Party that grew out of tycoon's village projects captivates Keralites tired of politics as usual

Kerala's high literacy, joblessness and rapid urbanisation have created a restlessness. ST PHOTO: ROHINI MOHAN

KOCHI, KERALA - Ernakulam, the urban centre of this commercial hub, is in the grip of road envy ahead of elections to the Kerala state assembly on April 6. The broad highway-quality roads in a village barely 20km away are paving their way into many voters' minds.

As his sedan bounced over an uneven road in Ernakulam, driver Feby Joseph cursed: "Another road that politicians have eaten away! Enough of ideology, I want good roads like those in Kizhakambalam now!"

Mr Joseph, who usually votes for Kerala's ruling communists, said that this time, he might "give a chance" to Twenty20, a corporate-backed party that has helmed the Kizhakambalam village council since 2015. The fledgling outfit is now daringly contesting some state assembly constituencies.

In a region where political ideologies and party loyalties are instilled at home and in college, there is a growing longing among middle-class young people, and women especially, for an apolitical narrative, said Dr D. Dhanuraj, founder of the Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi.

Kerala's high literacy, joblessness and rapid urbanisation have created a restlessness. "Many people are tired and disgusted with conventional politics. They're looking for a party that offers a new development paradigm," he added.

The state's many civil society groups, especially those that became active during the massive floods in 2018 and 2019, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, have also recently tried to fill this political void.

In the December 2020 elections to urban and rural local councils, new parties like Twenty20, V4Kochi and One India One Pension fielded professionals instead of career politicians. They spoke of roads, industries and jobs.

Twenty20 has emerged as the most successful such party, thanks especially to the deep pockets and sheer ambition of its founder, textile tycoon Sabu Jacob.

The young businessman's family runs the fortress-like Anna-Kitex garment factory in Kizhakambalam. In 2012, he started a charity to make "at least one model village in Kerala" where people would want for nothing. He wrote his deadline into its name: Twenty20.

When elected village leaders denied him permits for development in his preferred speed and style, an angry Mr Jacob decided to enter politics.

Mr Jacob, who describes himself as "first a businessman", didn't run himself. But in 2015, contestants he backed won the village council polls by a sweeping majority in his native village. In the next five years, Mr Jacob was able to lay broad roads, rejuvenate ponds, refurbish schools and build 943 two-bedroom houses for those who lived in shacks.

He supplemented government funds with his own, and brought in trusted contractors who did not take kickbacks or use poor quality adulterated materials. He also found unconventional ways to expedite work.

The Twenty20 food security supermarket that offers 60 to 80 percent discounts to some residents in Kizhakambalam village. ST PHOTO: ROHINI MOHAN

For instance, he controversially paid the elected village council members a monthly income in addition to their government salaries "to keep them honest and working 24/7".

To find land for road expansion, Twenty20 sidestepped India's land acquisition law, and entered into private contracts with the owners of roadside properties. In exchange for her strip of land, Mrs Shobana Salim got a new wall and a voucher to "shop for a fixed amount per month in the Twenty20 supermarket".

The supermarket is in some ways at the centre of Mr Jacob's governance model. The poor who received free housing can also shop here at 60 to 80 per cent discounts. "All he wants in return is my vote," reasoned rubber tapper Rajan V.Y. "Wo why not give it to him?"

The approach faces relentless pushback. Mr Jacob went to court 42 times in five years, he said, to clear blocks imposed by the state government.

"I'm not doing anything illegal. My supermarket makes no profit," said Mr Jacob, leaning back in a plush leather chair in his office.

"I am the 211th richest person in Kerala, and I created a model village through scientific planning and systematic, corruption-free implementation. What stops the other 210 people richer than me from replicating it? It's not about money, you need social commitment."

Mr Sabu Jacob started the Twenty20 party in Kizhakambalam to do "performance-based politics". ST PHOTO: ROHINI MOHAN

The prestige projects and discounts became Twenty20's greatest advertisement. In December 2020, the party won in three neighbouring villages, defeating established politicians in their strongholds. In January this year, Twenty20 kicked off an online membership drive and more than 125,000 signed up in Ernakulam alone.

The party is now fielding eight candidates in the state assembly elections, including a former journalist, a businessman, academics and doctors. "We wanted honest professionals for whom politics is service, not a source of earning," said Mr Jacob.

Rival parties have dismissed Twenty20 as a rogue element that will simply divert votes away from the main two players, the communist-led Left Democratic Front and the opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front. While eight of 140 seats won't make a huge difference in the current elections, the party's popularity heralds Kerala's gradual departure from political bipolarity.

Like the Aam Aadmi Party did in the Delhi state elections, Twenty20 offers competitive administration without corruption - "performance-based politics, not issue-based politics", as Mr Jacob said. He would not comment on key policy issues like environmental degradation, civil liberties, and women's entry into the Sabarimala temple, even though his party is making a bid to enter the legislature, where laws are passed on such matters.

"Some might feel it's an unsustainable political vacuum, but it appeals to the educated middle class that wants only jobs and roads. And the poor just want leaders to respond to their basic needs quickly and without bribes," said Dr Dhanuraj.

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