Volume 5, No. 3, March 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
“Kerala society, which was called a ‘mental asylum’ for the caste system and untouchability, was reformed by the communists” – 18th century Indian sage Swami Vivekananda.
“What a glorious tradition of peace, harmony and social reform you have inherited. What a progressive spirit your state has breathed down the ages. One of the first ever satyagrahas in India for temple entry for lower caste Hindus was organised in Kerala. Some of the inspiring chapters in the struggle for social quality and workers’ rights were written in Kerala” – former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
“China could have achieved its population targets without resorting to draconian coercive measures had its leadership followed non-coercive persuasion through the instruments of democracy by guaranteeing the political rights and freedom to choose of its people, as the case was in Kerala” – Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen.
“The expansion of substantive freedoms – to lead a healthy life, to gain education, and to participate in political discussions – does not have to wait till incomes reach a high level” – Amartya Sen, cited in Jayan Jose Thomas: “The Achievements and Challenges of the Kerala ‘Model’”, February 2021.
‘‘Kerala is a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World. Though not much larger than Maryland, Kerala has a population as big as California’s and per capita annual income of less than $ 300. But its infant mortality rate is very low, its literacy rate among the highest on Earth, and its birthrate below America’s and falling faster. Kerala’s residents live nearly as long as Americans or Europeans. Though mostly a land of paddy-covered plains, statistically Kerala stands out as the Mount Everest of social development; there’s truly no place like it” – Bill McKibben, famous US environmentalist.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)) is one of the national communist parties of India. It emerged after a split from the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1964 and was formed in Calcutta on October 31-November 7, 1964. The CPI, as its parent organisation, came into being on December 26, 1925, and experienced a period of upsurge after World War II. This followed armed rebellions in Telangana, Tripura and Kerala. However, it soon abandoned its strategy of armed revolution in favour of working within the parliamentary framework.
In 2021, the CPI-M is leading the State government in Kerala with representation in the Legislative Assemblies in Tripura, Assam, Rajasthan, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.
The Indian National Congress (INC) under Jawaharlal Nehru in independent India developed close relations and a strategic partnership with the Soviet Union. The Soviet government consequently wished that the Indian communists should adopt moderate criticism towards and assume a supportive role for the INC governments. However, large sections of the CPI argued that India should not remain a semi-feudal country and therefore class struggle could not be put on the backburner for the sake of guarding the interests of Soviet trade and foreign policy. Moreover, the INC appeared to be generally hostile towards political competition. In 1959, the central government intervened to impose President’s Rule in Kerala, toppling the E M S Namboodiripad cabinet, the sole non-INC State government in the country.
The social fabric, education, awareness and intellectual mindset of the people of West Bengal and Kerala  have been richly cultured, with literacy and strong politics across all sections of the citizens. It has helped in raising their standard of living with limited means of income and assorted hurdles. Since long, socialism was relevant in the development of these two States and helped the people to think socially and progressively in promoting inclusive development. The Indian people sometimes tend to think about the mindset of Bengalis and Malayalees as hurdles in the developmental process while citing the examples of labour unions and too few industries. In all fairness, social justice has been available to a great extent in both these Indian States.
The communist government dominated West Bengal for 34 years and greatly contributed to development in many ways. In the case of Kerala, the CPI-M Left Front (LF) ruled intermittently and got re-elected for a second term of office following the April 2021 State elections. Both Indian States headed by Left-led governments typify respective successes and failures. The West Bengal communist-led government initially did undertake some meaningful reforms but ultimately lost elections in the face of wide public protests and disenchantment in 2011. After its defeat, the Trinamool Congress (TC) under Mamata Banerjee emerged victorious with deep roots in the countryside and urban areas. It was the TC combine’s cataclysmic victory that reflected the intensity of pent-up anger of the people against the LF and the CPI-M in particular. This resentment crossed all bounds, giving the Assembly elections the “character of a dam-burst”. This happened due to a poor economy, corruption, nepotism and gross mismanagement.
. John Harriss and Olle Törnquist: Social Democracy: Kerala and West Bengal (Simons Papers in Security and Development, Simon Fraser University, Canada, No. 39/2015).
. Comparative Notes on Indian Experiences of Social Democracy: Kerala and West Bengal (Simon Fraser University, Australia, www.sfu.ca/internationalstudies).
This article posits that good governance in the form of responsiveness and inclusion founded on the pillars of sound education, health and governance has provided legitimacy and credibility to Kerala’s leadership. No wonder its experiment was widely eulogised in the late 1980s/early 1990s as a ‘model’ of development. Of course, Kerala’s colonial history and post-independence socio-economic reforms paid dividends.
The study delves, firstly, into the historical background of CPI and the formation of CPI-M. Next, it traces the historical trajectory of developments in Kerala and West Bengal. Then it explains the role of Marxism and its impact on the caste system in the two States; how it has effected changes in different facets of life, i.e. land reforms, the caste system, women’s empowerment and changes in institutional groups and society. Education and health services are given emphasis, the latter because of the existential virus issue. A summation is carried out. Finally, the conclusion, with some ruminations, provides a rounded picture.
The Kerala Communist Party had its origins in the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), a legal organisation and part of a mass movement. The CPI in Bengal on the other hand emerged outside the Congress movement. It faced greater repression from the British than the Bengali Congressites and also confronted much resistance from within the Congress movement and the Leftists in Kerala in the CSP.
In Bengal, the anti-Gandhian position in the Congress was held by the upper-caste gentry and landowning classes, whereas by the 1930s the agrarian mobilisations in their State meant the Leftist leaders in Kerala faced less resistance from the dominant landlords within the INC. The nationalist field in Bengal posed greater obstructions to the CPI achieving political hegemony.
The caste barriers between the upper and lower castes had already crumbled by the 1930s to a greater extent in Kerala than in Bengal. Activists and organisers from the CPI, almost all from higher castes, after working in the countryside in the late 1930s, had a harder task in winning the trust of those whom they sought to mobilise. The relative inability of the Bengal CPI as compared to the Kerala CPI in mobilising peasant movements until the late 1960s suggests partly the elitist origin and partly the nature of its growth.
The CPI in Bengal was essentially an urban movement whereas in Kerala there was an unclear urban/rural distinction. The upshot of all this was that by the time of Indian Independence and into the 1950s, the Bengal CPI had limited political power as compared to its Kerala counterparts. The Bengal party had nothing like the broad, radicalised social base and alliances with wider left-oriented social movements and civil society organisations as in Kerala. Subsequently too, the CPI-M in West Bengal remained wary of social movements. Bengal witnessed the birth of an alternate political culture to the Congress and Muslim League-led nationalisms by the 1930s. As in Kerala, there are distinct phases in West Bengal’s attempts at social democratic development.
At first, the formative years of class struggle – urban and rural – concluded with the coming into power of the first LF government (1977). The second period was characterised by successful party-driven agricultural development achieved through modest land reforms, decentralisation and improvement in agricultural technology. The third period was until the collapse of the parliamentary Left in the 2011 West Bengal elections. It was marked by problematic initiatives in industrial development and temporising with neo-liberalism.
Eminent writers like Basu and Majumdar describe it as the destruction of the ‘social imaginaire’ of social citizenship in which popular classes have access to ‘sustainable livelihood and a cultural sense of belonging’ that the Left had established as ‘political common sense’ in West Bengal.
Kerala’s version of Marxism is different from China, Russia, Eastern and Western Europe and Third World countries in the sense that it adopted policies of flexibility with a coalition partnership while retaining ‘democratic centralism’ under the Marxist umbrella. At the same time, it had to operate within a conservative Hindu society.
Marxist thought is looked at askance in the face of the rise of Hindu nationalism. Kerala’s vibrant society allows for rich debates. Some writers like Joseph Tharamanagalam take a critical but creative view of Kerala. They assert that a disputatious and contentious society prevents a unified and consensual approach. On the obverse, there are those who see merit in disagreements, if they are based on pragmatic and sound reasoning.
In a very poor society, where conflicts over scarce resources are necessarily acute and traditional injustices prevail, contentious politics is inevitable and arguably desirable. Many democratic theorists see this as a sign of a healthy political culture – one in which political participation is not confined to formal and elite-dominated institutions. Of course, much depends on how these political impulses are aggregated, i.e., whether, on balance, they result in the proliferation of particularistic demands or the formation of encompassing political demand making.
The historical evidence supports the former. Rather than producing a downward spiral of fragmenting and ‘desolidarising’ demands, politics in Kerala have been both contentious and transformative. Initially, high levels of militancy had adversely affected Kerala’s investment profile: economic growth and welfare demands did produce a fiscal crisis. In the 1960s and 1970s, the politics of class struggle, which was, by definition ‘confrontational’, did mobilise new demand groups that ultimately resulted in the expansion of a welfare state and redistributive reforms.
The 1980s however, witnessed a shift from the politics of class struggle to class compromise as the CPI-M, in particular, came to terms with the inherent limits of unrestrained militancy in an open, sub-national economy. Politically speaking, this corporatist strategy has been successful. Levels of labour militancy declined dramatically in both industry and agriculture. The unions have abandoned traditional opposition towards mechanisation in both farming and traditional industries.
Expenditures have been redirected towards productive sectors and successive Left and Right governments have promoted investor-friendly policies. The economic payoffs to date have been dismal, especially in terms of new investments. Whatever conclusions are drawn from aggregate economic data, the point remains that the political process has been capable of adapting with adeptness. 
For many years, it has been clear to Kerala’s political forces that tens of thousands of voluntary support staff have been trained and some three million people have participated in village-level planning efforts. Thus, a new constituency of thousands of Panchayat politicians, community activists and ordinary citizens were drawn into the day-to-day business of formulating and implementing grassroots development initiatives. Interestingly, in the context of Kerala’s fiercely
. Patrick Heller: “From Class Struggle to Class Compromise: Redistribution and Growth in a South Indian State” (Journal of Development Studies, Vol. 31, no. 5, 1995: pp. 645-72).
competitive partisan politics, the campaign received support from two critical opposition parties, namely the Kerala Congress and Muslim League.
For all its achievements on the social and political fronts, Kerala continues to face fundamental challenges, but in the absence of emergent trajectories and development blueprints, a highly mobilised society, broad-based and encompassing organisations, along with the tradition of vigorous public deliberation have created the basis for a democratic transformative politics. Put differently, it holds the promise for negotiating difficult trade-offs and choices that are essential for development.
Unlike the Kerala government that followed a ‘bottom-up’ approach through mass mobilisation in a democracy, the West Bengal Left parties started drifting away from class struggle by coopting people through patronage and political linkages with the civil bureaucracy. This was a major deviation from Marxian principles and affected the process of reforms, alleviation of caste differences, societal harmony, entrepreneurial skills, the civic society nexus and the plight of the middle classes. These are explicated below.
The caste system is prevalent in India despite denials. After all, caste and class are identities that act as strong instruments of mobilisation in elections and in transcending socio-economic stagnation. At the Centre, the RSS/BJP is run by the Bhadralok of northern India: Brahmins, Banias, Kayasthas, Khatris and Kshatriyas. For acquiring votes and mass mobilisation, they use caste identities.
The Chotolok masses are organised by the RSS and BJP. That was the reason why Prime Minister Narendra Modi played the Other. In West Bengal, the Communist Party from the beginning was controlled by the Bhadralok consisting of three castes — Brahmins, Kayasthas and Baidyas. The remaining Shudra and Namashudra (Dalit) castes were designated as Chotolok (neech) and low-caste people by Bhadralok intellectuals. None of the lower castes and Dalits were ever allowed to rise in West Bengal and Tripura.
. See Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a political theorist and social activist, in: The Shudras – Vision For a New Path (Co-edited with Karthik Raja Karuppusamy).
The Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis no longer trusted the Bhadralok communist leaders and hence were never allowed to emerge as leaders from the party ranks. Since Bhadralok leaders had hardly any roots in the agrarian and artisanal economies, they used Marxist jargon to justify keeping the Chotolok as the labour class or at most becoming middle-class, low-end intellectuals.
In West Bengal, like the rest of India, the lot of the Shudras, Dalits and Muslims suffered under the garb of ‘communist secularism’. Had the communists practiced real secularism, things would have been different. For example, the communist Bhadralok did not allow the Muslims of Bengal, constituting nearly 27 per cent of the population, to emerge as educated people in the rural areas. Had they had given them representation, a Muslim leader could have become a chief minister from their fold.
This resulted in a patron-client relationship. In West Bengal, after the assumption of power, the CPI-M came to rely heavily on over-patronage to supporters through the centralised party apparatus. This was when the resources of the state were greatly constrained by commitments to public sector workers and capital to financial deals to encourage investment. By acting as a patron to the rural masses, including agricultural labourers and small-to-medium farmers, the party started forfeiting support in ill-advised adventures in neo-liberalism. The benefits of capital weighed more than the interests of organised industrial labour or the welfare of the rural poor masses.
In Kerala however, the patron-client relationships, though they initially led to graft and corruption, were somewhat constrained by government measures and the pressures of intense electoral competition. The same constraints did not apply in the case of West Bengal where the prolonged incumbency of the LF produced unchallenged dominance and was tantamount to ‘hegemony’ in state politics.
In fact the Kerala experiment was quite the opposite. For example, the Ezhava leaders in the communist movement asserted their leadership positions. Though Brahmins and Nairs resisted the Narayana Guru and Ayyankali reform movements to claim leadership positions, K R Gouri Amma, V S Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan slowly and systematically upended Brahmin dominance and the Nair leadership’s hegemony in leadership positions.
The politburo of the CPI-M Bengal Bhadralok and Kerala Nairs resisted the emergence of any caste consciousness in the country and, even more, in the party ranks. But the Kerala Shudra and Dalit leaders handled the caste-blind central Bhadralok leadership to come to centre-stage very diligently. Such mobility of the lower castes and Dalits was never allowed in Bengal or Tripura.
In South India, caste identity played a transformatory role – much more than class identity. But the leaders wanted to hide it as it could harm their leadership status.
The emergence of social democratic politics and developments in Kerala poses a major puzzle. When the first government of CPI-M took office in Kerala in 1957, it was challenged by the issues of religious diversity and the entrenched caste and feudal systems. However, the sharp class, ethnic and religious differences started waning after reforms. The absence of religious homogeneity in Kerala was compensated at an early stage by what M G S Narayanan has labelled ‘cultural symbiosis’. Different religious communities could live side by side without major conflicts and yet cooperate in vital aspects of public life. This, Rajan Gurukkal has argued, was rooted in economic interdependence at the time. Most of the important communities were dependent on stable production and distribution of each other’s products. These included the Muslim and Christian international trading communities along with the Malayalam-speaking coast of what was later to become Kerala. The Hindu sects in the rice cultivating midlands and the tribal people of the highlands were involved in the intra-regional trade of spices and forest products.
. The Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu and Telugu Desam, TRS and YSRCP, mobilised Dalits and Reserved Shudra categories as they are headed by Unreserved Shudra caste leaders like Kammas, Velamas and Reddys to thwart the RSS/BJP capturing power in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (TC), succeeding the LF, is a Bhadralok party. The RSS/BJP are likely to mobilise Dalits and Shudras in significant ways. But they do not find many buyers in Kerala among the Reserved Shudras (OBCs), Nairs, or Dalits. The RSS/BJP in any case do not think of mobilising Muslim voters – rather they want to polarise Muslim and Hindu voters and come to power through this tactic.
. If the South Indian Shudra communities, the Nairs of Kerala, Kammas, Reddys and Velamas of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, do not share power with lower Shudras and Dalits, the BJP will use them against the ruling Shudra castes. They are trying to mobilise Kapus in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh by making militant Kapu activists as the presidents of the state units. Exactly such a game is being played by RSS/BJP in West Bengal by mobilising Chotolok that constitute castes like the Mahisyas, Sadgops and Dalits. See The Shudras – Vision For a New Path.
West Bengal and Kerala shared comparable structural conditions, i.e. high levels of insecure tenancy; oppressive landlordism; acute landlessness; an exceptionally high person-to-land ratio, and a higher rising level of ‘proletarianism’ than elsewhere in India. Yet their communist parties were, and remained, different, essentially because of the ways in which they related to popular movements. Structural factors were ‘refracted through leadership, strategies and tactics, and the specific character of nationalist movements in the two regions.’
Land reforms were finally realised in Kerala in the 1970s. Much of the social liberalisation in Kerala is due to land reforms such as the conferment of ownership rights to the poor, redistribution of land, and the creation of colonies for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. This ensured the economic freedom of agricultural labourers. Moreover, populism and public demand led the government to enforce social welfare and security measures such as pension schemes for agricultural workers, senior citizens and the physically handicapped, and welfare funds for the informal sector. A demographic transition followed these developments. Cooperative systems also helped the traditional industries to avail of credit facilities, thereby removing the middlemen. These initiatives were a success due to adequate backing by a proper legislative framework.
The advances made in the health and education sectors and general human development indicators are outstanding by Indian standards and did away with landlordism. However creditable, some caveats are in order as neither land reforms nor educational advances beyond basic literacy included the weakest sections of the population. While tenants benefited and often developed special interests of their own, there were many problems and the tillers were granted rights to their huts and small plots on usually infertile land. Moreover, the tribal people and the fishing communities were left outside the reforms.
The reforms were not adequately followed up with measures to foster production as sometimes the new owners developed an interest in less employment-intensive crops, and even engaged in
. Richard W Franke and Barbara H Chasin: Kerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (Second edition, Oakland, California, Food First, 1994).
land speculation. Finally, the reforms were implemented during a period of conflict.
In short, the better-educated privileged groups could develop new and profitable ventures and secure good jobs outside agriculture, and the former tenants from lower-ranking communities gained education and land – thanks to the reforms and welfare measures. But neither group developed agricultural and other production activities of the kind that would generate new and better jobs for the underprivileged sections of the population.
Even when the Left had no formal political power, the Left organizations have demanded and won accessible healthcare, educational opportunities, real land reform, successful caste affirmative action, rural workers’ pensions and effective food distribution to all social classes. With a per capita GNP lower than the all-India average, Kerala ranks first among all Indian States in provision of 15 basic services, including schools, good roads, ration shops, health centres, hospitals, veterinary services, banks, etc. Women are better off in Kerala as they are part of a struggle that benefits the whole population.
Education and the service sector are the fastest growing in Kerala’s economy. Their share improved steadily from 36.4 percent in 1980-81 to 40.1 percent in 1990-91 and further to 45.4 percent from 1997-98. Kerala’s high literacy rate of 96.2 percent resulted from an educational system guided by government and assisted by private and aided institutions. Moreover, linguistic homogeneity greatly helped in extending the reach of the educational system.
Needless to say, Kerala’s earlier history has contributed to educational progress and development. Before Independence, the rulers of the princely states of Thiruvithamkoor and Kochi, who later formed the State of Kerala, played an influential role in spreading education to then backward castes and females with monetary assistance and fee waivers to rural female students.
As far back as the 1890s, the male-female literacy ratio was only 5:1, which was far better than the national average of 17:1.. The role of Christian missionaries significantly helped in the development
. See Simons Papers in Security and Development, No. 39/2015, Simon Fraser University, Canada.
. EPW Research Foundation, 2003.
. Rachit Garg: “Kerala model: learning development through observation”, May 26, 2021.
and expansion of the education and health systems. It also ensured the participation of the untouchables and underprivileged and made the training of teachers compulsory. More than half of the students enrolled in pre-primary, primary, and lower primary are girls. This proportion is higher in later classes and undergraduate and postgraduate arts and science colleges. However, there remains a deficiency in the participation of women in professional courses.
Nearly 94 percent of the rural population has access to primary schools within a distance of one kilometre, while 98 percent of the population attend school within a distance of two kilometres. Furthermore, 96 percent of the population is served by an upper primary school within a travel distance of three kilometers and one-fourth by a secondary school within two kilometres. Nearly 98 percent of the rural population has a facility for secondary education within six to eight kilometres. Also at a reasonable distance, facilities of higher education and technical education are accessible to rural students. Another aspect of education is the non-formal education institutions offering courses. In addition, Kerala has been able to achieve gender equity in the educational system. The female literacy in Kerala, for instance, is at 86 percent – far above the all-India rate of 39 percent and many developed countries. Nearly half of the students in lower primary classes are girls.
There is also a strong female presence among teachers in Kerala, well above the national average. Females constitute 72.66 percent of the teachers in the State. Development spending on education is impressive. Kerala spends 16.4 percent of its budget on education, which grows at 12.4 percent every year, with a major chunk of the expenditure going to school education.
On the negative side, tribes and fishing communities in particular, and people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes in general have lagged behind the rest in educational and professional attainments.
After the first wave of COVID-19 struck India in December 2020, Kerala emerged as a unique success story in battling the virus. The local authorities promoted the ‘Kerala model’ as a blueprint to contain COVID-19 outbreaks across the country. It emphasised mask wearing, social distancing and other proactive measures by local authorities and the media. Since spring-summer 2021, this State of 35 million people has become India’s epicentre for the variant Delta virus. Kerala’s Covid-19 deaths, meanwhile, make up nearly half of India’s daily total. This high death rate may, in part, reflect the fact that Kerala has India’s oldest population.
Kerala accounted for 30,193 of the 46,263 infections recorded in India, up from 65 percent of India’s total caseload. This spike comes as India’s total cases have plunged from a peak of over 400,000 in the first week of May to around 40,000 cases per day now.
Why this resurgence and purported failure of the Kerala government? In December 2020, India’s sero-prevalence was twice that of Kerala (21 percent versus 10.7 percent). This low prevalence was mostly attributed to successful implementation of strong containment and mitigation measures compared to other parts of the country. By July 2021, as the national sero-prevalence was 67.6 percent, Kerala still had nearly 56 percent of its population yet to be infected. Effectively, the State was fertile ground for a new round of circulation.
Despite the fear of potential fatalities at high levels of vulnerability, Kerala has shown remarkably lower fatalities. This is mostly due to early diagnosis, timely referral (self-referral due to better awareness) and adequate treatment facilities. Health experts say the majority of elderly people may not have developed immunity and were especially vulnerable to the virus like other regions. Also, the higher number did not collapse the infrastructure: hospital beds, oxygen reserves and medicines were adequate.
Early success sometimes has its own problems. More importantly, Kerala may have simply let down its guard. Infections began to rise during the 10-day religious festival of Onam (August 12-23). Overcrowding and mingling during the festival led to the virus spurt, even though the State had banned large gatherings. This does not exculpate the State authorities from complacency and not taking adequate precautions.
Secondly, Kerala has a high COVID-19 testing rate; its elevated case numbers may be due to catching infections earlier than other states. Further, its containment of the first wave also meant a higher share of the population without developing antibodies and, therefore, being vulnerable to the highly infective Delta variant. Says virologist John: “If there are two forest fires, which will last longer, the one with more dead trees or less?”
Thirdly, Kerala’s mobile population may have exacerbated the surge. The State has one of the largest migrant populations in India with 2.5 million workers from other parts of the country travelling across its borders. An estimated four million Kerala residents live and work abroad, mostly in the Gulf States. An estimated 1.2 million of the State’s residents have returned to Kerala from overseas since the beginning of the pandemic, raising the risk of imported cases.
Dr. Sudhir Kalhan opines that thousands of medical and paramedical staff recently returned to Kerala after serving as frontline medical staff in other parts of the country. “Probably, Kerala picked up the virus late during India’s second wave, but the good thing is the cases are ‘plateauing’ around 30,000 daily,” he says. In the words of a political scientist, Sandeep Shastri, “Just because [the Kerala model] has not produced results now, does not mean that it did not produce results earlier.”
In recent weeks, the Kerala government has ramped up its vaccination campaign by setting up drive-through vaccination centres and deploying health workers to places like construction sites to inoculate workers.
When the Corona wave struck India in December 2020, Kerala emerged as a unique success story in battling the virus. Then the authorities had promoted the ‘Kerala model’ as a blueprint to contain the epidemic outbreak across the country.
So far 10 Indian States, including Kerala, which is contributing the highest to the corona virus load of India, have vaccinated more than 85 percent of the eligible population with a single dose. India overall has fully vaccinated 20 percent of the adult population while 62 percent have received the first dose.
Reform movements have taken place in the princely States of Travancore and Cochin since the mid-19th century. Later in the 1930s, when Kerala was affected by the world economic crisis, class grievances were added to the civil and social rights agenda under the influence of socialist and communist leaders, who played an important role in the anti-feudal struggle in the British-governed Malabar in the north.
There is an animated debate between Kerala’s past traditions and post-independence communist governments’ proactive reforms, including women’s empowerment. Pre-independence history takes note of educational policies pursued in the ‘native kingdoms’ of Travancore and Cochin outside British India, which make up the bulk of present Kerala. Also, inheritance rights for women in the small Nair community were some positive steps.
In fact, the causal chain of Kerala’s exceptional record goes back in history and includes, among other things, such steps as the public policy of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘diffusion of education’ that were clearly articulated by the reigning queen Rani Gouri Parvathi Bai of Travancore as early as 1817. A high level of education contributed to development and utilisation of Kerala’s extensive public health services in making the population more informed, articulate, and keen on demanding health services.
However, this is disputed by scholars like Chasin and Franke, who dismiss the role of inheritance laws favouring women among a part of Kerala’s population. According to them, the Nair community constituted no more than a fifth of the total population, but the practice of giving women a high position in property ownership by prominent and powerful groups to some extent influenced women’s societal rights and positions. The 1991 census showed the female literacy rate in Kerala as 87 percent while that of males was 94 percent. The Left organisations have demanded and won accessible healthcare, educational opportunities, real land reform, successful caste affirmative action, rural workers’ pensions, and effective food distribution to all social classes. With a per capita GNP lower than the all-India average, it ranks first among all Indian states in provision of 15 basic services: including schools, good roads, ration shops, health centres, hospitals, veterinary services, banks, etc.
Jean Drèze, et al, have explored the connections among education, public activism, development, and health facilities. Literacy and basic education have contributed to Kerala’s radicalism and to the development of ‘political mobilisation’ in making it easier to depart from the traditional mould of Indian conservative politics.
Admittedly, Kerala’s extent of success is in fact considerably greater than what Chasin and Franke had offered. Estimates based on the Sample Registration Survey for 1986-1988 suggested a life expectancy at birth of 73.2 years for females with a male life expectancy of 67.0 years.
The West Bengal record is, however, mixed: despite decades of rule in West Bengal under the LF, per capita income, human development, healthcare, primary education are of much lesser quality than in Kerala.
Industrialisation and land reforms, while relatively advanced in Kerala in comparison to the rest of India, did not generate much growth. Labour in Kerala won better wages than other States, which, given insufficient improvement of productivity, held back investments beyond construction, some service sectors, and property speculation.
In West Bengal, moderate agrarian reforms were partially instrumental in bringing a high rate of growth in agriculture, at least for some time, but not enough to generate industrialisation. This hampered foreign investment due to the problem of labour riots. Meanwhile in Kerala, the attempt to renew broad-based development efforts generated from below by the ‘bottom up’ approach of ‘democratic decentralisation’ and local planning had achieved better success. The new local institutions were not solid enough to reunite divided groups and interests and resist party dominance and patronage.
In the 1980s-90s, the educated Keralites migrated to the Gulf States, found job opportunities and sent remittances home to shore up the economy. The West Bengal LF, for its part, while opting for external investments, held down wages and neglected informal workers. Finally, enforced land acquisition for the benefit of big companies without proper negotiations and compensations paved the way for rural immiseration, resulting in the defeat of the Left in West Bengal.
As a follow-up to the caste identities and classes, the low status of some of the aforementioned castes vis-a-vis the Bhadralok of educated, well-to-do, urban-based strata, did not succeed as entrepreneurs. The gap left by their failure in business was filled up by Marwari traders, immigrants from Rajasthan.
There was not much of a Bengali bourgeoisie and so the State’s capitalist class remained outside, especially as the communists appealed to sub-nationalism against them. In view of this, capital flight was always a possibility. There was little chance, therefore, of development of any growth in the coalition system in West Bengal. Mainly the Marwari elite had close links with capitalists for economic interests in the State’s rice mills. Accordingly, the Marwari community prospered due to LF reliance and collaboration. Industrialiation and foreign capital as an auxiliary of weak industrialisation was a factor in attracting foreign capital, which was a major issue in West Bengal. The LF government’s objective was to realise ‘balanced growth’ from agricultural development while compromising with the ‘national bourgeoisie’. Labour militancy in West Bengal no doubt got substantially reduced while few efforts were made to include informal labour in national development.
After 1994, the LF tried to invite capital from outside by touting the State as having India’s ‘largest and cheapest non-unionised labour force.’ These efforts to woo national and international capital despite sacrifices imposed upon labour did not succeed as it failed to deliver the land required for major investments.
Linkages with civil society in West Bengal were weaker than Kerala. As an instance, Nag in 1989 cites the differences in quality of healthcare between Kerala and West Bengal due to extensive mobilisation of people in Kerala around health and educational issues. Another analyst Beg has it that the CPI-M ‘failed to innovate the relationship between social movements and political office’.
Furthermore, the LF neglected rights of the unorganised working classes, as Agarwala observes. The LF lagged behind in liberties and investments in health and education, unlike Kerala. Since the LF in West Bengal had no experience in opposition due to long incumbency, retaining political office and political survival remained its sole objective.
Since the late 1980s, neo-liberal policies made strong inroads into new and unregulated service sectors, employing large numbers of low-paid migrant labourers from other parts of India and vulnerable workers in the informal sectors of the economy. Some legal underpinnings for labour organisation and capital-labour relations remain in place. Yet Kerala can claim greater regulation than anywhere else in the country.
The Left in West Bengal has not been successful in fostering interest representation beyond the dominance of parties or building a coalition for economic growth and social justice. It failed to reconcile through practice, policy or social institutions the interests of dynamic businesses, precarious middle classes and underprivileged labour.
The West Bengal LF did not encourage the participation of non-party organisations in the formulation of State policy. Against this, the Kerala LF emerged, firstly, by drawing on the support of non-party organisations and then allowing and encouraging participation in the formulation and implementation of policies. Later, the Leftist parties were more dominant in relation to interest organisations and citizen groups.
In contrast to West Bengal, the Kerala LF was less hegemonic, having to politically compete with Congress and its allies. In fact, while in office the LF never cared much for informal and numerous other sector workers and largely sacrificed them. For instance, in the ‘formative period’ in Kerala, social democratic development took place through broad alliances from below in universal civil, political and social rights and in the context of class-based politics.
Movements grew from below and the Left leaders embedded themselves and their parties within that milieu. Advances were made in civil, social and political rights and strong constituencies were built around them; these social interventions continued to be strongly supported even when the Left was out of office. Significantly, the achievements of Kerala in regard to social justice are the outcome of broad-based mobilisations in society rather than the actions of the Left parties. Hence opposition parties were until recent years unable to entirely reverse the advances made in social justice.
In Kerala as in West Bengal, the Left targeted and provided support to particular groups and allies in party-related organisations, i.e. trade unions and peasant organisations, cooperatives and cultural groups. Tillers and especially Adivasis and fishing communities did not benefit much from land reforms, which were inadequately followed up to support small cultivators; they were not backed up with any measures to encourage participation in local government. Over time, the broad-based Left movement was taken over by fronts led from above by increasingly divisive leaders and included parties who had developed their own vested interests.
The Sachar Committee report bares it all: 80 percent of the Muslims in rural areas remained poor in terms of purchasing power; the poor representation in jobs was worse than Modi’s Gujarat despite the Left’s strong pitch for secularism.
In general, West Bengal was more successful in reducing poverty to a great extent during the incumbency of LF governments as compared to the rest of Indian society, yet, the state’s record in other sectors, i.e. education and health, remained poor.
VIII. Conclusions and some ruminations
This article has surveyed two case studies of communist rule in Indian states: Kerala and West Bengal. It has attempted to analyse their comparative strengths and weaknesses after considering the background and performance at different levels of development. On balance, Kerala has done much better than West Bengal on all indicators of socio-economic development.
The Corona virus with the mutation of Delta has wreaked socio-economic havoc on many countries across the globe and affected all walks of life. Each country has dealt with the virus in its own way, given geographical location, available resources and socio-cultural factors. The virus is agnostic and does not respect any caste, creed, colour, ethnicity, nation or age.
Looking at the Kerala experience, one finds that the education, health and infrastructural base of society promoted by the LF and earlier historical socio-cultural movements had played a synergetic role in fostering political consciousness and democratic trends. This is partially true for West Bengal, but more so in the case of Kerala, whose leadership, despite obstacles, has earned public trust. As a result, the LF won re-election in April 2021.
However, the latter’s exceptional performance and initial record as a ‘model state’ has also come under criticism. But on closer observation, new cases are still significantly below the peak of May 12, 2012. As a densely populated state, it was exemplary how it had curbed the spread of coronavirus infections since March 2020 when the case level was at its height. As reported in early August 2021, it accounted for nearly 50 percent of the daily total of new infections as compared to the same period last year.
The new variant spiked due to the laxity of the public on the Muslim Eid and Hindu Onam festivals. Tapping into past experience with Zika and Nipah viruses, Kerala tried to curb the waves of infections from suddenly spiking. Noteworthy is the fact that the fatality ratio is reportedly among the lowest in India at 0.5 percent. Kerala’s healthcare, unlike several metropolitan cities like Delhi and Ahmadabad, did not crumble under pressure. The spike is described by virologists as a ‘plateau’ and not a ‘spike’. The latter would mean a shortage of ventilators, oxygen supplies, isolation centres, monitoring and curative facilities.
The experiences of those countries that have invested in robust health systems and educational-cum-administrative structures have led to a resilient society. Hence these countries are in a relatively better position to mount effective responses and limit the damage in a crisis. Some assert that since Kerala had easily controlled the 2001 infections, it became rather complacent. The counter-view is that due to better testing and monitoring facilities it was able to detect and treat far more Covid cases quickly and effectively.
On a broader level, India’s frail health system faces a tsunami of endemic deprivation such as hunger and poverty, which are disproportionately concentrated in the underclass – the bottom layers of the caste system, especially the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Amartya Sen’s argument on the sense of ‘entitlement’ during floods can also be applied in dealing with other national disasters and emergencies. As cogently argued by Patrick Heller, effective democracies exert redistributive pressures on the state. Atul Kohli after extensively studying these issues in India also supports this conclusion.
On the current virus crisis, this is reflected in India, where 20 percent of the population has received anti-virus treatment till the end of September. Albeit with a large pharmaceutical industry, it faces “a reluctant pro-capitalist state with a ‘socialist ideology’ to an enthusiastic pro-capitalist state with some commitment to inclusive growth.” If and how democratic politics can counter this ‘class power’ through democracy and activism by the poor remains a major challenge.
Under the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) growing right-wing economic policies with the ideology and project of Hindutva, a militant form of majoritarian Hindu nationalism is rising, spreading from the fringes of Indian society and politics to the mainstream in a short period of time. In the meanwhile, a few States such as Kerala, Goa and the so-called tribal states have continued to follow relatively more promising paths with easily visible outcomes in terms of social development.
The corona virus pandemic is a threat to many densely populated Third World countries. In March 2021, India reported nearly 200,000 deaths (possibly more). Now the Delta variant, originating from South Africa and the UK, is termed a ‘super-spreader’ and lethal. Observers say that some new variants such as Lamda and Gammare are also being reported.
Be that as it may, robust testing, surveillance, quarantine systems and a battery of tests highlight Kerala’s health policies. Moreover, solid investments in ‘democratic centralism’, education, health and administrative infrastructure have helped. This has given credibility and legitimacy to the leadership, even when the LF government was no longer in office.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kerala was acclaimed as a ‘model’ and even ‘India’s Scandinavia’. These accolades to Kerala’s leadership and vibrant vocal society may seem hyperbolic to some. But instead of basking in its accomplishments, the leadership thinks that it still needs improvement in institution building, health, education, research in anti-epidemic techniques and use of new technologies. Additionally, the experiences of other nations and societies need to be availed.
To sum up, the lessons of Kerala State’s socio-economic development are worthy of emulation so as to resonate with the people of India, the region, and the world at large in reimagining a better and safer post-Covid future.
The writer has been Visiting Faculty, Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad; Chairman Department of IR, NUML, former Adviser COMSATS, and President Islamabad Policy Research Institute
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