Voters in the south Indian state of Kerala, one of this country's poorest yet one of its most literate, have a well-earned reputation for being political mavericks. Now politicians here fear Prime Minister Indira Gandhi will make them pay a heavy price for their independence.
Gandhi has already dissolved nine state governments run by parties in opposition to her Congress-I (for Indira) Party, and political observers here and in New Delhi expect her to turn next to the communist governments of Kerala and West Bengal.
It would be fitting revenge for her since voters here handed Gandhi her only political setback just two weeks after she won a landslide victory in January to become prime minister.
Despite two days of active campaigning -- in which Gandhi had herself weighed against bags of sugar, the Indian equivalent of eating knishes at Coney Island -- Keralites elected a Left Democratic Fron Coalition headed by a low-key bourgeois Marxist party with a platform that Ronald Reagan could run on.
The coalition is pursuing policies aimed more at reforming the system than making radical change. One plank in the party manifesto, for instance, calls for encouraging private industries to open factories in Kerala -- putting it firmly on the side of the chamber of commerce.
"Scientific socialism cannot be influential in a capitalist society. Only gradual change can work," said E. K. Nayanar, the communist chief minister.
But progressive governments have found fertile soil in the lush, green environment of Kerala, which looks more like a South Sea island than a part of India. Stretching down the west coast of India to the subcontinent's southern tip, Kerala elected its first communist government in 1957.
It was a landmark event -- the first communist government ever to take power through the ballot box in the world.
But it was hardly a revolutionary government. One of its major aims was gain international status for the airport here in Trivandrum, the capital city, so it would be easier for Keralites to go overseas to work.
It is not so different now. The current government wants the airport at Cochin, the state's major business center, to become international.
By Indian standards though, Kerala has become one of this country's most progressive states. It has established an agricultural minimum wage of $1 a day for men and -- showing it is not fully enlightened -- about 82 cents a day for women. Factory workers make about the same, which is about 2 1/2 times more than they would earn if they worked in neighboring Tamil Nadu. Along with a more organized labor force, the wage rate is cited as one reason for the lack of industrialization here.
Kerala spends more on education than any other Indian state -- 38 percent of the state's budget compared to 23 percent in the country as a whole. Its literacy rate of 60 percent is more than twice that of the country, and nearly 95 percent of children between 6 and 11 go to school.
The state has more than 140 daily newspapers, most published in the Malayalam language, and even the poorest workers start their day by reading the news.
"The first thing even the rickshaw pullers do in the morning is go to a tea stand for breakfast, read the paper and discuss politics," said an editor of a Malayalam newspaper here.
The leftist governments have also instituted the most progressive land reform program in the country and Kerala is the only state in India where infant mortality and life expectancy approach Western European norms. Although they are often understaffed, there are medical dispensaries in every village and birth control programs appear to have caught on here as nowhere else in India.
Yet Kerala is one of India's poorest states, even though it has the greatest potential agricultural wealth. It supplies most of India's raw rubber and a large share of its spices, cashew nuts and copra, from which coconut oil is pressed.
All manufacturing of products from raw agricultural materials is done elsewhere, and officials here repeat the arguments that Third World countries use against the industrialized West: they feel exploited by neighboring industrialized states.
In fact, Kerala is in the position of many Third World countries, in that it sells raw materials to other parts of India at low prices and then has to pay high prices to get manufactured goods.
Kerala has started very little idustry, and the state-run enterprises almost all run with great losses.
"Kerala is not getting its full share of developmental activities," said Jacob Eapen, an economist who is director of the Marxist Indian School of Social Sciences here.
The state's current budget, submitted earlier this month, emphasizes welfare plans such as pensions for agricultural workers over 60, group insurance for fishermen and health programs for schoolchildren.
Kerala inherited a tradition of emphasis on health and education and progressive government from the maharajahs who ruled the state before India gained independence in 1947.
With their encouragement, Christian missionaries came here, established colleges and libraries, and in 1855 began giving smallpox injections.
Politics in Kerala are fierce. With the population a mixture of Hindus, Christian and Moslems, no caste or religious group has dominance, and as a result, coalitions are the only form of government.
The country's two communist parties -- the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which once was closely tied with China, and the Communist Party of India, which generally hews to the Moscow line -- had long opposed each other here. This year, however, they were part of the Left Democratic Front coalition with the Communist Party of India-Marxist leading the opposition to the Congress-I-led United Democratic Front.
It was the first time the Communist Party of India-Marxist had gained power in a decade.Now, however, they are worried. Jyoti Basu, the chief minister of West Bengal, another Communist Party of India-Marxist-run state, said last week that Congress-I members are staging disruptive demonstrations in the capital of Calcutta as an excuse to dissolve the state government there.
The action has not been as direct here, partially because the new government just gained power in January and the defeat of Gandhi's Congress-I was resounding. Although Gandhi drew large crowds, the Left Democratic Front won 93 seats in the state legislature compared to 41 for the Congress-I coalition.
But politicians recall that Gandhi was president of the ruling Congress Party in 1959 when her father, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, ordered Kerala's first communist government dissolved. Now they wonder if she will do the same.