Kerala’s poverty is the lack of ambition

It needs an aspirational brand of politics; good economics follows good politics


Kannur, the home district of the current chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, is the epicentre of violence.  Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Kannur, the home district of the current chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, is the epicentre of violence. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Great branding is priceless. Take Kerala’s God’s own country. Just reading it would transport you to the utopia of the serene backwaters of Poovar, the pristine beaches of Varkala or the rolling hills of Eravikulam. It has yielded Kerala a place in National Geographic Traveler’s top 10 “paradises in the world” and brought tourism dollars. Good branding has also had certain unintended consequences. It buries all deficiencies and develops a certain sense of smugness about it. After all what can be wrong when you have God in your slogan!

Go a little deeper and there is a miasma of extremism, sectarian killing, unemployment and general apathy. Last month, it was reported that 22 people that were missing had volunteered to join the Islamic State. It is said that in certain parts of Malappuram, a hotbed of Islamist terror, law and order is pretty much absent.

The Indian Union Muslim League, which is part of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), has been pressing for the bifurcation of the Muslim-majority district. Left Democratic Front (LDF) activists have killed more than 250 Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers so far in an attempt to make it “bleed by a thousand cuts”. Kannur, the home district of the current chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan (and the late Communist giant A.K. Gopalan), is the epicentre of violence. The sheer goriness of the violence is sickening—a teacher killed in front of a classroom of children and a son in front of his parents. And recall how college professor T.J. Joseph’s hand was cut off for alleged blasphemy.

Kerala is like a spoilt rich kid—it is educated, healthy, thrives on expat money and does not do much to realize its potential. Kerala’s is a “money order” economy (now perhaps Western Union economy). Around 2.5 million expats work abroad, sending back remittances equalling about a third of the gross domestic product (GDP). The state tops the Human Development Index among Indian states. Anecdotal evidence says that low-level jobs in retail and farming have been taken over by the migrants from Bihar and Bengal.

Kerala was one of the centres of globalization in the first millennium. In Sanjeev Sanyal’s The Ocean Of Churn, he points to the port of Mucheripatanam, near present-day Kochi, as the entrepôt for goods traded from the Middle East and Europe to East Asia. Leviathans of Indian philosophy and science such as Adi Sankaracharya and Madhava, whose work continues to inspire people till date, come from Kerala. When one comes back to the present day, it is hard not to say, “What a fall!”.

Like in West Bengal, Communism took its toll. One can start a technology park in Kochi but how will it operate among trade unions and hartals? The “Kerala model” has resulted in a debt-to-state GDP of about 30%, compared to the all-state average of about 20%, thus kicking the can down to future generations to repay. Kochi ranks 16th in the list of top 17 Indian cities on ease of doing business. From 2000 to 2015, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka received around $18 billion each in foreign direct investments while Kerala received $1.2 billion. While all of its southern neighbours rode the information technology wave, Kerala just went for a massage.

Recently, Vijayan invited Harvard professor Gita Gopinath to advise him on reforms and quite bizarrely she recommend that Kerala follow the Chilean model. It is a tragicomedy of sorts playing out in the media, with the old guard of comrades Thomas Isaac, finance minister, and V.K. Ramachandran, vice-chairman of the Planning Board, seething against the “neo-liberal” recommendations!

Kerala needs a new brand of politics that is aspirational. Good economics only follows good politics. That is not possible when the two options presented, to electorate are the left and the extreme left. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a growing vote share (about 15% in the last elections) that is making its opponents restive. But the leadership vacuum in the party persists.

As the expats return due to the collapse of the oil economy in West Asia, and with advances in automation, there will be a labour surplus. Remember that most of the returnees will be low-skilled labourers such as drivers, salesmen and nurses. These returnees will compete with the new immigrants and in a state that is easily amenable to outrage, one can only hope that the situation does not get out of hand.

The ensuing state of confusion will provide fertile ground for new political entrepreneurs to rise. But the last thing Kerala wants is a new Arvind Kejriwal. With the prevailing ecosystem of NGOs, churches, madrasas it is not impossible that the “Delhi model” will be replicated.

First-century Roman satirist Juvenal bemoaned that the politicians of that day just doled out “bread and circuses” (cheap food and entertainment) to keep the population satisfied and that the Roman public itself did not care for much else.That commentary suits present-day Kerala well. It can continue to be mediocre and languish in the “backwaters” of the new economy or recapture its lost glory in trade and innovation. This generation of Malayalees has some serious thinking to do on the legacy they are leaving behind. They should not be referred to as what Theodore Roosevelt called: “those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

It’s time to wake up smell the robusta from Wayanad!

Banuchandar Nagarajan is a political and public policy adviser.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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