Connecting Regions of Asia.

Battle of Models : Prefer Kerala over Gujarat any day

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When, towards the end of the first decade of the present century, Narendra Modi began speaking frequently about something he called the ‘Gujarat Model’, it was the second time a state of the Indian Union had that grand, self-promoting, suffix added to its name. The first was Kerala. The origins of the term ‘Kerala Model’ go back to a study done in the 1970s by economists associated with the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. This showed that when it came to indices of population (as in declining birth rates), education (as in remarkably high literacy for women) and health (as in lower infant mortality and higher life expectancy), this small state in a desperately poor country had done as well – and sometimes better – than parts of Europe and North America.

Boosted to begin with by economists and demographers, Kerala soon came in for praise from sociologists and political scientists. The former argued that caste and class distinctions had radically diminished in Kerala over the course of the 20th century; the latter showed that, when it came to implementing the provisions of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution, Kerala was ahead of other states. More power had been devolved to municipalities and panchayats than elsewhere in India.

Success, as John F. Kennedy famously remarked, has many fathers (while failure is an orphan). When these achievements of the state of Kerala became widely known, many groups rushed to claim their share of the credit. The communists, who had been in power for long stretches, said it was their economic radicalism that did it. Followers of Sri Narayana Guru (1855-1928) said it was the egalitarianism promoted by that great social reformer which led to much of what followed. Those still loyal to the royal houses of Travancore and Cochin observed that when it came to education, and especially girls’ education, their Rulers were more progressive than Maharajas and Nawabs elsewhere. The Christian community of Kerala also chipped in, noting that some of the best schools, colleges, and hospitals were run by the Church. It was left to that fine Australian historian of Kerala and India, Robin Jeffrey, to critically analyse all these claims, and demonstrate in what order and what magnitude they contributed. His book Politics, Women and Wellbeing remains the definitive work on the subject.

Such were the elements of the ‘Kerala Model’. What did the ‘Gujarat Model’ that Narendra Modi began speaking of, c. 2007, comprise? Mr Modi did not himself ever define it very precisely. But there is little doubt that the coinage itself was inspired and provoked by what had preceded it. The Gujarat Model would, Mr Modi was suggesting, be different from, and better than, the Kerala Model. Among the noticeable weaknesses of the latter was that it did not really encourage private enterprise. Marxist ideology and trade union politics both inhibited this. On the other hand, the Vibrant Gujarat Summits organized once every two years when Mr Modi was Chief Minister were intended precisely to attract private investment.

This openness to private capital was, for Mr Modi’s supporters, undoubtedly the most attractive feature of what he was marketing as the ‘Gujarat Model’. It was this that brought to him the support of big business, and of small business as well, when he launched his campaign for Prime Minister. Young professionals, disgusted by the cronyism and corruption of the UPA regime, flocked to his support, seeing him as a modernizing Messiah who would make India an economic powerhouse. 

With the support of these groups, and many others, Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister in May 2014.

There were other aspects of the Gujarat Model that Narendra Modi did not speak about, but which those who knew the state rather better than the Titans of Indian industry were perfectly aware of. These included the relegation of minorities (and particularly Muslims) to second-class status; the centralization of power in the Chief Minister and the creation of a cult of personality around him; attacks on the independence and autonomy of universities; curbs on the freedom of the press; and, not least, a vengeful attitude towards critics and political rivals.

These darker sides of the Gujarat Model were all played down in Mr Modi’s Prime Ministerial campaign. But in the six years since he has been in power at the Centre, they have become starkly visible. The communalization of politics and of popular discourse, the capturing of public institutions, the intimidation of the press, the use of the police and investigating agencies to harass opponents, and, perhaps above all, the deification of the Great Leader by the party, the Cabinet, the Government, and the Godi Media – these have characterized the Prime Ministerial tenure of Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, the most widely advertised positive feature of the Gujarat Model before 2014 has proved to be a dud. Far from being a free-market reformer, Narendra Modi has demonstrated that he is an absolute statist in economic matters. As an investment banker who once enthusiastically supported him recently told me in disgust: “Narendra Modi is our most left-wing Prime Minister ever – he is even more left-wing than Jawaharlal Nehru”.

Which brings me back to the Kerala Model, which the Gujarat Model sought to replace or supplant. Talked about a great deal in the 1980s and 1990s, in recent years, the term was not much heard in policy discourse any more. It had fallen into disuse, presumably consigned to the dustbin of history. The onset of COVID-19 has now thankfully rescued it, and indeed brought it back to centre-stage. For in how it has confronted, tackled, and tamed the COVID crisis, Kerala has once again showed itself to be a model for India – and perhaps the world.

There has been some excellent reporting on how Kerala flattened the curve. It seems clear that there is a deeper historical legacy behind the success of this state. Because the people of Kerala are better educated, they have followed the practices in their daily life least likely to allow community transmission. Because they have such excellent health care, if people do test positive, they can be treated promptly and adequately. Because caste and gender distinctions are less extreme than elsewhere in India, access to health care and medical information is less skewed. Because decentralization of power is embedded in systems of governance, panchayat heads do not have to wait for a signal from a Big Boss before deciding to act. There are two other features of Kerala’s political culture that have helped them in the present context; its top leaders are generally more grounded and less imperious than elsewhere, and bipartisanship comes more easily to the state’s politicians.

The state of Kerala is by no means perfect. While there have been no serious communal riots for many decades, in everyday life there is still some amount of reserve in relations between Hindus, Christians and Muslims. Casteism and patriarchy have been weakened, but by no means eliminated. The intelligentsia still remain unreasonably suspicious of private enterprise, which will hurt the state greatly in the post-COVID era, after remittances from the Gulf have dried up.

For all their flaws, the state and people of Kerala have many things to teach us, who live in the rest of India. We forgot about their virtues in the past decade, but now these virtues are once more being discussed, to both inspire and chastise us. The success of the state in the past and in the present have rested on science, transparency, decentralization, and social equality. These are, as it were, the four pillars of the Kerala Model. On the other hand, the four pillars of the Gujarat Model are superstition, secrecy, centralization, and communal bigotry. Give us the first over the second, any day. 

(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include ‘Environmentalism: A Global History’ and ‘Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World’.)

Courtesy – NDTV

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