MT Vasudevan Nair critiques ‘leadership cults’: Full speech at Kerala Lit Fest

MT Vasudevan Nair said no demigod in the fields of politics or culture in Kerala is known to admit mistakes even if they have erred.
Writer MT Vasudevan Nair and Chief  Minister Pinarayi Vijayan at the Kerala Literature Festival
Writer MT Vasudevan Nair and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan at the Kerala Literature Festival
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The inaugural speech delivered by renowned author and Jnanpith laureate MT Vasudevan Nair at the seventh edition of the Kerala Literature Festival in Kozhikode has raked up a controversy in the state. Discussions on the speech made on Thursday, January 12, now revolve around which political leader the litterateur must have targeted while criticising the “ritualistic worship” of those in power. Seated on stage as MT spoke was Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who has been of late receiving much criticism for “positioning himself above the party and the people”, with a Minister even calling him “god’s gift”. While many took MT’s speech as a direct jibe at Pinarayi, others explained it as directed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Clarifying his stand, MT later said that his words were not intended at the state government or the Chief Minister. 

Read the full speech here:

I had taken part in the first edition of this literary festival. I'm happy to learn that the festival is into its seventh year. I desire to speak here about a historic necessity.

For long we have been hearing laments about erosion of values in politics. Debates on why this happens is met with a lethargic response: that it's due to absence of worthy individuals.

Politics is a recognised pathway to power. Power anywhere could mean supremacy or autocracy. A position in the Assembly, the Parliament, or the Cabinet is an opportunity for having dominion. The idea that assuming such power is an exceptional opportunity to serve people has been buried many years ago.

This old theory of serving people has also been forgotten in Russia, which removed Tsarist rulers through a historic revolution. The warning of disintegration there was first sounded by Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst, Marxist philosopher and disciple of Sigmund Freud in 1944.

Reich reminded us that it is important to analyse the causes of disintegration with abundance of caution rather than being in a state of denial. He warned us that entrusting sectors like industry, culture, and science with management that has excessive concentration of power would be the beginning of downfall.

The masses who participated in the revolution were a mob. The mob can be easily provoked and moulded into fans or mercenaries.

The mob needs to transform itself into a society that is responsible, acquire power, and embrace freedom. Freedom is not breadcrumbs of generosity thrown by a ruler. Before Reich, two men had stated that Russia can survive only if the mob transforms itself into a responsible society — writers [Maxim] Gorky and [Anton] Chekhov.

They were against pleasing the crowd by blaming the existence of all evil on Tsarist rule, showering vacuous praises, and hyping achievements. They dreamt about a Russian society that preserves a light of freedom inside. They reminded that Marx never said that the aim of revolution is usurping state power alone.

What should people in Russia need to do to transform into a society? Gorki quotes Chekov:

"A strange creature is the Russian man. There is nothing in him like a sieve, and in his youth he has filled his soul with everything he has on his hand, and after the 30s he remains to live well, human, to work, to work with love, faith, and in our country they do not know what to do. The architect, after building two or three decent houses, sat to play cards all over life plays or stands out behind theatre scenes. The doctor, if he has patients, stops studying science ... the attorney no longer cares for the protection of justice, but only defends his right to property."

In 1957, the Communist party assumed power in Kerala through the ballot box. There might be some who turn lackadaisical because of the thought that aim has been achieved. EMS became worthy of revolutionary adulation as a great leader because he thought of power as an opportunity to herald a movement to transform the masses who rallied in processions, assembled as crowds in maidans, and filled ballot boxes with their votes, into a responsible society.

EMS was anxious about Kerala, the motherland of Malayalis while deliberating on people participation through decentralisation of power. He constantly engaged himself in thoughts about language, literature, and culture. He was obstinate about safeguarding the naturality and simplicity of Malayalam because of the conviction that workmanship and work tool of society is its language.

He was ridiculed when an admission came that they erred in their approaches towards literature. I could never agree with his early literary theories. No demigod in the fields of politics or culture here is known to admit mistakes even if they have erred. I believe it is important to overcome the hubris of ego and legitimise mindfulness. I became wonderstruck when EMS stated that he could continuously refine his perspective even while searching for arguments against political opponents. For EMS, such enquiries were a continuous process.

Time will evict people who continue to hold on to dogmas from the past related to freedom and progress of society. The societal concepts of freedom are in a state of flux and subject to analysis and correction. In my limited perspective, EMS strived to change the thought that one person should lead and others be led. This is the reason why he steered clear of worships associated with leadership cults.

In certain moments of history as determined by the times we live in, some persons reach leadership positions like those ordained. A leader who accepts responsibility, with respect and without fear, and is desirous of creating a society that wants to be free of all kinds of repression, needs to generate thoughts for new pathways and visions for new horizons. In that moment, the leader ceases to be someone who is ordained and turns into a historical necessity. EMS was such a leader.

I end my words with the hope that people in power would continue to act by imbibing this as the need of the time.

Translated from the Malayalam by Binu Karunakaran.

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