Modi’s Flawed Understanding of Kerala Explains His Acceptance of Polarising ‘Kerala Story'

The real Kerala story is about the state's culture of tolerance, which symbolises the idea of India. It is an all-embracing and inclusive story.

Narendra Modi, while campaigning for the assembly elections in Karnataka, targeted the Congress party for its criticism of the film The Kerala Story, which the prime minister asserted, exposed a “terror conspiracy” and “ugly truth of terrorism.”

He was obviously alluding to the imaginary and fictional narrative of the film that the state is a hub for terrorism and terrorist violence. Initially, the film claimed that a staggering 32,000 women from Kerala embraced Islam and found common cause with ISIS. When that was challenged in court, its producer acknowledged an error and admitted that only three women were involved. Completely oblivious to the rectification of the error affirmed by the producer, Prime Minister Modi went ahead to accept the “terror conspiracy” as gospel truth and endorsed it in his election rally. He did so to target the Congress, reportedly in an advantageous position in relation to BJP, which is facing massive anti-incumbency and may get unseated from power in Karnataka.

One is dismayed to see a prime minister referring to a propaganda film in an election rally for electoral benefit. It is quite discernible in such attempts of Modi that while attacking the Congress for its stand against The Kerala Story, he is attacking Kerala itself. The state is highly acclaimed for true and uplifting stories – including excellent human development indices – and its centuries-old multifaith and multicultural ethos, enriching an idea of India that is now threatened by the majoritarianism of Hindutva.

Comparing Kerala with Somalia

But this is not the first time that Modi has made false or misleading claims about Kerala. The state has always proved difficult for the BJP and Hindutva forces to register even a modicum of electoral success. It is instructive to note that Modi, while campaigning for the Kerala assembly elections in 2016, infamously made a statement that the infant mortality rate of the tribes of the state is even below that of Somalia. The whole country was shocked at the prime minister treating Kerala so unfavourably by employing the sensitive parameter of infant mortality rate. The entire state was outraged by that outlandish comparison and its people expressed their anger and disapproval by tweeting PoMoneModi (Go Away Modi).

A prime minister should set high benchmarks while campaigning and taking up the issues of the people. If figures and facts are spun to sway people and mould their opinion for electoral gains, that would be a travesty of democracy. Modi should be mindful that the Kerala model is widely referred to at the national and global level for its human development indices (HDI). In fact, Kerala’s HDI matches that of many developed countries – an achievement that was registered by spending much less money per capita. If Modi had cited the ‘Gujarat Model’ as a better option than the Kerala model and given persuasive reasoning for it, people may have been won over. But making an outlandish comparison only antagonised the Malayalis.

Modi offends Kerala by employing majority-minority binary

In 2019, while campaigning in Maharashtra during the general elections, Modi employed the majority-minority binary by explaining why he felt Rahul Gandhi opted for the Wayanad parliamentary constituency in addition to Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. To everybody’s consternation, Modi said the Congress leader chose Wayanad because the Congress is “scared” that Hindus in Amethi would punish the party for its “Hindu terror” remarks and therefore, Gandhi was “running away” to the minority-dominated seat of Wayanad.

Congress spokesperson Surjewala criticised Modi by saying, “He must apologise to the nation. He has insulted the freedom movement, he has insulted entire southern India, he has insulted the composite culture of India, he has insulted the India that is unified by its multiple cultures as also languages, religions, castes and creeds.”

He sharply asked, “Does the Prime Minister even know that Wayanad has nearly 50% Hindu population besides the population of backwards, Scheduled Tribes, Dalits and of many-many other religions where Christians are about 20-21% and Muslims are about 28%?” He then stated that Wayanad is an ideal ground for the combination of various communities and religions who thrive together and live together.

Rahul Gandhi. Photo: Twitter/@INCIndia

Kerala and the idea of India

Indeed, any prime minister publicly characterising any parliamentary constituency from the perspective of majority-minority is gravely putting at stake the idea of India and the state in which that constituency is located.

In this sense, Modi’s remarks on Wayanad were in bad taste and amounted to an offence against Kerala, the legacy of coexistence of which prompted Modi’s predecessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to say that its “culture of tolerance that symbolizes the idea of India” and that it “should inspire Indians across the subcontinent, across the world.” He had said so on September 3, 2005, while unveiling the statues of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and B..R Ambedkar in the state assembly.

He observed, “The tradition of tolerance for a multi-cultural and multi-religious society that we have seen for long in Kerala is what they wanted to establish all over the country.”

So while Prime Minister Modi looks at Kerala on the basis of the imaginary and divisive narrative of the film The Kerala Story, the infant mortality figure and majority-minority population of Wayanad, his predecessor understood Kerala by factoring the vision of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar.

Modi’s reaction to Kerala Story and BBC documentary

At this point, it is also important to question the contradictory stance that the Union government has taken regarding two films. The Kerala Story, with a fictional and polarising theme, is acceptable to Modi. But the BBC Documentary The Modi Question, which dealt with real incidents of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, is removed from Twitter and YouTube on the orders of his government. Those screening it on university campuses are facing coercive measures. Such an approach smacks of double standards.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh articulated not a fictional but a true Kerala Story when he said that Kerala’s culture of tolerance symbolises the idea of India. It is an all-embracing and inclusive story. Modi, who often describes himself as the first servant of India, should learn that vital vision of Kerala so well put forth by his predecessor.

S.N. Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to former president of India K.R. Narayanan