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Kerala: A Year of Governing Precariously

It has been a year since the United Democratic Front government took offi ce in Kerala. During this period communal forces have exercised their infl uence in government formation, and caste and sectarian mobilisation has grown. One could surmise from the policy orientation of the state government over the past year that the ascending classes now have a decisive infl uence over the agenda of development projects. While taking crucial decisions on investment priorities, the government is playing to the gallery of public opinion, which, in turn, has been taken over by special interest groups.

FROM THE STATES

Kerala

A Year of Governing Precariously

A V Jose

It has been a year since the United Democratic Front government took office in Kerala. During this period communal forces have exercised their infl uence in government formation, and caste and sectarian mobilisation has grown. One could surmise from the policy orientation of the state government over the past year that the ascending classes now have a decisive infl uence over the agenda of development projects. While taking crucial decisions on investment priorities, the government is playing to the gallery of public opinion, which, in turn, has been taken over by special interest groups.

A V Jose (avjose@cds.ac.in) is associated with the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

T
he United Democratic Front (UDF) Government of Kerala, which completes a year in office on 18 May, is discovering a bitter truth. Hanging on to power with a wafer-thin majority in the house itself is a precarious job that leaves little time for anything other than settling the internal squabble of unwieldy coalition partners. Much of the wrangle so far has been over the spoils of power: ministerial berths, plum portfolios, chieftaincies of corporations and succulent public offi ces. Allocating these positions among contending claimants – nine coalition parties altogether having a strength of 71 in a house of 140 members – has proved to be an endless job. Being in power is the only glue that keeps them all together.

The unfortunate fallout of coalition politics is that the partners in power tend to walk away with exclusive usufructuary rights over their fi efdoms, which are ministries or high public offices. Collective responsibility and public accountability often take a back seat when the chieftains in charge take crucial decisions on the allocation and management of resources. How best to distribute all the fruits of power amidst the charmed circle of one’s own kinship and powerbrokers becomes the preoccupation of many incumbents on the treasury benches. The only saving grace is that such proprietary rights are not given in perpetuity; come the next elections, the incumbents routinely move over to opposition benches. But until that happens, there are rich pickings to be made from the hard-earned ministerial portfolios, often allocated after hectic bargaining among coalition partners.

The net outcome of this partisan sharing of the spoils of power is profoundly disturbing. Its practitioners have a proclivity to trample on any remnant of s ecularism that survives in the polity. When several political parties which share power happen to be organised on the basis of caste, community or religious identity, the positions of power including ministerial berths and portfolios too are liable to be partitioned on similar lines of sectarian identities. The recent episode of the Muslim League, the second largest partner in the coalition with a total of 20 legislators, haggling for and eventually walking away with a fifth berth in the cabinet was not an isolated event in coalition politics, but it did hurt the sensitivities of secular-minded people both in the ruling and opposition fronts.

Coalition of Communal Forces

A half-hearted attempt by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to limit the damage by reallocating the major portfolios of home, revenue and health, held by the Congress Party, to its ministerial incumbents from the majority community has made matters worse, casting a shadow on the secular credentials and moral authority of his party. Such shenanigans have reinforced the contention of left parties that the chief minister is coordinating a grand coalition of communal forces in the state.

What explains this pronounced surge of religious and communal politics in a state that has made commendable progress in human development? Perhaps it is not easy to identify any direct causal link to this phenomenon. From all outward appearances, economic conditions of people in the state, even those at the lower end of the income distribution, seem to have improved over time. Long considered one of the low-income states of India, Kerala has in recent years shot to the forefront as a high-income state. This has happened in spite of a known proclivity of many states to under-report their income in the context of federal financial relations. The per capita annual income of Kerala in current prices is around of Rs 1,00,000. If we take into account the annual inflow of remittances to the tune of Rs 50,000 crore, another 30% is added to the disposable income. Such a relatively high per capita income is also reflected in a growth of

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 19, 2012 vol xlviI no 20

FROM THE STATES

e conomic activities in construction, manufacturing and service industries, mainly in the unorganised sector.

One plausible view is that any such improvement in income and well-being has come along with a worsening of inequalities in interpersonal distribution of income. The index of income distribution in Kerala does not present a rosy picture. Gini coefficients based on household consumption spending are found to be significantly high and rising in comparison to many Indian states. It looks as though there is a rising middle class in the state which mostly belongs to two “minority” religions: Islam and Christianity and to intermediate castes of the Hindu fold. Their ascent in terms of economic prowess is beginning to disturb the equilibrium of a caste-bound and status-conscious society. Members of the upper castes look for a reason to cry foul as their traditionally held citadels of power, built on public offices and large holdings of land, are usurped by the new middle class ostensibly under a democratic dispensation. This predicament creates a fertile ground for political polarisation within the enclaves of caste and religious formations. It could be that such polarisation is under way in Kerala.

Signposts

Some signposts of change stand out. A discernible improvement in the living standards of people in the lower rung of society has coincided with increased politicisation of caste and community groups in the state. This is refl ected in aggressive posturing on political forums by the traditionally disadvantaged groups. As a result there is an unprecedented increase in a caste and community-based demand for and allocation of political positions, notably ministerial berths and portfolios among coalition partners, much to the chagrin of groups that traditionally dominated the political scene. There is a subtle debate on the modalities of a fair distribution of political offices among contending castes and communities being organised by the media, which becomes even more annoying to the votaries of secularism in the state. Quite unfortunately the media too is deeply embedded in sectarian politics.

It also appears that income inequalities in the state are far more conspicuous than at any time in the past and that there is greater tolerance of such inequalities in contemporary times. Visual evidence of ostentatious consumption abounds in the state. Quite apart from the disproportionately large number of luxury cars plying on the roads, a glaring example of opulence is the unusually large number of people crowding gold and jewellery shops. Estimates of gold sold in Kerala range from a quarter to one-third of the million tonnes annually imported into India. It is a mammoth industry with thousands of outlets where the estimated value of sales is not less than Rs 50,000 crore.

All available indications suggest that there has been a burgeoning of income from multiple sources including remittances, cultivation of commercial crops, real estate, construction and from small and medium enterprises in manufacturing and service industries. In a state where more than three quarters of the total cropped area is set aside for capitalintensive commercial crops, notably perennial crops such as coconut, rubber, pepper and cardamom, the owner-cultivators of such crops have had their incomes booming on account of a continuous rise in commodity prices. Natural rubber prices have increased several fold in less than 10 years. Property values have soared even in the countryside, where transactions are reportedly taking place at not less than Rs 50,000 a cent of land. There has also been an increase in the wage rates of unskilled workers now in the range of Rs 400 to Rs 500 a day.

Playing to the Gallery

One could surmise from the policy orientation of the state government over a year that the ascending classes have a decisive influence over the governments agenda of development projects. While taking crucial decisions on investment priorities, the government is playing to the gallery of public opinion, which, in turn, has been taken over by special interest groups. These groups are also orchestrating discussions in the media concerning the modalities and strategies for faster economic growth. As a result, there is a

may 19, 2012

d iscernible shift in emphasis towards p ublic-private partnerships in the formulation of development projects. The major casualties in the process are the education and health sectors of the state, which have had impressive achievements to their credit from the presence of publiclyfunded institutions. These are now being turned into lucrative industries in the private domain. An enormous number of unaided schools and institutions for higher education, is now emerging under the umbrella of religious and sectarian interests, without any semblance of social control in the fields of education and health of the kind that existed in the past.

Perhaps the most glaring example of a shift in the development agenda of K erala is the emphasis now being placed on the launch of “mega projects”. The finance minister of Kerala, K M Mani, rolled out a list of such projects in his recent budget speech which include: a rapid transit rail corridor, mono rail projects, personal rapid transit systems, sea planes, air strips and air taxis in all district headquarters. The projects are being touted with scant regard for their cost implications. For instance the new rail corridor, linking north and south Kerala is expected to cost a staggering Rs 1.4 lakh crore. None, including members of the State Planning Board who promote the project, seems to have got their arithmetic right. Even with concessional fi nance from Japan, the project will remain unviable and unaffordable for many decades to come. On the other hand, with incremental investments on doubling and electrifying the existing north-south lines, the state can comfortably raise the productivity of transport infrastructure manifold.

All this daydreaming about mega projects takes place in a state where transport facilities and civic amenities are run down and maintained at deplorably low levels of comfort. How low can one descend with the available facilities? Take a stroll along the East Fort terminal in Thiruvananthapuram. You will come across thousands of commuters in the city who board or disembark from buses in utterly squalid surroundings. Would their concerns for at least a clean surrounding ever fi gure in the priorities of the state government?

vol xlviI no 20

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