The second edition of the Loka Kerala Sabha 2020 (LKS), a brainchild of the Left Front government, which met in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram in the first three days of the New Year, turned out to be more of a political event than an NRI meet.
The LKS is a jamboree of Keralites living across the globe held once in two years. According to the LKS website, “it is envisaged as a platform for the cultural, socio-political and economic integration of these myriad Keralas with the home Kerala”. In plain terms, the Sabha is supposed to discuss threadbare the innumerable problems faced by non-resident Keralites.
Though Malayalis have migrated to almost all parts of the globe, the focus of the meet was mainly on the Gulf region. This is because the Gulf region accounts for almost all the foreign remittances Kerala receives yearly. The real transformation of Kerala’s money order economy to one of a remittance economy began in the late 1960s with the exodus of manual labour from the state to all the Gulf countries. The flow was such that Kerala faced a shortage of manual labour within the state, giving way to migration of labour from states such as West Bengal, Assam and Bihar. That a majority of these labourers, referred to in Kerala as “Bhais”, live in inhuman conditions, perhaps worse than that undergone by Keralites in the Gulf countries, is another story. The state government has so far not come up with any measures to better their conditions.
With the Gulf countries stressing on self-reliance coupled with the economic recession many of those countries face, the flow from Kerala has reduced. Still there is a considerable number of Malayalis in the Gulf region, though successive governments have made no attempt to record data on them. There are a few businessmen who are doing extremely well in that region, and hence the show generally revolves around them. The number of delegates is about 450. While the exact criteria for membership in the Sabha are not known, the ordinary Gulf Malayali—masons, plumbers, electricians, drivers, shop attendants, nurses—is nothing but a fringe element in the grand show.
The Opposition United Democratic Front and the BJP had announced their decision to boycott the event, saying it was a sheer waste of money at a time when the state was passing through a financial crisis. They said the government had spent Rs 17crore in renovating a hall in the state Assembly complex for the meet when thousands displaced in the 2018 deluge are yet to get even minimum compensation promised by the government.
The much touted rebuilding of Kerala, for which the government had collected crores of rupees, is not happening. The relief fund is being diverted to such extravaganzas, they charged. The Leader of the Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala had resigned his post of vice-president of the LKS last June after two Gulf-returned businessmen committed suicide, alleging state apathy.
A day before the Sabha met, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan cleverly released a letter from Congress leader Rahul Gandhi which he had received on 12 December. The UDF had announced its decision to boycott the function only on 20 December. Rahul Gandhi, who represents Wayanad in the Lok Sabha, in his letter said, “I congratulate the members of the Malayalee diaspora for their phenomenal success, and for being worthy ambassadors of the State. The Loka Kerala Sabha is a great platform to connect with the diaspora and recognise their contribution.” While it was obvious that Pinarayi chose to release the letter on the day the event was to embarrass and to some extent discredit the Congress leadership in the state. However, Ramesh Chennithala accused Pinarayi of distorting the intentions of Rahul Gandhi’s message.
The CM has exploited the decency of Rahul Gandhi, which is objectionable, Chennithala said. “The UDF unanimously took the decision to boycott Loka Kerala Sabha… It is not mandatory to inform either the AICC or the central unit of the party on such decisions which a state unit can decide on,” Chennithala further added.
While Rahul Gandhi’s letter created a bit of confusion among the ranks of the Opposition, what really rocked the LKS was a blistering attack on the event by Minister of State for External Affairs and BJP leader from Kerala, V. Muraleedharan. Terming the LKS “a global scam”, Muraleedharan said it was nothing but an event to raise funds for the CPM. Muraleedharan, who was scheduled to attend the function, said, “There is no clue as to who are the delegates taking part in it and it has now come to be one which is nothing but a fund-raising event for the CPM. The state government did not hold any consultations with the Centre on the conduct of the Loka Kerala Sabha. I did not attend the programme as the government passed a resolution against the CAA. I received a letter from the government in connection with the programme. The Speaker had also contacted me.” Muraleedharan was partially right.
Many of the top businessmen from Kerala in the Gulf maintain close relationship with the CPM. They also provide top managerial positions in their companies to children of CPM leaders, including that of the Chief Minister. It is a known secret that one of them often bails out the son of CPM state secretary who gets into financial irregularities in the Gulf off and on. Even a few months back, one of the industrialists came to the rescue of NDA convenor in Kerala, Tushar Vellappally, on the request of Pinarayi Vijayan.
The industrialists also contribute profusely to the CPM coffers. That they get their pound of flesh in the state is a different story; the most memorable being handing over of the iconic Kovalam Palace (Halcyon Castle) and its 4.13 hectares of land to RP Group of NRI businessman B. Ravi Pillai in June 2017. Pillai is known to be close to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.