February 20, 2020
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An Interrupted Migration

The flight of Big Little Governance Ideas northwards has ceased

An Interrupted Migration
Illustration by Sorit
An Interrupted Migration

Why did Chandragupta Maurya go to the south? Legend has it that the emperor of Magadha travelled to Karnataka to spend his last days as a Jain ascetic. A long, curious journey, considering that the cradle of Jainism was very much nearer home. Modern historians conjecture that a great famine might have driven him from what is modern-day Bihar to the southern limits of his empire. Migration from the north to the south in search of food still continues, and is strikingly visible in the rural-urban continuum that is Kerala: ayyos rent the air every time the Oriya ironing man, the Gurkha watchman or the carpenter from Midnapore don’t turn up. And in empty nests left by expat children, old Malayalis lie dying, listening to Nepali or Bhojpuri, the language of their caregivers. In Tamil Nadu, the position is similar, but for another reason. An overtly welfarist state’s munificence is providing free food, clothing, shelter, schooling, medicare and even entertainment (colour TVs) to the poor. With most of their needs met, the locals probably leave job slots open to the labour diaspora of Bengal and Jharkhand.

While people travelled from north to south, ideas often traversed the other way. Not big ticket ones, like the propagation of Zen in China or Advaita in north India, attributed to Bodhidharma and Shankaracharya, both believed to be from south India. It was small south Indian ideas in governance that captured the country’s imagination. In the 1980s, when M.G. Ramachandran introduced free mid-day meals for schoolchildren and destitute women in Tamil Nadu, the Planning Commision cried, “Populism!” Now, the scheme has gone national. In the 1970s, in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, incentivising vasectomy—those who underwent the procedure were given plastic buckets—proved popular and the state saw a dramatic decline in fertility rates. This idea, too, was borrowed nation-wide. N.T. Rama Rao’s idea of providing rice at Rs 2 per kilo was denigrated as a gimmick, but now, many states are replicating this Andhra Pradesh idea.

In fact, historically too, progressive ideas have moved from the south to the north. The competitive liberalism between the Malayalam-speaking princely states of Travancore and Cochin contributed valuably to this migration. When the former allowed Dalits to enter temples, the latter responded by installing elected ministers, for the first time in India. This Travancore countered by abolishing the death penalty. The big idea that propelled much of post-Independence politics—that of reservation—had its beginnings in the princely state of Mysore. In 1921, the maharaja appointed a committee to categorise the population as Brahmin and non-Brahmin and fix quotas for each. In Kerala, the last big idea probably died with EMS. His blueprint for “People’s Planning” captured the popular imagination, but was spiked by his party as not sufficiently political. That was two decades ago.

Now, with depressing regularity, news of two types comes from Kerala: one, about the commerce in minor girls, the scandals invariably named after the towns they took place in—Suryanelli, Thankamani, Vithura, Kiliroor; two, about get-rich scams promising subscribers interest as high as 60 per cent and then absconding with crores. Names like La Belle, lis, Total4U, Verizon, Tycoon, Nano Excel come to mind.

That the Malayali is a loser is probably good reason for him to get sozzled: last year, Kerala soaked in liquor worth some Rs 5,500 crore. Whatever the reason—remittance income or real estate fortunes unlocked by urbanisation—Malayalis are exhibiting traits of what their favourite philosopher, Karl Marx, called the rentier class, that is, those not gainfully employed and therefore indulging in debauchery.

In Tamil Nadu, inheritors of the Dravidian mantle are seen as fighting among themselves for their share of the 2G pie. If the loot is in the virtual realm in Tamil Nadu, in Bellary, it is as real as the ground under your feet. The Telangana issue has turned Hyderabad into the seat of what Elias Canetti called a “baiting crowd”—one out to kill for a quickly attainable goal that it cannot be cheated of.

However, there seems hope for the region, given the way the Tamil Nadu elections have gone. The mood in newsrooms was chiefly cynical: who could beat Azhagiri in buying votes? One wag even said the 2G spectrum scam money—some Rs 1.76 lakh crore—is seen by Tamils as a kind of informal devolution of funds from the Centre. But when the results dealt the DMK the blow of defeat, it showed that the seeds of the self-respect movement sown by Periyar had not died out in Tamil hearts. M. Karunanidhi, the DMK supremo, probably did not remember his Machiavelli: “He who founds a republic and does not kill the sons of Brutus will only reign a short time.” Not all the children of Periyar were killed.

(The writer is a Malayalam novelist.)

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