In 1957, the people of the Indian state of Kerala became the first group in the world to democratically elect a communist government. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), also known as CPI(M), maintained power in the state for 50 years, finally losing control of its majority coalition in 2011. Several unique political and economic factors allowed communism and Marxism to flourish in Kerala even as communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and radically transformed in the People's Republic of China.
Large Economic Inequality
A major source of the Communist Party of India's success in Kerala was the widespread economic inequality in the region in the period just after India's independence from Britain. T.J. Nossiter, author of a book on communism in Kerala, noted that the state had the highest proportion of agricultural workers of any region in India during the period of communist control. The agricultural workers tended to be extremely poor, while landowners in Kerala were exceptionally wealthy by Indian standards. The widespread economic inequality encouraged support for the CPI(M) because the organization promised to distribute wealth more evenly.
Education of the Poor
Kerala's unusually sophisticated education system also helped communism flourish in India's post-independence period. According to "Isis Magazine," Kerala's high literacy rate encouraged peasants and other working-class citizens to engage in politics. Once they gained power in 1957, the CPI(M) rapidly expanded the education system. The school system led Kerala to the highest literacy rate in all of India by 2007, but communist control of the schools also enabled the indoctrination of the state's young people. That, in turn, allowed the party to maintain control of the state for generations.
Absence of Sectarian Conflict
Another factor that helped communism take hold in Kerala was the relative absence of sectarian conflict. In the first several decades of Indian independence, many parts of the country were rocked by constant religious and ethnic violence. In Kerala, however, such sectarian violence was rare. In other parts of India, poor Hindus and poor Muslims were politically divided. The divide made it impossible for a single party to win the support of all the elements of lower classes. The peacefulness of various religious sects in Kerala facilitated cooperation among the lower classes of society, allowing the CPI(M) to lead a strong majority of voters.
Persecution of Communists
The final element contributing to the success of the communist movement in Kerala is surprising. Ironically, the persecution of communists in Kerala actually encouraged support for the Communist Party. According to the CPI(M), more than 3,000 communists were killed by Indian police in the few years following Indian independence. The violence encouraged sympathy with the communist cause, especially since many of the communists were killed while trying to secure minimum wage increases and other rights for workers. Many people felt shut out of the political process. Communism offered a chance to influence local politics and oppose powerful elites in the region.
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