Two months after the triumph of a unique electoral experiment, a sense of cautious excitement is in the air at Kizhakkambalam, a village with green hillocks, fertile farmlands and contemporary-style houses. A suburb of Kochi, the village is home to 30,000 residents, as well as the Anna-Kitex group of companies. It has the trappings of many modern urban amenities, but Kizhakkambalam’s mind is rural, economy agrarian and its electoral preferences, until recently, had mirrored Kerala’s bipartisan UDF-LDF politics. While the UDF is led by Congress (I), the communist parties make up the LDF coalition.
But since November, Kizhakkambalam has become a political lab. For the first time in India, as claimed, an apolitical outfit launched by a corporate house swept the gram panchayat elections, securing 17 out of the 19 seats on the village council. The Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam (Twenty20), a charity outfit floated by the Anna-Kitex Group, shocked political parties by capturing the panchayat with a 69 per cent vote share. In a politically-conscious Kerala, this victory is being hailed as a disruption of the political kind.
“We won because of the failure of the political parties to do things expected of them,” says Sabu M Jacob, Managing Director of Kitex Garments. He is also the chief coordinator of Twenty20. “Over the past two-and-a-half years, we used our own funds to carry out development work that the political parties ruling the panchayat could not do for decades.”
Jacob’s ₹750-crore export-oriented garments company is part of the Anna-Kitex Group founded by his father MC Jacob in the 1960s. While Kitex Garments disbursed its corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds to meet part of the developmental and welfare schemes undertaken by the T20, the Group, which also includes companies run by Jacob’s elder brother, spent ₹33 crore.
Kitex Garments supplies babies’ clothes to American and European companies and in 2015, was ranked as one of Forbes Asia’s 200 Best Under A Billion Dollar companies. The company, which has a market capitalisation of around $500 million, recently acquired a US garment brand and set up office in New Jersey to expand its market.
‘Threat to democracy’
But, Kitex’s `acquisition’ of the panchayat raised eyebrows of politicians and businessmen alike. “It’s a corporate takeover of the panchayat; it’s a threat to democracy,” says P Rajive, CPI(M)’s Ernakulam district secretary and former Rajya Sabha MP. “The Kitex company now pays monthly salaries to the panchayat president and the council members,” he says. “By accepting the salaries, the elected representatives of the village have reduced themselves to be the company’s employees.” Management experts and business leaders aren’t amused either. “Industrialists have no business directly running a panchayat,” says CJ George, Managing Director of Geojith BNP Paribas, a Kochi-based financial services firm. “What if the Adanis want to run Gujarat and the Ambanis or Tatas want to take over the administration of the entire country?”
But, the majority of local people do not seem to bother. “I am certain that Sabu sir and Twenty20 will take good care of our panchayat,” Ramakrishnan, a farm hand and father of two daughters, says while waiting for his weekly bag of vegetables and groceries at Twenty20’s food security shop.
The shops is one of the development and welfare activities conducted by Twenty20 that made it popular in the last two years. Other initiatives included setting up drinking-water tanks and toilets; repairing houses; sponsoring surgeries and wedding; building places of worship and donating seeds and agricultural implements.
The schemes made an impact. Autorickshaw drivers, who previously had a tiff with the Kitex Group, now are all praise for Sabu Jacob. “Each year, about 150 drivers get two pairs of khaki uniforms and two tyres for free, apart from an autorickshaw battery at half the price,” says Jaisson George, an autorickshaw driver. Twenty20 also organised a 47-day agitation to get a liquor outlet closed. The agitation won the hearts of thousands of women, who formed a major part of Twenty20 support base.Feud with ‘ netas ’
While Jacob claims that Twenty20 is all about philanthropy, locals reveal a political angle. Jacob’s late father had battled political parties and trade unions to make Anna Aluminium and Kitex (which stands for Kizhakkambalam Textiles) companies a rare industrial success in Kerala, which used to be a killing field of industries. But, since the mid-1990s, the local leadership of the Congress turned hostile to the Group. Some of Jacobs’ relatives, who had fallen out, are among the local leaders. Whenever the Congress came to power at the panchayat, claim those close to the company, the Jacobs would have trouble getting permits to run their business.
But Jacob, an aggressive entrepreneur who wanted to take the group to a higher growth trajectory, wanted to put an end to this. Capturing the panchayat administration through Twenty20 was his way of paying back, the locals say.
Twenty20’s biggest hit has been the food shop. Called Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam, the shop supplies vegetables and groceries at half the market price, or lower, to the registered households. One of the popular items is a bagful of mixed vegetables worth ₹300 a week, that a member can buy for ₹100. The shop manager points out that 7,000 households have registered with the shop and are given a smart card each to buy the subsidised goods. “An average of 1,000 cardholders come shopping each of the five days a week that the shop is open,” he says. The prices vary depending on the colour-coded cards, issued on the basis of the household survey conducted by Twenty20. “A small family’s food security is assured for ₹1,200-1,400 a month,” says Jacob, who fills in the difference between the cost of the goods and the price.Women support
Twenty20 has village-level committees, which recommend beneficiaries of charity and supervise development works. For the November elections, these committees selected candidates from a panel of three.
The candidates had to meet pre-requisites on education, age, and needed to be teetotallers and ‘God-fearing.’ Eleven out of the 19 candidates were women, and all of them got elected. “This was a typical Tamil Nadu-style freebies-for-votes politics,” frowns a local freelance reporter. Though the subsidised shop had a role in the success, the most important reason behind the triumph, according to VD Satheesan, was the `utter failure’ of the political parties in governing the panchayat.
Says the MLA and State Vice-President of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee: “People were also fed up with the arrogance of the local politicians. I wouldn’t blame the voters for accepting the alternative offered by Twenty20.” V-Guard Industries founder Kochouseph Chittilappilly views the victory as “a warning by the people to the political parties.
But K Rajesh, a local resident and former Youth Congress leader, alleges that Jacob is serving his long-term economic interest by securing power at the panchayat, particularly when the companies are planning to expand production. For instance, the plan to widen the four access roads to Kizhakkambalam, Rajesh alleges, is aimed at facilitating easy passage of large container lorries carrying goods from Kitex’s facilities to the seaport and airport at Kochi. The road project was the first to be taken up by the newly-elected panchayat council, he alleges. MVRajan, former panchayat president and a local Congress leader, rues: “By having the panchayat council in his pocket Sabu’s companies can now violate any environmental rule and easily get any required permit or licence.” Jacob, however, rejects the criticism and says that the road widening was on the election manifesto.
Both Jacob and Twenty20 have a long way to go. “So far, T20 has been doing good work; but, if it lets us down, we will throw it out in the next election,” says a local grocer, who has lost business because of the Twenty20 shop.