In coronavirus times, what Kerala thinks today, India should think tomorrow. Kerala has over 800 Covid cases, yet so far only 4 have died. Mortality in other states is far higher. For example Gujarat, with one of the highest mortality rates in India is reporting over 800 deaths with over 13,000 cases. Kerala was once derided for its failure to create jobs, for the “killing fields” of Kannur. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath mocked Kerala’s healthcare record and Prime Minister Narendra Modi described infant mortality among Kerala adivasis as worse than Somalia. But today the internationally acclaimed Kerala model has delivered better than the trumpeted Gujarat model.
It’s not just Kerala. South India as a whole is managing the pandemic more deftly than the north. In Tamil Nadu cases have risen sharply, yet mortality is relatively under control. In Andhra Pradesh, under 100 have lost lives and Karnataka – another strong Covid fighter – is reporting under 50 fatalities with over 2,000 cases. In overall healthcare performance, a 2019 World Bank Niti Aayog report shows Kerala and TN rank highest, while UP, Rajasthan and Bihar are at the bottom.
That the south India model of governance has always delivered better healthcare and education is well known but what else does north India lack, which puts it at a disadvantage? South India is blessed with two features the north could well emulate: one, stable political competition between parties and two, an assertive citizenry.
If a political party monopolises public office for too long, it has little incentive to deliver welfare. In north Indian states, a herd mentality among voters often results in massive mandates for one or the other party, which then remains in office for decades, lording it over voters like monarchs. In the first five decades of Independence, Congress governed uninterrupted across north India, its suffocating dominance setting off a reaction of intense political fragmentation. Both monopoly and fragmentation acted as barriers to governance in the north.
In other examples, the three decade long stranglehold of the Left in Bengal and the 22-year-long unbroken stint of BJP in Gujarat show how voter support can be taken for granted. In this kind of political monopoly, citizens become disconnected from state activity or from having a say in government policies.
By sharp contrast, in south India, no one party enjoys a monopoly. Instead there is stable political competition. In Kerala, the Left-led LDF and Congress-led UDF are given alternating spells in office by voters. The Left which was monopolistic in Bengal, had to compete in Kerala, resulting in a better governance performance. In TN, AIADMK and DMK took turns. In 2004, Andhra voters unexpectedly threw out high profile CM Chandrababu Naidu but he returned in 2014. Karnataka too enjoys cyclical political changes, Congress was followed by Janata then BJP. Political competition means there’s an incentive on the part of governments to deliver.
South India is well-served with another entity: the assertive citizen. Peaceful political competition has opened up space for citizens’ participation and spurred civic activism on the ground. Empowered citizens are in a position to demand basic rights like healthcare and education. In Andhra and Kerala volunteer groups of citizens are even pitching in to help governments with contact tracing. So far in north India, only AAP government has taken a stab at creating citizen-responsive government.
In Gujarat, the Ahmedabad municipal commissioner was recently transferred reportedly for aggressive Covid testing and pushing up Gujarat’s numbers. Andhra and TN by contrast have encouraged aggressive testing. Governments which depend on citizens’ goodwill cannot afford to live in denial. Functioning local citizens’ bodies and community participation ensure that services are delivered. In north India citizens are helplessly subjugated to the mai-baap government and state power and unable to demand even the basics.
During the 2018 Kerala floods, local communities worked to help victims. In TN civil society groups repeatedly make their presence felt. Bengaluru and Hyderabad are known for their diverse citizen activist groups, the latter forming the backbone of the agitation for Telangana statehood. Forceful citizens keep governments on their toes.
The need to deliver also means that governance is relatively immune from religious hate and divisiveness. Politics in the south is just as cut-throat as the north, yet politics doesn’t overwhelm the larger governance agenda. In fact governance is, relatively speaking, insulated from polarising politics. In Karnataka political disputes between Lingayats and Vokkaligas have not been allowed to hijack the administration. Unlike the north, in the south, governance is relatively separate from caste polarisation. This separation of governance from politics means the bureaucracy is less likely to get caught up in partisan politics.
In the north the Covid outbreak became tangled in anti-Tablighi bigotry; discriminatory incidents like attacks on Muslim vegetable vendors were not seen in the south. In the north, because of all pervasive state power, even citizens groups like RWAs tend to function as vigilantes persecuting each other. An example of this is the Ghaziabad RWA, which threatened to stop doctors from returning to their homes. In Bihar, citizens must distribute relief supplies only through police stations, showing that the government doesn’t trust people and wants to always control them.
In parts of south India, social revolution preceded the political revolution. Reformers like Kerala’s Narayana Guru and TN’s Periyar created self-aware citizens empowered enough to resist excessive state coercion, citizens able to use the vote to change non-performing governments. In north India electorates remain swayed by emotive, irrational appeals. Assembly elections in Bihar are scheduled for October. It remains to be seen if any party will make healthcare a core issue, or whether it’ll be back to caste arithmetic and religious name calling.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.