufactures coir, a bristly fabric used to make And while Kerala's communists borrowed the symbols of the Soviet Union - they read Soviet Land magazine, followed the march of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and sent rice to the Cubans - they also embraced their own local heroes and followed their own distinct path.

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