The World is my Oyster: Sid Harth
May 19, 2011, 8:30 AM IST
By Ajit Mohan
Most of the attention around the outcome of the assembly elections last week has been on the dramatic defeat of the Communists in West Bengal and the DMK in Tamil Nadu, and the compelling stories of the two political leaders behind it. The narrative on Kerala has centered on an unusually close verdict triggered by an incumbent Chief Minister who, at times, ran more in opposition to his own government and his party than the Congress-led United Democratic Front.
Dan Istitene/Getty Images
Although Kerala is India’s most literate state, unemployment remains a major concern.
As the focus now shifts to governance though, the story of Kerala becomes significant, perhaps even more so than that of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. What is at stake in Kerala is the effectiveness of coalition governance in an era of fragmented electoral politics, and, of even more importance, the sustainability of the only real inclusive development model that has succeeded in post-independence India.
Unlike the rest of the country, Kerala has had a deeply entrenched coalition structure since the late 1970s. With rare exceptions, the coalition partners have stuck to the alliance through elections and revolving stints in the government and opposition. For the first time since the 1970s, however, the arithmetic of victory is narrow enough for the Congress’s main partners in the UDF, the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress, to exert considerable sway on the direction of the new government. India’s electoral politics over the next few years, and especially at the Centre, is more likely to resemble the coalition structure and narrow margins of victory in Kerala than the sweeping mandates for single parties seen in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. And, therefore, how Oommen Chandy, the leader of the new government who took office this week, negotiates competing interests and priorities to craft an effective agenda for the state will surely provide lessons for the Congress, the BJP and their allies.
The need for such an agenda is even more significant because the very viability of Kerala’s inclusive path of development is in question.
For 40 years since independence, Kerala showcased a unique development trajectory in India where consistent and dramatic improvements in social welfare happened despite slow economic growth. Across every indicator of social development today, Kerala outshines the wealthiest and fastest growing states in the country: highest literacy rate in the country; a life expectancy of 75 years that is more at par with that of South Korea and Japan than that of high-income Indian states like Maharashtra and Gujarat; a low infant mortality rate of 12 in 1,000 that is substantially better than China at 17 in 1,000; and, as the latest census results show, the only state with a sex ratio that is skewed in favor of women. For India, this is a remarkable model of post-independence success, where the benefits of development have been truly inclusive and not limited to a minority.
Till the state started posting near-double digit economic growth in recent years, much of the debate centered on what was responsible for this paradox between slow economic growth and dramatic improvements in human welfare. One school of thought attributed the improvements to the aggressive redistribution efforts of the Left, starting with land reforms in the 1950s and continuing with a dominant role for the state in education and healthcare backed by mobilization of civic organizations. A competing explanation attributes Kerala’s success to delayed benefits reaped by a long history of progressive policies in princely states which targeted universal education, aided by a matriarchal social structure where women were the decision makers and inheritors of family wealth.
Irrespective of the explanations for Kerala’s past success, the reality of the state today is that a development path dependent on public spending is no longer sustainable. With fiscal deficit exceeding 30 percent of the state GDP and a total debt of more than 700 billion rupees, the state no longer has the ability to finance the system it has created. And the outstanding achievements in expanding access to education and healthcare create an imperative now to reorient attention from improving access to improving quality and affordability.
At the same time, these achievements mask other critical challenges. Kerala’s violent crime rate is nearly twice the national average; the state has the highest suicide rate in the country; there is a steep uptick in the incidence of chronic diseases; while Kerala ranks among the top in the country in terms of proportion of people completing tertiary education, study after study has pointed to the steep decline in the quality of graduates; and an environmental eco-system that has shown severe deterioration in the last two decades. Underlining the difficulties is an average unemployment rate as high as 25%.
As an American Enterprise Institute study pointed out last year, the relevant question then becomes a very different one. Why is a state that is strategically located with a population whose talent is fueling the economies of other states and the Middle East, not achieving a lot more in its own backyard? The AEI study attributed it to excessive intervention from the state and a business climate that is hostile to private investments. The labor laws and norms in the state reward union membership more than they do productive labor. The result has been an economy which, while it has grown above the national average recently, has been really powered by remittances from outside the state, resulting in lop-sided growth in the service sector, including in real estate.
So, what’s next for Kerala? It has two starkly different choices: either it can attempt to spur job growth inside the state through attracting new private investments, or it can double down as a genuine retirement destination that exports highly skilled talent and creates an environment and social structure that welcomes retirees with high disposal income. In either of these two choices, the immediate reform agenda is remarkably similar: the need to re-define the role of the state, the urgent need to improve the quality of secondary and tertiary education, the need to make healthcare more affordable and reoriented towards an aging population, ramp-up of investment in basic utility services, and a thoughtful program to undo damage to an environment that is so central to the state’s well being and raison d’être.
This reform agenda, though, is a non-starter until the UDF government directly confronts the two pillars of the Left movement in Kerala: its eagerness to mobilize its cadre to take its opposition to the streets, and its monopoly of the development narrative over the last few decades. In the first, the UDF government will find a challenge similar to what the Trinamool is likely to face in West Bengal. The assembly elections by no means herald the end of the leftist forces in either state, and the electoral defeats will only spur the wounded comrades to an unapologetically confrontational posture in the opposition.
But it is in the second pillar that the newly elected Chief Minister will find the opportunity of a generation. Spurred on by its early successes, especially in land reforms, the Left has controlled and shaped the narrative of the state for two generations. But it is a narrative that has, over the years, become one not of affirmation of anything in particular but one of outright rejection of every modernist and progressive influence from the world. It is a narrative that opposes private investment even as the Communist party builds its own network of private enterprises. And it is an inward-looking narrative that is at conflict with the instincts of a people that have a long history of confident engagement with the world outside.
Kerala is a state that embraced a world that turned up on its coasts, the world that came not as marauding invaders through the Hindu Kush but as pilgrims and explorers and traders from the east and the west. It is a state whose entrepreneurs have created thriving enterprises outside its boundaries, whose emigrants have built roads and airports and factories in the middle of desert sands and whose progeny have cut stones and healed diseases in far away continents. This is not the state of the Left’s imagination.
The challenge for the new Chief Minister then is to start building an agenda rooted in a compelling new narrative that can replace the jaded narrative of the Left Front. The willingness of voters to accept a new path and narrative for the state will also be largely dependent on the government’s ability to convince them that the new policies are fair, not subservient to any interest group, and stand the test of integrity every single day. In his ability to do this will rest both the future of India’s only successful experiment to date in inclusive development, and the contours of his own political legacy.
Based in New Delhi, Ajit Mohan has worked with private and public institutions around the world. His work in public policy has covered urban renewal, education and public health, and more recently, he led the work and co-authored McKinsey Global Institute’s “India’s Urban Awakening: Building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth” published in 2010. Prior to the elections in Kerala, he advised the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee’s Economic Policy and Planning Wing though the views expressed here are his own.
6:15 pm May 19, 2011
Sid Harth wrote:
Love ya my buddy. All that background, oops, baggage of yours could frighten a mouse, oops, a red faced monkey, not I. Your very long and very fanciful rendition would be remembered, oops, quickly forgotten by current and future politicians of any variety, say entrenched Commies, disenfranchised secular Congies, bunch of machete wielding Hindutva brigaads and, naturally, their Muslim counterpart, Muslim Jehadis. If I were a gambler, which, for my avid readers on WSJ, I am not, I will bet my dollar on the old, tried and trusted model. “Spend da money.” It works fine for the Democrats, oops, Demonic Rats in the good old USA. Why not the tree hugging, oops, community hugging local political warlords? Kerala, as you so elegantly put, delivers her the best to other states, mostly to Bombay, oops, Maharashtra and New Delhi as civil service product. Kerala also provides to Indian diaspora, mostly in the middle east, where their Drachmas, oops, Dirhams keep the homes and hearths in Kerala warm. Kerala is also supplying its top-notch professionals to the USA. That mighty, oops, almighty dollar pipeline keeps Kerala churning more doctors, more Engineers, more professors, more scientists, more gas station attendants and perhaps, to a lesser extent “chatai” weavers. Just kidding. Among my friends, I find Keralites to be more adaptive, more progressive and more worldly-wise. Bless all those Malayalam souls. If the government gives special tax breaks to the SEZ developers for manufacturing and exporting their products made in India, they ought to treat Kerala as a big, fat, all inclusive SEZ. Give them a break. Export of goods and merchandise can be also extended to the export of talented coolies and professionals. You know what? I bet you don’t. Kerala also exports their Nuns to most European countries. Don’t be shocked to find one in the Vatican. As a matter of fact I wasn’t when I greeted one very smart babe, oops, beautiful lassie, oops, most humble servant of God right in the St Peters. Take it easy my good buddy, Ajit Mohan, I too am blamed for pontification. What else is there? More the merrier. Have a nice day in Rome, oops, Washington, DC.
…and I am Sid Harth
4:34 pm May 19, 2011
“One school of thought attributed the improvements to the aggressive redistribution efforts of the Left, starting with land reforms in the 1950s and continuing with a dominant role for the state in education and healthcare backed by mobilization of civic organizations. A competing explanation attributes Kerala’s success to delayed benefits reaped by a long history of progressive policies in princely states which targeted universal education, aided by a matriarchal social structure where women were the decision makers and inheritors of family wealth.”
WSJ – why don’t you just give credit to the Left where it is due, rather than try to dilute it by bringing up princely states & matriarchal structures. The fact is if it were not for the Left, you would not have seen the inclusive progress in Kerala. BTW I not sure why WSJ is batting for the UDF, whose economic policies are technically socialist! OK they do give land to big industries for free.
3:50 pm May 19, 2011
Prashanth K.P. wrote:
A good article to read. Reality is otherwise. Kerala is a state begotten by religious/caste/area/political considerations in that order. Politics coming a distant third in priority and religion coming first, the state is doomed to perish from its democratic zone in the near future. This heavy polarization will give birth to another Kashmir in the not too distant future. While LDF has been checked in their polarized activities, UDF is shamefully immersed in it. It goes like how many seats Muslims get, how many seats Christians get so on and so forth. Therefore, to give a positive pat to the State is beyond comprehension now.
11:21 am May 19, 2011
Although the article is far from what can be called a balanced view, good to see many important issues being raised. Especially, the need to be private-investment friendly – in the context of neighboring states that are vying for private investment and are willing to trade-off anything for it.
>>but one of outright rejection of every modernist and progressive influence from the world.
Not very sure this aligns with contemporary understanding of the term “progressivism”. Infact, I suspect that a minimal state (which is what the article seems to try to advocate, by generously encouraging private investment) is opposite to what is usually called “progressive”. But, no point in getting bogged down with terminology
10:25 am May 19, 2011
“Prejudices are what fools use for reason”
10:17 am May 19, 2011
Communist movements favor the working class(or what else is communism). Kerala and WB remains the last bastions of communism and marxism. It is true that communist movement in the state has fueled a sort of militant trade unionism. Yet it is just a corollary of empowerment of the working class You find bad eggs (greedy beyond imagination) among capitalists. Their greed bring down economies . Create unemployment and instability world over every other decade. Likewise there have been sections among the left movement that has brought itself discredit. Left led governments in Kerala & Bengal,the last ones, have been genuinely pro-industry Both had excellent ministers at the helm of key portfolios -Finance and Industry. Where the left faltered was in the 80s and 90s when India for the first time started seeing genuine industrialists unlike the crony capitalists of the past decades. Instead of welcoming “enterprise” it saw the changes through the old dogmatic lens which presented them with vignettes of exploitation of the past. It certainly has made correctives in last decade. Congress with it unprincipled(pray what does it stand for),communal(please go through the profile of UDF MLAs of Kerala) and corrupt(nothing to explain here) agenda has nothing to offer for Kerala.
9:40 am May 19, 2011
S. Appunni wrote:
Now that the Commies have been kicked out of power. The immediate thing to do next is take up projects to improve the welfare of the people.
Hopefully Commies do not come to power again in Kerala.
19 May, 2011, 05.49PM IST,IANS
Documents ‘in order’ now: CBI after Purulia botch up
Read more on »Kim Davy extradition|expired arrest warrant|Denmark|Central Bureau of Investigation|1995 Purulia arms drop case
NEW DELHI: Under fire for carrying an expired arrest warrant to Denmark that botched up the extradition of Kim Davy, the main accused in the 1995 Purulia arms drop case , the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Thursday said its documents have been put “in order” now.
Terming the goof-up as an “oversight”, a CBI official told media that the agency has sought revalidation of the warrant, which will be extended till Aug 20. The warrant that a CBI team took to a Danish court had expired in January.
The agency got the fresh warrant from the special CBI court and a scanned copy was sent immediately to the team in Copenhagen.
The original copy of the warrant has also been sent to Copenhagen for the court hearing in Denmark that resumed Thursday.
The CBI came in for strong criticism from opposition parties for botching up the extradition of Davy, accused of dropping a cache of arms in West Bengal’s Purulia district from an An-26 aircraft Dec 17, 1995.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sushma Swaraj slammed the government for what she termed as a “big embarrassment”.
“Here is another blunder. CBI reached Copenhagen with an expired warrant for Kim Davy. Big embarrassment for the country. Is anybody accountable in this government,” she wrote on Twitter.
She said “oversight” had become the “all time excuse” for the government, referring to the government’s response to the goof-up of India’s list of 50 most wanted fugitives given to Pakistan, the controversial appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas.
“They say expired warrant is an ‘oversight’. Oversight in CVC papers. Oversight in India’s Most Wanted List. It is an all-time excuse.”
Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Sitaram Yechury, criticising the CBI, said it has had a “lackadaisical approach” in seeking Davy’s extradition.
“CBI must immediately change its lackadaisical approach. They must correct it in the interest of the country. It is a very serious matter considering internal security,” Yechury told IANS.
The CBI, Yechury said, “must ensure Davy’s extradition in the interest of the country”.
The government sent a two-member team – a CBI officer and a lawyer – to Denmark seeking Davy’s extradition. The team left for Denmark May 16.
Davy had earlier alleged that Indian intelligence agencies had a role in the arms drop case.
In an interview to Times Now TV channel, Davy alleged that the then P.V. Narasimha Rao government had plotted the operation to destabilise the West Bengal government by arming locals in the Left-ruled state.
He claimed that India’s external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) planned the operation with the help of its British counterpart MI-5.
Readers’ Opinions (1)
Sid Harth Harth (USA)
This item shows, very clearly, as to what extent the Congress led alliance, UPA-II would go to postpone that much delayed extradition of the alleged accused, Kim Davy. Congress is disgraced by these shameless shenanigans. The worry, on the part of CBI deputies is that they may succeed in his extradition, bring him hand-cuffed to hold him in CBI interrogation cell. Let us assume the likely scenario. I am illustrating that eventful day in CBI’s new highly computerized headquarters recently opened by, none other than our prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. Act one, Scene one, Day one: Please allow me: “abe chutiya, kim ko khich kar lao, jaldi, jaldi. bahg shaitan. kya mera hukum nahi sunata?” the station attendat cliks his shes smartly without looking at the face of his lord and master station chief and replies.. “han ji huzur. abhi gaya aur abhi aya. ” makes about turn and marches on with ceremonial Russian goose steps towards the cell. ” abe chutiya, murde, khol teri kothari. mujhe bilkul taim nahi. huzursahib kim ko phansi par chadhane chahate hain. jaldi-jaldi.” The sleepy, and much inebriated guard opens the cell doors and scans the interior with a flash light. To his surprise, he finds only a small mouse rushing to his abode in the wall. turning to our brave jamadar and stutters. ” huzursahib, woh chuha bhag gaya” Jamadar yells, ” kaun chuha?” the attendant replies “kim kutta, oops, kim chuha. Ha.”. and holding his stomach rolls over on the floor.
…and I am Sid Harth