The prime minister’s assertions about Kerala are factually incorrect and objectionable, but the protestors also need to introspect about why being compared to an African country makes them angry.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks while on the campaign trail, in which he draws a parallel between Somalia and Kerala on the issue of infant morality rates have predictably provoked severe popular ire in the state. Politicians, writers, activists, social workers, artists, and academics have all converged to condemn the comments, calling them insensitive, factually incorrect, insulting to Kerala and inappropriate for the nation’s prime minister. Social media has been agog with criticism, pointed jokes and cartoons. The continued silence on the part of Modi – as is his wont – despite this avalanche of popular sentiment has compelled people to wonder whether it is another instance of Modi putting his foot in his mouth with statements that seem to have little connection with ground realities or fail to take into account the feelings of large chunks of the population.
However, on taking a closer look, it becomes apparent that there was nothing inadvertent or thoughtless in the remark. On the contrary, given the tenor of the BJP’s campaign in Kerala, it is to be seen as part of a well-orchestrated electoral strategy to carve out for itself a niche in a political field that has been traditionally quite sharply defined in terms of allegiances and voting patterns. The highlight of the BJP’s campaign has been the constant reiteration of the theme that sixty years of alternating Congress-led and Communist-led governments have done little for the development of the state and that it has been languishing in the back alleys of progress while BJP-led states such as Gujarat have attained tremendous growth and advancement. That actual facts provide quite a contrary picture has never given them pause, since their’s is the buccaneer’s way with truths – marshal those that help you, decimate those that don’t.
Divorced from facts
Seen in this light, Modi’s remark is far from surprising; in fact, it is the most natural one for him to make. It does not really matter that statistics tell a different story, that with an infant mortality rate (IMR) of 12 per thousand overall and 60 per thousand for scheduled tribes, Kerala is a far cry from Somalia, with its rate of 85 per thousand. It also does not matter that the overall IMR of Gujarat, Modi’s home state, is 36 and that of the nation is 40, much worse than Kerala. And it certainly does not matter that as far as other human development indices are concerned, Kerala has the highest literacy rate (93.91%), highest life expectancy (74 years) and lowest sex ratio (923 men per 1000 women) among Indian states.
What actually matters is the Goebbelsian rhetoric that paints an alternate reality. Though amazingly miserly with facts, it is a cleverly crafted discourse that, on the one hand, aims at putting both the ruling and the opposition coalitions of the state onto the back foot, thrusting them into a situation of continual defence in an argument, the terms of which are set and controlled by the BJP and its sundry allies, and on the other, is designed to woo the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes into the Hindutva bandwagon. That the remark was made in an already surcharged atmosphere ensuing from the rape and murder of a Dalit woman, with the police unable to apprehend the murderer even two weeks after the crime, is not just circumstantial. With it, the memory of Rohith Vemula and of several other crimes against Dalits by the Hindu brigade in recent times is sought to be glossed over and erased, and Modi and company emerge as the arch protectors of the downtrodden.
Needless to say, it is the almost perfect plot, one that with slight variations has already assisted the Hindutva crew to reap rich dividends elsewhere in the country. But, in the current instance, it markedly failed to factor in some deeply entrenched perceptions that the local populace holds dear. That Keralites hold themselves in the highest esteem and consider themselves to be somewhat different from the rest of the country is a matter that requires little elucidation. An assortment of factors has contributed to this self-perception, most of which come under the attributed label of the ‘Kerala model’ of development, which is characterised by significant improvements in material conditions of living, reflected in indicators of social development such as low levels of infant mortality and population growth, and high levels of literacy and life expectancy that are comparable to those of many developed countries, even as the state’s per capita income is considerably low in comparison to them. Exclusions and exceptions notwithstanding, a certain degree of democratisation attained through modernity related social reform movements of the early part of the twentieth century, wealth and resource redistribution programmes of the mid-twentieth century and high levels of political participation and activism among ordinary people have all contributed to this. Modi’s comment flew in the face of all this and quite unsurprisingly received flak from all quarters.
Touching a nerve
However, stepping away from the immediate clamours of the electoral tussle, it is apparent that the trenchant responses that surfaced raise several uncomfortable questions. The first is indeed the problem of how far the ‘Kerala model’ is an adequate representation of the ground realities of the state today, and how far it is an overdraft on a myth of yesteryears. It cannot be denied that most of the structures of the public sphere and of the modernity enterprise of Kerala have been largely dismantled or are in the process of being so, and that today Keralan society hides deep fissures of caste, community, gender and privilege. It is also a fact that Kerala’s development exercise has left huge segments of the Dalit and Adivasi communities largely untouched, with significant numbers of landless, homeless people among them who have little prospect of access to economic or social development.
It is here that one is compelled to wonder if the trenchant reiterations of the image of the “oh so progressive Kerala” are primarily displaced expressions of a growing sense of anxiety about a dysfunctional society, of a pathological sense of inadequacy as a people, best exemplified in oft repeated media attempts to showcase even the most minor instances of Keralans or their descendants being honoured or acknowledged in other lands and by other people. It is as if these reassurances are needed to maintain a self adulation that can only be termed as ‘Kerala exceptionalism,’ and anything that runs counter to it shall have to be opposed tooth and nail. It is entirely possible that Modi may have touched a raw nerve here.
At the same time, even as Modi’s comparison of Kerala with Somalia remains deeply problematic and objectionable in terms of facts, one can’t also help but wonder whether the widespread anger towards it also evinces an all too thinly veiled racism that takes umbrage at the fact that the comparison is with an African country. It is illuminating to note that few of the objections raised actually take issue with Modi’s very resort to Somalia as an example, or with the disdain for human tragedy that such an example demonstrates, or with the evasion of the real causes for the Somalian disaster. For most, what matters is only that the comparison is unfavourable and ‘insulting’ to Kerala.
Even more glaringly, many criticisms seem to tacitly share Modi’s contempt for Somalia, a case in point being the spate of jokes, cartoons and photoshopped images in the social media, merging figures of Somalian hardship with faces of local and national politicians. It is worth thinking whether the caricaturing of poverty and destitution is worthy of a people who take pride at their own advanced political awareness and education, and in so depicting Somalia as repugnant and contemptible, whether they are guilty of a crime no less grievous than that of Modi’s. Undoubtedly, with racism being just one remove from casteism, these are questions of grave import for regimes of social justice in Kerala, even after Modi departs.
The author is a professor of English at the University of Calicut.