Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | There is a reason the rest of India cannot be Kerala

Every time I see Malayalee women, including my mother, hold their stomachs and laugh, I imagine that someone has told them that Kerala is a “matriarchal" society. That Kerala is “a matriarchal society" is nonsense to such a degree that I have stopped believing even elephants are “matriarchal".

But many other exceptional qualities that Indians attribute to Kerala are true. Especially the way the state has fought the covid-19 pandemic, illuminating for the world outside its advanced and vast healthcare system for the masses.

If Kerala were a nation, it would be considered a proper middle-income one that is way more advanced than India. It has among the highest per capita incomes in South Asia, and its people probably have the best quality of life. An average farmer in Kerala is so prosperous that if he commits suicide, our charlatan activists will not claim, blindly as is their wont, that it was because of “debt".

So there is this question that people are asking, and not for the first time: Why can’t the rest of India be more like Kerala?

Kerala does not offer urban fun and its men make drinking seem like a depressing disease, and it is one long densely populated village filled with villagers who tend to think like villagers. But it is a very clean place, the air here seems prehistoric, and every Malayalee appears to have abundant fresh water, a portion of which women often pour on their head every morning, and with their hair still wet, they go somewhere in a tearing rush, as though to meet a hairdryer. Even the cheapest restaurants have high hygiene standards, all of which must, by law and tradition, feed you an unlimited amount of rice.

Assured of food, Malayalees have such dignity and an overblown sense of their rights that they famously make it hell for industries to flourish in the state. In a year, Kerala loses 200 days to various types of “hartals" (strikes). Despite this, there is no art-film-grade poverty in Kerala; everyone has land and a home, and the swag of liberation. It seems impossible to find a Malayalee maid in Kerala. However, it is a different matter outside the state.

Malayalees thrive in any capitalistic society outside Kerala performing even menial tasks if the price is good. Some 35% of Kerala’s income is from remittances sent by 10% of its population that lives outside India. They are able to exploit capitalism the way, say, Biharis cannot because of Kerala’s focus on healthcare and primary education.

In their book An Uncertain Glory, the economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen argue that India only claimed it was a “socialist" country after independence; it never did two crucial things that most socialist nations did—invest in primary education and the health of its people. Kerala did. It was a true socialist republic within a confused republic.

Modern India has been trying to be more like Mumbai. It is raising congested cities out of villages, shrinking homes, building amoeba-shaped golf courses for a few and calling it progress. Instead, maybe India should try to be a Kerala?

It is a pointless ambition because our greatest myth is that a political system creates a society. The fact is that the character of people makes some political systems possible. Many times, the political system is an accident of history, or merely terminology. Like the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has ruled Kerala intermittently for decades. It is hard to say in what way this party is communist.

There certainly was nothing “communist" about the people of Kerala. In the 80s, Eugene Koshy, who worked for a modest software training school, hit upon an unremarkable marketing idea that transformed the fortunes of his company—he promoted the institute with images of American flags and hamburgers. This is not how “a communist" society is expected to behave.

This is my theory of why Kerala is the way it is. For centuries, its ports were important nodes in global trade; as a result, some people prospered very much, the inequality of neighbours was excellent evangelism for the idea of wealth itself, and a whole society was intoxicated by entrepreneurship.

Also, as it happens to prosperous entrepôts, there was an assimilation of many cultures. It was a capitalistic society before such names were invented. As a result of the mercantile gold age, Christianity and Islam came to influence the state’s elites. So ownership of capital became confused, which is always a good sign.

After European trade came European conscience, which, like conscience today, was a mixture of two selfish forces—a way of assuaging the guilt of the rich, and a way to bleed your rival through idealism. For instance, freeing slaves is not only about freeing humans, it is also a way to hurt those who have a tactical advantage in owning slaves. A strong reformation movement took hold of Kerala even before independence, and the idea that the strong should take care of the weak grew, and from this emerged a generation of aristocratic, idealistic communist leaders who equated colonialism with capitalism.

Modern Kerala, which is misunderstood as a communist region, is in reality a post-capitalist state. A lot of things have gone into the making of its character. Mere policy cannot transform the rest of India into Kerala.

In any case, idealistic Kerala survives because the world outside Kerala is not Kerala.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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