Modi's Kerala Offensive Misses the Point

The paradox of Kerala is not one of development but of redistribution in gender and caste terms.

Prime Minister Modi at an election rally in Kochi. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Modi at an election rally in Kochi. Credit: PTI

Narendra Modi seems to have a knack for hurting linguistic and regional nationalisms in various parts of the country. From his finding fault with Nitish Kumar’s Bihari DNA or saying the Kolkata bridge accident is God’s punishment to Mamta Banerjee to the latest dismissal of Kerala by comparing it with Somalia, there is repeated proof of this.

The Malayali trollers this time have been so persistent that even the BBC has reported on it, making Modi’s words a diplomatic concern in their lack of consideration towards another people.

The Kerala situation is quite interesting, as the same point has been made earlier by Malayalis. One of the reasons for the anger could be that Modi speaks in a language that most people in the state don’t understand and it immediately gives it a feel of an “outside” attack, uniting the “natives” of Kerala. In that sense, hyper-nationalist Modi is already weakening the fabric of the nation. Unlike the making of modern European countries in which the attempt has been to arrive at a politico-judicial entity with a single language and religion, India has unified various nationalisms to create a republic based on constitutional nationalism. Confrontationalism and the blame game from the Centre, like is currently happening, is going to leave the Indian union weak over a period of time, not knowing what holds it together.

Other than the exceptionalism that makes Malayalis proud that they are way ahead of the rest of the country in terms of human development indices and their impossibly huge social media presence due to soci0-economic factors and literacy rates, I believe there are some factors worth exploring here.

The point in what Modi said

That the Kerala model of development, in its 40 years of life, has been very inconsiderate to Dalits and Adivasis is a fact (beginning with land reforms omitting them as social categories). It may be true that the first and only Dalit president of India and the first Dalit chief justice of India came from Kerala (thanks to the solid public education system of a bygone time) or they might not be as badly off as Adivasis and tribals in various other parts of the country. But social conditions have to be assessed against areas in which they prevail. That a state rich enough to provide employment to more than 3.2 million non-Malayalis still has poverty in Adivasi areas is something all Malayalis should be ashamed of.

The four dominant community groups of Kerala, Nair, Ezhava, Muslims and Christians have been apportioning the resources. Its mental health index is dismal. This most evenly capitalist state of India conducts its politics with such compulsive leftist rhetoric that even the present Kerala state BJP president’s claim to acceptability has to do with an environmental movement against a proposed airport! Mostly, women’s access to the public domain is embarrassingly bad. This wholly neo-liberal state hasn’t left its feudal hang ups, to the extent that couples moving around on their own or holding hands is material for self-appointed soldiers of morality to threaten and physically abuse them. Thanks to the high spending capacity and people’s obsession with huge houses, the state is on the verge of an environmental disaster. Malayalis can be xenophobic when it comes to the Bengalis, Assameses or Biharis who work for them, establishing how neo-feudal they have become. Politicians after the 1970s have only been required to present spectacles of fight to entertain people.

What began in pockets as a fight between the communist party and the RSS is increasing its reach. Subramanya Das in 1982 wrote: “The future for Kerala’s politics is going to be the fight for support between social fascism of the CPI(M) and the religious fascism of the RSS”. He was ominously precise. Now this has become the political template in Kerala for most parties as education, health, private banks and construction work closely with mafia links. Though people are terribly communal, no riot in which thousands are killed has happened, due to the middle classes’ worry for their property and the demographic fact that every community is a minority somewhere. In such a sense, Kerala gives no reason for not reconsidering itself.

And the pointlessness

The above given arguments broadly summarise the feminist, Dalit perspective and social critique of the Kerala model of development. The BJP’s present critique is coming from a completely contradictory location.

Narendra Modi’s speech was to gain electoral support by saying how terrible the conditions in Kerala have been. As usual, the answer to these conditions is the BJP. The blame has to be on the Congress and communist governments. But all that the BJP claims will be done if it comes to power has either already been done or cannot ever be done in Kerala. People’s living conditions are far ahead of anywhere else in India. Industrialisation is not a possibility, not only due to a space crunch but also due to the further damage it will cause to the environmental fabric. In moral goondaism, violence against women or participation in political violence and religious bigotry, the BJP has been a central player. They cannot now act as though they came to Kerala only in 2016.

The “paradox of Kerala”, as Sharmila Sreekumar christens it, is one of redistribution in gender and caste terms, not one of development. As for the national GDP and Human Development Index, what the BJP cares for will answer only what they have on offer.

Some of Modi’s online supporters argue that Kerala would have been nothing without the Gulf (I agree, though I would want to add the nurses who went to America and Europe here). In the age of global capital, which economy can operate in isolation is a question that the BJP, funded heavily by NRI businessmen, should answer. Is foreign money also anti-national? The same BJP has been trying to create fear in the minds of Hindus by saying that Muslims and Christians go abroad and make money as part of a conspiracy to put Hindus behind. Now they have had to agree that the Gulf has done something salutary.

In all this, I see an amazing lot of people who have never been felicitated: first, the adventurous men and women (many of them Dalit Muslims) who went as ABCD workers (aaya, boy, cook, driver) in the late sixties and early seventies to a land they knew nothing about, not only contributing to building these now well-established, rich countries of the Middle East but also improving the lives of millions here through their money order economy. Second, female nurses (most of them backward Christians) who braved it out to America and Europe around the same time, helping the healthcare systems of the countries they went to while providing a new lifeline to the state that they left behind. Not many have challenged the common sense of feudal entitlements in India as effectively as these expatriates have. Between a poor state then and a plump state now is the sweat and blood of these unsung heroes and heroines. Those who followed definitely had a smoother, richer time.

Malayalis need to rethink how they have reached this dead end of “development” with so many social blind spots. That shouldn’t be based on dismissing history as a mistake to be forgotten, as a certain narrative championed by Narendra Modi would want them to do, but on an ethical evaluation of society, politics, the environment and collective imagination.

N. P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.