Sources: The Jump [Photo by Ranjit Bhaskar Al Jazeera]
Kerala is an Indian state referred to by citizens of that country as a place of inherent natural beauty. Some 35 million people live in this territory in the south of the subcontinent. To get an idea, one only has to realize that more people live in Kerala than in Venezuela or in all the Scandinavian countries taken together.
The particularity of this state, and why we are interested, is that the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), in the 2021 elections renewed its electoral victory in 2016 that enabled the Party to govern within the coalition framework of the Left Democratic Front, (LDF), along with forces such as the Communist Party of India (CPI). The CPI (M) and CPI historically have achieved rather fantastic results in this region, especially compared to outcomes elsewhere in the country. The Sino-Soviet disputes of the 20th century led to a split in India’s communist movement and the two parties two parties went their separate ways. So it’s the CPI(M) and the Indian National Congress that have been vying for political dominance for decades in Kerala.
In the 2021 elections, the communist-progressive coalition, having won more than 45% of the votes in the state, opened the door to five more years of left-wing rule in the region. Led by Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of Kerala, the Communists now face the challenge of reaffirming their political leadership in the elections of 2026. It’s unavoidable, if they want to continue applying the “Kerala model” that differentiates this territory from the rest of India.
The Kerala model
What is the Kerala model? In an economy that revolves around tourism, the state dedicates much effort to determining how best to distribute economic revenues internally. Through initiatives like the missions, among others, that are reminiscent of those in Venezuela, the state carries out projects for the equitable distribution of resources, and for managing them. These public policy packages can be properly implemented thanks to a high rate of social participation in common spaces for discussion and in “local self-government“. In these venues, many people living in different municipalities can bring up for discussion the immediate needs of their communitiesThese assessments by the people end up on the government’s agenda mainly by sectors of the media communicating between the discussion spaces and the state.
These missions are, in short, social stimulus programs. One is the Pothuvidyabhyasa Samrakshana Yajnam, which is a program through which huge amounts of resources are dispensed to guarantee free universal access to books for students, to adapt school infrastructure for students with functional diversity, to offer academic support, etc. In this regard, the government of Kerala has received international recognition for universalizing and improving the quality of public education throughout the country. The high degree of cohesion and planning capabilities of the regional government are illustrated through other examples. See, for example, the Haritha Keralam Mission which deals with the healthcare sector and agencies that manage water resources and waste disposal. There is another mission directed at eradicating hunger and extreme poverty by means of delivering food kits and ration cards.
Programs like these are typical of initiatives characterizing the “Kerala model, and are the basis for a necessary comparison with the “Gujarat model.” That is the state that was governed by Narendra Modi before he became prime minister. It is a development model that, lacking efforts at equitable distribution, offers privatization and profiteering and no significant improvement in social indicators. Although other regional experiences have emphasized popular participation – in West Bengal, for example – none has been sustained over time like the “Kerala model” or has produced deep-seated structural transformations in government, as in Kerala
In India, poverty – even in the “polite” terms with which the national government defines it – is widespread, enormously so. Problems of access to food, education, health care, and/or clean water run through the lives of a considerable part of India’s population. In this context, Kerala, through its particular model, goes way beyond the norm. Among other things, the state boasts the highest literacy rate in India and the highest life expectancy. It also has placed a primary health care center in every village.
Several facts illustrate the gap between the “Kerala model” and the country as a whole. First, the rural-urban divide is less pronounced in that region. For every 1,000 children born alive in rural Kerala, five die; in urban populations, six do. If one pulls the thread a little further, a revealing fact crops up. In comparison with these infant mortality figures from Kerala, the country as a whole shows a rate of 46 deaths per 1,000 live births in rural areas and 29/1,000 in urban areas. At the same time, the percentage of women with more than 10 years of schooling is 70% in rural Kerala, compared to a meager 27% in rural India as a whole. Kerala boasts effective management of sanitation in the context of a country with profound deficiencies in access to sanitary facilities and water, etc.
The region has even begun to work together with organizations that offer spaces of sexual diversity and varying life styles. In that regard, the state has been able to focus on communities that for various reasons – belonging to the LGTBI+ community or unfamiliarity with the Malayalam language, for example – were not properly brought into universalizing programs, literacy programs, for instance. Responding, the government has launched programs for these groups, and the groups have designed them. Finally, it is worthwhile to mention poverty. The data are overwhelming. The 0.7% poverty rate for Kerala in 2021 contrasts with states such as Bihar (51.9%), Uttar Pradesh (37.8%) or Madhya Pradesh (36.7%.
There are also notable differences in other areas between Kerala and the rest of India. One of them is selective abortion of female fetuses. Several factors give rise to this reality, among them the custom of dowry. At the time of marriage, the woman’s family must give the husband’s family the equivalent, in money or goods, of the value of a house.
Economics and cultural inheritance combine to produce customs like this that are characteristic of misogyny, especially in rural areas. For example, a family withiout sons being born faces the prospect of a “loss” of lineage. However, it’s different in Kerala, where girl babies are born in ample numbers. As of 2011, the female-male ratio there was 1,084:1,000. In India as a whole, it was 943:1,000.
The political peculiarities of Kerala and of the CPI(M)
In Kerala, Communists are in the majority. This fact is evident aesthetically as one travels through the state. The Argentine Fernando Duclos – known on social networks as ‘Periodistan’ – offered rich testimony to this on YouTube. Statues, posters and graffiti of Che Guevara adorn the city streets of Kannur, and red hammer-and-sickle flags accompany a multitude of posters featuring figures such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and even Kim Jong-un. A special kind of socialist folklore captures the attention of visitors to the region.
In regard to positions on international issues, one comment has to be made at the start: because of its regional nature, the state of Kerala takes clear positions only on questions that are national. Nevertheless, the CPI(M) recently did weigh in on happenings abroad.
According to Ramachandran Pillai, a leading party figure, “China declared that it had eradicated poverty. China contributed to the struggle against global poverty by having alleviated 70 percent of it.” [He took India’s national government to task for having failed to ease poverty in India, which] “constitutes 60 percent of the world’s poor people.”
Some positions taken within the Party are critical of the Chinese Communist Party, while other opinions are closer to Chinese socialism. (Translator’s note: The Indian government is no friend of China’s government, and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, a CPI(M) member, “clarified the stand of the CPI(M)” in case R. Pillai’s pro-Chinese views were taken as anti-Indian.)
In any event, and as happens elsewhere, in Brazil, for example, the anti-China speeches of the Indian right wing have great resonance in domestic politics. Sectors of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Prime Minister Modi’s party, have connected anti-China rhetoric with anti-Communism and have focused on the CPI(M). BJP members went so far as to say that belief in internationalism was “dangerous” and “a great betrayal of this land by the Communist movement.” They have called upon all “Marxist groups” to leave India and join with China. The context is that of of border disputes between the two countries over places like Kashmir.
In sum, the differences between Kerala and the rest of India are extreme; they result from their divergent political histories. The general belief is that Ayurveda, which is a set of pseudo-therapies that often lead people away from real medicine, was born in this region. However, the Indian national government actually funds a Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (Ministry of AYUSH), which, in the governmental hierarchy, is at a level equal to that of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Kerala, by contrast, maintains a considerable separation between the administrative apparatus of that ministry and the pseudo-sciences that are so popular.
For space reasons, it is impossible in this article to list all the differences between Kerala’s regional government and India’s national government. What can be highlighted is evidence that the role Communists have played in the region’s governing apparatus has had much to do with this state showing figures for social safety and human development that are far superior to those prevailing in the rest of the country. At the same time, it should be remembered that India is one of the countries most affected by endemic problems such as poverty and conditions predisposing to ill health. These are realities against which the government of Kerala offers an alternative that contrasts sharply with other governments in India.
W.T. Whitney Jr. modified and edited a translation provided by Deepl.com/translator. Author Eduardo García Granado is a political journalist based in Spain who writes on international affairs.