TRIVANDRUM, Kerala — M. A. Baby is giving us an introductory dose of Indian leftism in power.
A Communist and a Catholic, too, he is the Minister of Education and Culture in a coalition government that runs the state of Kerala — often described as the most (perhaps the only) successful Communist regime (and one of the best-educated states) in human experience.
M. A. Baby embodies Communism in the Indian style, sitting before a portrait of Gandhi, quoting Marx and Engels as Gospel. Non-aligned between Soviet Russia and China in the old days, Indian Reds are an articulate fringe in national politics, with real voting bases in only three states: West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala.
Here in Kerala, Communists have been a key stone in solid progressive alliance over most of century, and they share the credit for India’s best scores in literacy, public health, anti-caste reforms and relative equality of fortunes. Yet in many conversations (including ours with Paul Zacharia) the Communists have a share in the general disrepute of government for cronyism, if not corruption.
The deeper discouragement, as Minister Baby himself acknowledges, is that the many left-wing governments of Kerala in 63 years since Independence have all been stymied by economic stagnation and unemployment. Kerala is in the habit of giving young people first-rate educations for jobs that don’t exist. The best and brightest from Kerala work in the Europe, the Gulf and the States. By Minister Baby’s estimate, which staggers me, a quarter of Kerala’s gross annual income comes in remittances from out-of-state.
CL: A lot of students in Kerala, when we asked about their politics, called it “left.” But none could say what the agenda was. How would you describe the content of your “left”?
MAB: The left, according to me, is those who are fighting to reduce the inequities in society — if possible to eradicate the man-made differences in society. There are natural differences. But the natural resources in this beautiful planet should not be monopolized by some. According to me, we don’t say: ‘this part of the air and atmosphere and oxygen belongs to me; this much of the sunshine belongs to me.’ The entire humanity should have an almost equal say and share. I’m not against private property, but private property should be to a minimum. And human beings are not the center of all activity, as they used to be in all progressive thinking. Now all the other creatures — they, too, have an equal right to this beautiful planet.
CL: What’s the connection with Mahatma Gandhi, whose portrait is over your desk, as it is over so many desks?
MAB: Albert Einstein said that future generations would find it difficult to believe that a person of flesh and blood like Mahatma Gandhi walked this earth. It’s a very true description. I have the greatest respect for the contribution of Mahatma Gandhi, and I have all the works of Mahatma Gandhi with me. Whenever I get tired I read him almost at random. It’s very interesting in the formulations of Mahatma Gandhi that he claimed: ‘I am a Hindu. I am a Muslim. I am a Buddhist. And I am a poor Communist.’ And to a great extent he is serious. I could see the influence of Communism in him.
CL: I keep seeing 95 percent as the measure of literacy in the state of Kerala. Everybody says that for 50 years in India, Kerala has led the way toward literacy, and now computer literacy, but also social equality, health care and health itself. Why so different from the rest of India?
MAB: Historically even the monarchy, the royalty we had, used to take an interest in education and cultural matters. Even during royal times, and British times, in the field of education, progressive things were happening — with a lot of limitations. So after Independence, the gap we had to cover in literacy and education was less than what existed in other provinces. It’s like Sir Isaac Newton saying: ‘If I am able to see further… it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
M. A. Baby in conversation with Chris Lydon in Trivandrum, India. July, 2010