Short of hugging Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, both of whom were in Kerala last week, the strongman chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan has done his all to show his subservience to the future, Hindu-nationalist forces. Alas. Vijayan has no option but deal with a reality that will not change in the near future, considering the mess that Congress Party is in. He has met his masters and must hide from the public his despair: the despair of the developmental communist.
Kerala’s public debt is an estimated Rs 3,32,291 crore. Kerala has always been an economic oddity. Life indices are good. Employment generation has been next to nil. The traditional revenue sources continue to be drunks, vagabonds (officially called tourists), and Arabs.
The liquor industry is so highly taxed that any more taxes on it would be counterproductive—unless the government takes active steps to encourage drinking. As the head of a progressive government, Vijayan can’t be seen to be doing anything that wayward. The money has to be moral, a contradiction in terms.
Tourism can still be tapped for higher revenues. But it is already reaching saturation point, with nearly every district becoming a site in itself.
As for the Arabs, a recent RBI survey found Kerala has been pushed down to the second position in the volume of inward remittances, behind Maharashtra with 35.2 percent. Kerala netted only 10.2 percent of the total inward remittances, which was not the case until recently.
All this explains why the Vijayan government, a habitually populist and compulsively welfare-driven establishment, is forced to develop enterprises with mass volume in revenue and employment generation. After all, there are only so many CPM men and women who could be employed in the police force and the secretariat. The state needs large projects. The Adani-driven Vizhinjam container port near Trivandrum is one such. And it is in trouble because of the agitation of the fishermen, predominantly Latin Catholic, whose church connections and resources could swing regional vote politics. The articulate civil society of Kerala is also largely against the port as they believe that the cost of collateral environmental damages is disproportionate to the building of the port. Not true, of course.
In a recent article, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, who has so far convincingly won three parliamentary elections on a Congress ticket from Thiruvananthapuram, explained why the development of the Vizhinjam port and the shipping that would pass through it would change the face of the capital city of Kerala. The article lucidly explained the strategic and business importance of the port.
But the problem is not the port or even the fishermen’s agitation over fears that their livelihood would be endangered. The real problem is that Kerala’s Marxists have no idea how to approach large business enterprises. They are severely handicapped in their entrepreneurial thinking as they are conditioned to believe capitalism by definition is just rotten. And, if it is not, what reason can there be for the existence of a communist party?
This almost genetic disposition is despite the fact that millions of potential and real Marxists or Marxist sympathizers are working in feudal conditions of Arab capitalism for decades. It is a typical Kerala conundrum. As a result, Malayalees find no contradiction in earning a livelihood, say, in reclaiming land from the sea in the Middle East, or razing down a mountain. But when it comes to their homeland they turn into ecological warriors when a fundamental principle of environmental protection is to pay respect to the Butterfly effect: the least flutter anywhere on earth affects all. Kerala is easily guilty of double standards in this respect.
The Marxist party in Kerala, to prevent independent environmental activism from cutting into their demographic base and role as progressives, has consistently nipped or tried to nip such initiatives. The same obsession, one of self-styled leadership, has been in evidence in their anti-capitalist stance. These tactics translate into a stultification of the state’s economy. So, while the politics of the grand-standing gives the Marxists the aura of a righteous champion of people’s causes, once in power they find it hard to climb down.
Last week, Vijayan’s carefully preserved image as a strong man took a beating. To assuage the fishermen’s agitation through compensation and to build the required barriers between the sea and the coast, he wanted economic aid. His running problems with the state governor, Arif Mohammad Khan, and the Enforcement Directorate, as well as the Swapna Suresh/gold smuggling scandal further put him on the defensive. His body language in his meetings with the prime minister was somewhat between a comma and a cringe. The same sense of indeterminate indebtedness was in view when he met with the home minister, Amit Shah, a day later at the south zonal conference.
In short, Vijayan, in his new avatar of the developmental communist, has met his masters the way they wanted, on bended knees and painfully smiling. Both Modi and Shah, sharing the stage with the red lion of Kerala, said ‘double engine growth’ ( euphemism for both state and center under the BJP rule) is what Kerala should aim for. Shah went one step further. He said the BJP will come to power in Kerala soon, and he hinted darkly at the blood his men were prepared to shed in the battles ahead.
Surely, there must be some co-relation between Adani becoming the third richest man in the world, just behind Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, and India becoming the fifth biggest economy in the world, edging out her former colonial master, the UK, into the sixth position. Kerala, like the rest of India, has no real option but to hitch on to the wagon of the Indian capitalists. Roll out the red carpet for Adani. And people like him. Go easy on revolution. That ship has sailed. But Vizinjam could berth other vessels.
(C P Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal)