Friday, February 29, 2008

US Presidential Election Hot News in Kerala

The Mahatma has been an inspiration, says Obama: A cartoon in Thejas daily, Kozhikode.

SUPER TUESDAY was big news in newspapers across the world. The ongoing process of selection of the presidential candidate especially in the Democratic Party where a white woman and a black man are fighting it out for the first time in US history, has evoked considerable excitement all over the world.

But the Malayalam media seems to have gone many steps forward, as Super Tuesday and the subsequent victories for Barak Obama has been major news items in the regional papers for the past many weeks. The US contest is now keenly watched by the Malayalam media, especially the newspapers from the northern belt that serve a predominantly Muslim population.

In fact, compared to other south Indian regional language newspapers, Malayalam edia had played up the US elections to such an extent that it needs a serious study of the politics and sociology of the region to understand the phenomenon of the keen interest in an election taking place so far away from their homes. On Super Tuesday, among the dozen Malayalam newspapers that I read, I found almost half of them prominently displaying the news on front pages. The coverage, in comparison to Tamil and Kannada newspapers, was much more elaborate and extravagant, as I found in a quick survey.

The phenomenon of such a huge public interest in the US elections, at such an early stage in the long drawn process when even the candidates are yet to be decided, needs a thorough understanding about the social and political situation in a State that is keenly tuned to international developments. The Kerala media seemed to follow up the Hillary Clinton-Barak Obama battle as if they were candidates in a local election.

There are many aspects to this unusual interest in the global affairs. First, Kerala has always been a place that was more international in its outlook and contacts. Its Communist traditions partly account for it, as in the past every development in Soviet Union and China had set off serious debates within the State. Its literature is replete with references to these countries and their people and there has always been an interest in the global confrontation between the capitalist west and the socialist east. The Communist parties had, in their conferences and meetings in which large number of ordinary masses attended, made regular references to the international developments.

A second factor is that Malayalees have, for generations, strayed out of their narrow strip of land on the banks of the Arabian Sea for a livelihood, and they have such a massive diaspora in every part of the planet. The migration has been a regular phenomenon, dating back to pre-Independence days, and a 2007 December study conducted by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies (CDS) has found that the migration levels of Kerala had remained almost constant at around 25 percent in the past five years. This is one of the highest migration levels among all states in India. The survey also found that almost 26 percent of the households in the State have at least an NRK(non-resident Keralite) as a member, whether stationed outside or returned, while foreign remittances contributed to around 20 percent of the State’s total NSDP(net state domestic product).

Another interesting point revealed in the study is that Muslims have the highest number of NRKs, consisting of 50 percent of all NRKs from the State. In fact the largest migration levels are reported from the northern districts of Malappuram, Kannur and Kasargode, all with substantial Muslim population. The highest level of NRK concentration in the district is in Malappuram, with 71 percent of the households having an NRK member.

The NRKs are generally concentrated in the Gulf region, which has become a centre for global political confrontation between the West and the Muslim countries of the east. Perhaps, this explains the unusual interest the newspapers run by Muslim community in Kerala has been showing in the US election. In Kerala, there are as many as five major mainstream newspapers that cater to the Muslim community, a religious minority that comes to around 22 per cent of the population. As a community, Muslims in Kerala, mainly living in the northern Malabar region, are now showing a vigor unseen in the past. Just two decades ago, they had just one newspaper, Chandrika, run by the Muslim League, but recent years have seen a massive growth in the Muslim media. From the city of Kozhikode alone, five morning newspapers are coming out targeting the Muslims readers while there are around a score other publications including weeklies and magazines. Madhyamam, Chandrika, Siraj, Varthamanam and Thejas are the five major Muslim dailies and among them all but Thejas, launched only two years ago, have editions in various Gulf cities.

And reading their pages, one realizes that they are more international than any other major national newspapers which give scanty coverage to international affairs. The Bush administration’s attack against Iraq and its aftermath, Israel’s aggression against Palestine, the Iran nuclear imbroglio, etc, were followed up as eagerly as any local event by these newspapers. In fact unlike other mainstream newspapers, Thejas and Madhyamam, two leading Muslim newspapers, devote full pages for international affairs.

The fact seems to be that global events, especially attacks on the Muslim community everywhere is as avidly followed up by editors as well as their readers as any other local event. That explains the keen interest in Hillary-Obama tussle, as people here expect that an Obama victory would have a tremendous impact on the United States’ Iraq policy. There is also a hope that a saner attitude to the Muslim community would be pursued if Obama comes to power.

The same message is what one gets reading the letters to the editor columns in these newspapers. In a place where there are umpteen number of issues to write to the editor about, like the huge rise in rice price to the lack of employment to the increasing menace of mosquitoes in cities, one finds that almost half of the letters in the Muslim media are about global affairs, from the hanging of Saddam Hussein to the plight of the Palestinian children in Gaza strip.

(; cartoon courtesy:Sudheernath, New Delhi.)

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