History, Tragedy and Farce

M G Radhakrishnan


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Representative image | Photo: PTI

Communists claim to be harbingers of big changes. Yet, a frequently heard barb in Kerala is; they oppose most changes initially; later, they admit their mistake and set out to implement what they fought before. But, by then, the change would have been outdated already! CPI(M)'s past peccadillos related to computers and tractors have been cited ad nauseam for proving their “warped thinking.”

One cannot but think about this as one goes through the "vision document for a new Kerala", presented (and adopted without a murmur by the 450 delegates) at the recent CPI(M) State Conference in Kochi. It reads like a watered-down version of the three decades-old budget speech made by Manmohan Singh, which kicked off India's structural reforms. History, as the bearded German said, repeats first as tragedy and next as farce.

Indeed, Singh’s market-hugging reforms officially marked the end of the era of Nehruvian Socialism. It transformed India and propelled it from the tardy “Hindu rate” to a higher growth trajectory, fuelled by privatization and globalization. Yet today, thirty years after the reforms, the Great Indian story is discussed more for its persisting problems than achievements. Even as it is projected to be the world’s second-largest economy by 2030, India remains riddled with the highest inequality, largest number of extremely poor population, malnourished children, and the worst unemployment situation in three decades. Comparisons with neighbouring China and even Bangladesh show the "reformed" India’s performance as tacky. India is now ranked 131 out of 189 in the UNDP’s latest Human Development Report and 139 out of 149 countries by the UN Happiness Index.

And what about Kerala's record of the past three decades? Self-flagellation is Kerala middle class’s favourite past-time. Most drawing-rooms resonate regularly with laments about how other states are fast industrializing, have great roads, no bandhs, red flags or the nokkukooli. Indeed, they aren't entirely unfounded.

CM Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurating the CPM State Party Conference held in Kochi | Photo: Mathrubhumi

But why don’t our critics give Kerala credit to where it is due? For not just having the country's highest human development indices (on par with the West) but even maintaining them for more than a century, disproving the doom-sayers? They couldn't care less even if the world showers praise on the Kerala Model which demonstrated that even without economic growth, a society could excel in human development with state- interventions. And during the last thirty years, Kerala has also broken its “Kerala Model jinx” by achieving high growth rates without slipping on human development. Keralam, one of the poorest states until the late 1980s, is now among India’s most prosperous and appears to win the best of both worlds, something our middle class's much loved Gujarat or Maharashtra hasn’t.

Even when economists like Jagdish Bhagvati and Arvind Panagaria argued that Gujarat’s economic model was better than Kerala’s, they didn't suspect the latter’s economic and social gains. All they said was Kerala's gains were the results of economic growth realised through remittances, etc., and not redistribution or the state-led investments in social sectors as held by Amartya Sen and others. But what Bhagvati and Panagaria didn't not bother to look at was Kerala's high rates in social development even when it remained poor.

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But then, isn’t Kerala’s economic growth because of the remittances from abroad, ask Kerala Model's bashers. How could the redistributive Model take its credit? Indeed, the Kerala Model was feared to collapse during the 1980s because of the continuing economic stagnation as pointed out by studies like the Limits to Kerala Model by K.K.George. The apocalypse was averted by the oil boom in the distant deserts of the Gulf and globalisation too. Young Malayalis who migrated to the Gulf built up the cities there with their sweat, blood, and tears to send money to their homes in Kerala, which triggered economic activities and elevated the state to prosperity. Yet, is it right to outright dismiss the Kerala Model’s contribution to this journey? Didn't the gains from better public health, education and higher wages brought about by the Kerala Model help us identify and capitalize on the opportunities in the distant deserts?

Kerala still remains a model in the most recent surveys by international bodies like the UN or the Oxfam, the Central Government-backed Niti Ayog or the privately-owned media institutions on multiple counts. Its credit still goes most to the Kerala Model of development, originated in the 19th century and taken forward more vigorously after the state’s formation by successive governments, particularly those of the Left.

This is not in the least to claim that everything is fine with Kerala or the Model. Even leaders like EMS Namboodiripad, who did much to take the Kerala Model forward, have mercilessly critiqued its failure to create wealth and jobs, solve agricultural and industrial stagnation.

The most pressing crisis staring at Kerala now are related to health and environment. | Photo: AFP

But the solution is not throwing the baby with the bathwater. Kerala’s achievements were possible because it dared to dump the beaten path. But the new vision document betrays a tendency to take the path when even its supporters admit its inability to solve fundamental issues like poverty, unemployment, or inequality. Some time ago, Bengal's CPM Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee walked this path and paid heavily. The Left that hegemonized Bengal for more than a century, sank without a trace, in a flash.

Today even neo-liberals are pining for the Nordic Model followed by Sweden, Norway, Denmark which combines the best elements of welfare economics, state-driven social sector investments, and growth to ensure high standards of living, low-income disparity, and human development.

Historian Andy Beckett writes in The Guardian that after decades of rightwing dominance, a transatlantic movement is building a practical alternative to neoliberalism. “Even senior rightwing politicians sometimes concede the seriousness of the crisis. At last year’s Conservative conference, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, admitted that “a gap has opened up” in the west “between the theory of how a market economy delivers … and the reality”.....Too many people feel that … the system is not working for them.``

The "Washington Consensus" about the infallibility of neoliberalism built up during the 1980s is no more. More so since the outbreak of the pandemic as British historian Adam Tooze narrates in his new book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy.

“Neoliberalism’s morbid symptoms conspired to form a 'polycrisis' — epidemiological, financial, democratic, ecological, and geopolitical crises that induce and magnify each other," says he. Even it's greatest votaries like the World Bank or the IMF today swear not so much by the Gross Domestic Product and Per Capita income but Human Development and Happiness Indices.

It is at such a time that Kerala which dared to look at alternatives many decades ago is now falling back on a failed model. More than those of commission, sins of omissions are glaring in the document. The most pressing crisis staring at Kerala now are related to health and the environment. New generation ailments, recurring pandemics, mounting waste, extreme climate events like floods, droughts, drinking water problems, etc are ravaging Keralam. According to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one major threat from climate change is the “wet bulb” phenomenon -a toxic combination of heat and humidity- to be faced most by South Asia. India would face a rise in annual coastal flooding to put 50 million coastal people at huge risk and obviously, Kerala is a highly vulnerable region. Any new vision for Kerala would only be dangerous without giving primacy to these issues and the ways to address them. Instead many of what envisaged in the document could only exacerbate them.

Another embarrassing development of Kerala's past three decades is growing income inequality which is now highest in the country! Fighting inequality -social, political, gender, economic- was the zeitgeist of all the progressive movements that collectively strived in the making of Navakeralam. Today the gulf is widening in all these realms. The present document announced to take Navakeralam to the next stage fails to take them on directly.

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