Column | Kerala should shed any illusion about its global profile and responsibilities

Kerala Finance Minister K N Balagopal presenting the Budget in Kerala Assembly. File Photo: Manorama

Kerala Finance Minister K N Balagopal, who is known to be a sedate and balanced person, surprised his audience when he referred in his budget speech this year to the Russia-Ukraine war in the context of the economic problems it may entail. He said that it is not possible for the state to adopt an isolationist attitude giving an excuse that 'I am not willing to confront'. "The Russia-Ukraine war has pushed the world towards a possible third world war with nuclear weapons. The memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compel us to work towards peace. Each one of us has to contribute our small bit," he said.

“Prominent peace workers and thinkers across the world will assemble for seminars and discussions will be convened. Towards this, Rs 2 crore is earmarked. As the travel restrictions are being lifted, institutions in our small state of Kerala will take the initiative for convening an in-person ‘Global Peace Conference’ on nuclear disarmament and world peace,” the minister said in the budget speech.

Apart from the fact that disarmament is not within the purview of the state government, the statement reveals a simplistic approach to the whole question of nuclear disarmament. The archives of the United Nations are full of not only reports of seminars and conferences, but also international treaties, but the capacity of the nuclear powers to destroy the world many times over has not diminished.

The finance minister said over and over again in the speech that the state has a precarious financial situation. Then an allocation of Rs 2 crore for disarmament seminars is a waste and injustice to the taxpayer. Moreover, Kerala has two active think-tanks — the Kerala International Centre (KIC) in Thiruvananthapuram and the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) in Kochi— which are competent to do any seminar on disarmament. Hope better sense will prevail.

The charm of Latin America
Moreover, Rs 2 crore has been earmarked in the budget for study, research and follow-up projects of the Latin American Centre at the University of Kerala.

Latin America has a great influence on the socio-political, cultural and agricultural spheres of Kerala. Latin American crops have been cultivated here since the arrival of the Portuguese in Kerala. Due to geographical similarities, the crops and farming are also suitable for Kerala. It is necessary to formulate plans that will utilise the potential of Kerala and Latin America. Such comparative studies and research will be encouraged under the guidance of the Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of Kerala. The relationship with Latin America needs to be strengthened through projects including student exchange programmes, the minister said in his budget speech.

The allocation of resources to the Kerala University is indeed legitimate, but it is intriguing that Latin American studies alone have received the attention of the government. In fact, it may be better to study our adversaries like China and Pakistan than our friends in Latin America. Ambassador Viswanathan, India’s leading Latin American expert, has described various historical links between Kerala and Latin America, ranging from Maradona to Fidel Castro and Che Guevera. But it is obvious that the government is planning to create experts, who will develop relations with the remnants of Communism in Latin America. Latin America also has tinpot dictatorships, which may benefit from the cadre of experts the University will generate.

The present Union government encourages a role for states in the neighbouring countries, where they may have some influence. Kerala does have a pride of place in the Gulf countries. Our recent experience has shown that this is not an unmixed blessing, when such contacts are misused. It may be prudent for the state government to remain within its own sphere of responsibilities, particularly when scarce resources are involved.

A harsh lesson
The story of Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer, the Dewan of Travancore, who sought independence for the princely state on the strength of its rich thorium deposits have emerged again recently in fiction form. History shows that Sir CP considered the rare earth material as a strategic resource that would give Travancore an opportunity to deal directly with the UK, bypassing the Indian state, at a time when the UK was trying to build their arsenal against the backdrop of the Cold War. Nehru threatened to use air power against Travancore if it failed to fall in line and accept that its mineral wealth was the property of the Indian state and the matter was settled. But Kerala, given its capacity to earn foreign exchange through exports and remittances, still has a streak of illusion about its international profile and responsibilities. The ghost of CP still seems to haunt us.

(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora)

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