Why India’s South rejects Modi — and Why it matters

The more progressive and successful part of the country is drifting away from the poverty-ridden north and its majoritarian leader.

First Published8 Apr 2024
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI)

A child born in Kerala in India’s south has a better chance of surviving to age five than in the US. In Uttar Pradesh in the north, the odds are worse than in Afghanistan.

As India goes to polls in a couple of weeks to elect its next government, pundits’ focus will be on the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hypnotic sway on the landlocked, impoverished north. The south’s rejection of the leader and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, will be brushed aside because it may not change the overall outcome. That is a mistake.

The north hogs the limelight because of its numbers. Whoever controls Uttar Pradesh, a state more populous than Brazil and poorer than sub-Saharan Africa, has superior odds of capturing the reins of federal administration. And there’s a near-consensus that UP and its neighboring states are ready to give the strongman a third term. The opposition alliance, which accuses him of preparing to sweep the election by jailing its leaders and choking its funds, fears that India’s secular constitution will be upended in Modi 3.0. Although the prime minister has denied any such plan, a Hindu rashtra, or nation-state, will play well in the north.

The very prospect of such an outcome fills the south with dread. The 675-mile-long mountain range that cuts through central India is no longer just a geographical divide. Ten years of Modi’s polarizing rule have caused a yawning gulf, not only in what voters are getting from their government but what they even want from it. Economic prosperity and social progress, the top concerns in the south, have no place left in the north. Modi didn’t create the vacuum of hope. He just filled the hole in people’s material lives with religious fervor. It’s a passion that finds its release in tormenting people of non-Hindu faiths, particularly Muslims who account for 14% of the population. Another five years of the same majoritarianism might strain the nation’s federal fabric and jeopardize India’s future as a pluralistic, free-market democracy of 1.4 billion people.

Much of the country’s modern, fast-growing economy — the very thing for which global investors value India — resides in the more open and tolerant south. Here, decades of social reforms have led to a flowering of civic consciousness among followers of the three major religions: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Living standards have risen. In Tamil Nadu, where the poverty rate is 2%, there’s no appetite for Modinomics, not when the western state of Gujarat — where he was chief minister for more than 12 years — counts 12% of its population as poor. 

The north has been denied development for so long it has stopped believing in it. The majority community has come to view a militant assertion of its religious identity as the ultimate civilizational goal. So when Modi inaugurates a Hindu temple, built at the same spot where mobs destroyed a 16th-century mosque in 1992, they see him as a savior. He has come to restore their wounded pride by avenging the Muslim conquests that later flourished into the Mughal dynasty famous for the Taj Mahal. That the prime minister also gives people free food and some money in their bank accounts is considered a bonus. The citizen in the north is content to have become a “labharthi,” Hindi for beneficiary.

The south, where Islam arrived with sea-borne commerce rather than conquest, can’t understand the fuss over yet another temple, not when it has many grand ones of its own and has spent 100 years asserting marginalized people’s rights of worship. That was how, in 1925, Tamil Nadu began democratizing its society — by challenging Hinduism’s hierarchical caste system under E.V. Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar.

After India won its freedom from the British in 1947, Tamil Nadu was quick to grasp that there would no dramatic redistribution of farmland. The landed gentry’s interests were far too powerful. So Periyar’s self-respect movement, which by then had spawned a political party, decided to broaden access to education, health and non-farm jobs, correctly viewing them as pathways to social justice in a modernizing economy.

This is what came to be known as “The Dravidian Model,” explain the authors of the book by the same name. Dravida is a seventh-century derivative of the Tamil name for their language. While linguistic pride sustained popular support for Dravidian policies and politicians, the economic model itself was mostly common sense. The north missed the trick because its champions of the downtrodden didn’t really have a plan for their immersion in a more urban, capitalist economy. The results show it. More than 47% of Tamil Nadu’s 18-to-23-year-olds are in higher education, compared with 17% in Bihar in the east. 

Madhya Pradesh in central India wants to set aside one-fourth of all beds in district hospitals for paying customers. That’s almost a death sentence to tribal communities and urban poor who can’t afford private care. Tamil Nadu, too, cut costs in public health in the 1990s, but by eliminating shortages. R Poornalingam, then the state’s health secretary, centralized purchases of quality drugs. Costs came down, availability went up. People’s out-of-pocket medical expenses are 24% lower than in UP, even though the government of the northern state allocates more of the state’s output to health. “The north should be governed by enlightened politicians focused on the two key sectors for human capital — education and heath,” Poornalingam told me on a recent trip there. 

The two are closely linked, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Kerala, where I met up with Antony Kollannur, a specialist in tropical pediatrics. The former UNICEF official served across the country on important campaigns like polio eradication, child survival and safe motherhood. He recalls how women in the north almost never spoke up in public meetings. That’s very different from his hometown in Kerala where — regardless of their religion or economic status — they participate vigorously with facts, figures and demands of accountability. When the electorate isn’t educated, officials lie and cover up, as UP did with polio numbers during Kollannur’s time — and with its Covid-19 death toll and oxygen shortages, more recently. 

Kollannur invited me to visit the community health center near his house in Kochi. The port city on India’s southwestern coast was the seat of its first European settlement in 1500 A.D. The facility, which caters to the fishing community, has doctors, nurses, medicines, beds, modern diagnostics, a busy immunization program, and even a dentistry department. The medical care for which people in the north get pushed toward private providers is available in Kerala as a free public service. (Arvind Kejriwal, the northern politician who tried to emulate the southern model as the chief minister of Delhi state, was arrested by federal agencies just before elections.)

The mood in the south has turned dark. P Thiaga Rajan is a former investment banker who worked in New York and Singapore. Currently the state’s minister for information technology, Rajan is also a preeminent voice on lopsided resource distribution. UP gets more of federal tax revenue than all five southern states — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh — combined. Rajan doesn’t begrudge the money going north, but he’s worried that it’s producing no convergence in living standards. In his estimation, if UP, growing 2 percentage points slower than Tamil Nadu, were to expand 2 percentage points faster than the southern state, their per capita incomes would level — in 64 years.

The economic contest is over, but the north may still hope to catch up socially. As the region sends its surplus labor to the south, these workers will have to leave linguistic, religious, caste and gender chauvinism behind to assimilate. Arjun Yadav is trying to do just that, supporting his family in rural Bihar with his wages in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. After last year’s paddy harvest on their smallholding, his wife didn’t want him to go back to his driver’s job. Fake news that workers from Bihar were being attacked in Tamil Nadu had gone viral. The issue became serious enough for Rajan’s boss and Chief Minister MK Stalin, who was named after the Soviet leader by his father, a leading light of the Dravidian movement, to assure workers of their safety. A Youtuber was arrested for circulating misinformation. Yadav returned to Chennai.

Kerala, long known for supplying labor to the Middle East, is grappling with a new wave of post-pandemic migration of its educated youth to the West. With full literacy and women’s empowerment having crunched fertility rates, the state’s challenge is to replenish its aging workforce by providing a safe environment to migrants from the north. That means building on success stories like Muhammad Dilshad. The son of illiterate Muslim laborers from Bihar, Dilshad topped the state’s high-school exam in 2019, after mastering the local language. Back in the north, there are many Dilshads whose lives won’t be any different from their parents. 

Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, is India’s technology powerhouse.  Here, I met a Ph.D. engineer — the first from her southern village — who’s up against the staggering challenge of using electricity to propel flights: a sort of Toyota Prius for the skies. In Uttar Pradesh, by contrast, the state’s BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath believes that women can’t handle independence, they need protection.

The Congress Party, the main challenger to Modi in the elections, recognizes the barriers women face to enter employment. After wresting power from the BJP in Karnataka state elections last year, Congress made public buses free for women. The prime minister says “freebies” aren’t sound public policy. But spending on mobility is hardly a waste if it helps to draw out three out of four of India’s women who aren’t in the workforce.

Voters in Tamil Nadu and Kerala are expected to reject the BJP. The ruling party’s wins in other southern states will also be limited. That conclusion, too, is baked into pollsters’ forecasts. Yet, the south doesn’t matter. Add Bihar’s 40 seats in the lower house of parliament to UP’s 80, and you have twice as strong a political representation as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which will together send 59 lawmakers to New Delhi this year. In 2029, after the 545-member parliament is expanded following a new population census, the south’s voice will get tinier still. 

Already, the region’s progress is under threat from the federal government’s overreach. In Kerala, the Modi administration is in a standoff with the state. New Delhi wants the kind of  medical center I visited to change its name to “temple of good health.” 

Kerala was India’s first state where communists won an election — in 1957. The current Marxist government, which received worldwide acclaim for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, refuses to cave in: Why temple, its health minister asks. What’s wrong with center? Karnataka and Kerala have both dragged the Modi government to the Supreme Court. The former is bitter about not receiving federal funds to deal with devastating droughts, the latter wants to know why state legislation is being unconstitutionally blocked. Kerala has also refused to put up Modi “selfie points” at ration shops, where people can stand next to a cardboard cutout of the prime minister and take a photo.

But the bastion of India’s anti-Modi resistance is Tamil Nadu, which makes iPhone 15 for Apple Inc. and accounts for 30% of the nation’s electronics exports, more than any other state. This is where India’s stunted manufacturing can breathe and grow, despite most recent investments being forced to go to Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The reason is simple: Tamil Nadu, much more than Gujarat, is likely to let individuals be, eat, pray and love how they want. It’s liberating for blue-collar workers who can’t buy those freedoms by paying free-market rates for gated condominiums.

The north is too steeped in antiquated concepts of social hierarchy that oppress women, minorities and groups at the bottom rung of the caste ladder to see that another path to development is possible, even in a deeply religious country. But investors know the difference. Who’ll bet on a region where politicians promulgate “love jihad” laws to punish young Muslim men for loving Hindu women and vigilante groups attack churches? It’s a simple truth that India’s 80% Hindu population doesn’t need protection from 14% Muslims and 2% Christians. What it needs to be saved from is bad education, poor public health, high unemployment and crushing poverty.

An Indian like me who grew up in north wants to believe that change might still be possible, knowing fully well that the election results on June 4 are gong to make me look foolish. And that’s because the typical voter from my hometown would never get a chance to set foot inside a clinic in Kerala — and the 60 newborns out of 1,000 in UP who’ll die before they turn five will never vote.

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