Keeping the red flag flying
I find politics fascinating and keep a keen interest on what is going on wherever I travel to. In the middle of March this year coinciding with our visit Keralan politics were in turmoil and Friday 13th March, according to the New Indian Express with its wonderfully quaint English, “had all the ingredients to be recorded as a Black Day in the history of Kerala politics”.
The flash point was the ruling party’s attempt to present a budget at the state legislature in the capital, Thiruvananthapuram or Trivandrum, its colonial name for short. The trouble was that the Finance Minister, K M Mani, has been arraigned on multiple charges of corruption and the opposition party claimed that any attempt on his part to present the budget was invalid.
Now here we are used to scenes of braying MPs trying to drown out a speaker from the other side. Occasionally, and it is very occasionally, an MP will take some direct action – Michael Heseltine seizing and swinging round the speaker’s mace in 1976 comes to mind. But in Kerala they do things differently.
The protest spun out of control when a number of MPs went on a rampage, damaging the furniture and equipment on the Speaker’s dais, toppling over his chair and destroying the microphone unit, digital display, computer and lights. One elected member is alleged to have bitten another on the shoulder during the mayhem.
The Speaker did eventually manage to reach his podium and called Mani to present the budget. Mani read the budget – the thirteenth on the thirteenth, what were they thinking? – in six minutes flat in a voice that was barely audible whilst all around him mayhem continued, with opposition MPs trying to reach him – by this time he was heavily guarded – and standing on tables.
The budget was presented , according to protocol or so said the Speaker, but the result of the furore was that around 20 opposition MPs and twelve members of the parliamentary staff were injured, several of them having to be taken out on stretchers or wheelchairs. Five MPs were subsequently suspended.
The Left Democratic Front immediately declared a hartal from dawn to dusk for the following day – a mass protest involving a total shutdown of workplaces, shops, offices and schools and a prohibition on driving cars. This was generally well observed and for many tourists who were proposing to travel on the Saturday it created significant logistical problems. Those who were moving out of state had to time their journeys so that they were out of Kerala by 6 am.
As luck would have it that Saturday was the one day on our itinerary that we didn’t have much travelling to do. It was rather eerie to see roads that were normally crowded with all forms of transportation – some mechanised and some relying on animal and even human power – empty and all the shops which were usually brisk with trade shuttered up and closed. To enforce the hartal bands of vigilantes waving red flags patrolled the streets, charging around on scooters on the lookout for blacklegs.
As is often the way revolutionary fervour seemed to dissipate after lunch and our driver decided to venture out. Even so, when he saw a couple on a scooter waving a red flag coming our way, he shot down a private drive, to the owner’s (and our) surprise.
Come six o’clock, dusk, the place suddenly came alive.
These are some of the unexpected logistical problems the intrepid traveller faces!