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Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac: Communism Lite

This article was originally published by Untold Stories: Dispatches from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Kochi (Cochin)—Party politics in this tropical state are as peppery as the cuisine, protest demonstrations are akin to street theater, and red banners blazoned with the hammer and sickle are as much roadway icons as shrines to Hindu gods and the ubiquitous images of Jesus. In 1957, arguably for the first time anywhere, Communists came to power here through a genuinely free election. Over five decades, Keralites have regularly switched from Communist-led coalitions to centrist blocs led by the Congress Party. In 2006, voters again awarded the Communists a five-year term. So it was with some curiosity that we prepared to meet a sitting Communist official, Chairman K.P. Raveendran, who heads the municipal council in Thalassery. He greeted us in his office, where a dozen aides crowded around us. Coconuts with straws were politely offered, as well as a sheet in handwritten English celebrating the district’s history. The forty-something chairman dressed informally—no one wears ties in Kerala—and tended to the opaque commonplaces one hears from local party bosses everywhere. His career? He rose through the youth wing of the Communist Party then became a full time organizer and a member of the municipal council. But, we wondered, since there are far more shopkeepers than factory workers in Kerala, and since three religions permeate the state, where does party get its votes? “We welcome the votes of whoever supports our goals.” How then does his party differ from European Social Democrats? “Our party has an international Marxist ideology,” he frowned, adding that it was less dependent on a single leader (at least in Kerala). And evidently it is also an ecumenical party. The Chairman announced: “I’m a Hindu; my number two is a Muslim.”

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