In the summer of 2011, the anti-corruption campaigns cruelly exposed Manmohan Singh’s deficiencies as prime minister. It was known (or at any rate believed) that Sonia Gandhi would not be ruthless enough to replace him. Almost three years remained till the next general election. Yet, the debate had already begun as to who would — or rather, should — be India’s prime minister.
In 2012 and 2013, as I visited Mumbai, Calcutta, Ahmedabad, Kochi and other cities, I partook of dozens of conversations on politics. Almost all were centred on the ‘Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi’ question. As Singh became weaker, and the economy slid further, middle-class Indians were waiting desperately for him to go. The hope was that with a younger, more active, prime minister, the economy would be turned around, and corruption would be stopped or at least stemmed.
The remarkable thing about these conversations was that they were all centred on national issues. I wasn’t asked or informed about Kerala- specific questions in Kochi, or Maharashtrian concerns in Mumbai.
India is a union of 29 states, many of which are as large — or as populous — as an important European country. Yet, wherever I went in 2012 and 2013, the popular discourse on politics was overwhelmingly Delhi-centric.
When asked who I preferred, Modi or Rahul, I declined to choose. Modi’s bullying side did not appeal to me — nor his sectarian past. But Rahul seemed lazy and unwilling to shoulder responsibility, and of course the dynastic culture of the Congress disgusted me. I also rationalized my refusal to ‘prefer’ a particular prime ministerial candidate on the grounds that what India needed was many better chief ministers, rather than a single charismatic, redemptive, figure at the helm in the national capital. Education, law-and-order, health, were all state subjects. With economic liberalization, the states now had more responsibility than the Centre in promoting investment and job creation. Therefore, good leadership mattered as much — arguably more — in state capitals than in New Delhi.
Pursuing this more federal approach to political analysis, I offer, in this column, a provisional listing of India’s finest chief ministers since Independence. This is based not on systematic research, but on soundings gathered in four decades of travelling through this country. These travels suggest that, when one looks at ‘development’ more broadly, incorporating social indicators as well as economic ones, perhaps the three most progressive states in India are Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Himachal Pradesh. How much of the progress in these states can be attributed to particular chief ministers?
At the beginning of the 20th century, Kerala was one of the most unequal parts of India. Land ownership was highly concentrated. Caste discrimination was extreme — some castes were not just ‘untouchable’, but ‘unseeable’, their very sight considered polluting. The move towards a more just society was hastened by popular social movements — such as the one led by the great reformer, Narayan Guru — and by organized Left politics. These struggles led to high expectations being placed on elected leaders, whose actions were rigorously scrutinized by an educated and alert citizenry.
Perhaps the best among Kerala’s chief ministers were E.M.S. Namboodiripad and C. Achutha Menon [picture]. E.M.S. gave up his ancestral wealth to embrace a principled asceticism that might have made Gandhi proud. And he actively promoted decentralization of governance, even though it ran antithetical to the Leninist dogma of ‘democratic centralism’.
Achutha Menon was also a Communist, albeit of the CPI rather than CPI(M). He was chief minister of Kerala between 1969-77. He was as scrupulously honest as E.M.S., and a better administrator. It was during his tenure that far-reaching land reforms were undertaken. Menon also may have been the first chief minister anywhere to integrate quality social-science research into governance. This was through the Centre for Development Studies, established by the outstanding economist, K.N. Raj, at the instance of his chief minister.
The socialist ethos of Kerala’s politics has led to the undermining of caste and class inequalities. On the other hand, it has stifled innovation and entrepreneurship. One would have expected a state with such an educated citizenry to have been at the forefront of the IT and BT boom. Instead, Kerala’s economy nowadays is sustained by remittances from abroad, rather than by home-grown industries.
Tamil Nadu has more successfully combined social progress with economic dynamism. In this state, politics and administration were for a long time dominated by Brahmins. Brahmin hegemony was undermined by the Dravidian movement led by E. V. Ramaswami, and in a less spectacular way, by K. Kamaraj, the first backward leader of the Congress in the state (and in India as a whole). As chief minister of Tamil Nadu between 1954 and 1963, Kamaraj ran an efficient and clean ship. One of his innovations was the mid-day meal programme.
In 1967, the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu. Its first two chief ministers, C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi, promoted a welfarist, gender-sensitive approach to governance. Although later regimes in Tamil Nadu (including those led by Karunanidhi himself) have been extremely corrupt, the administration of public services has continued to be good. Government schools and hospitals, and state transport and electricity companies, are in far better shape than in other states — this surely a product in part of the solid foundations laid by Kamaraj and Annadurai.
Successive chief ministers in Tamil Nadu have also been welcoming of private enterprise. Unlike Karnataka, where Bangalore is the sole business centre, Tamil Nadu has several major industrial hubs — around Salem, Coimbatore, Madurai and Chennai. Regional disparities are less significant here than in most other States of India.
Kerala and Tamil Nadu are both coastal states. Both have witnessed vigorous social and political movements. Their relatively good performance is therefore not entirely unexpected. On the other hand, Himachal Pradesh’s excellent development record is certainly counter-intuitive. The state is hilly, and land-locked. The dominant Rajput culture is extremely reactionary, hostile to women, and to creative thought generally. Nor was the region very active in the freedom struggle.
Yet, in terms of education (especially women’s education), health care and economic growth, Himachal has been one of India’s best performing states in recent years. Although there are, as yet, no serious histories of the state, conversations I have had in Himachal suggest that much credit must go to its first chief minister, Y.S. Parmar. Parmar headed Himachal’s administration both when it was a Union territory and after it became a full-fledged state in 1971. All told, he held office for close to two decades. As a scholar himself, he emphasized education, and made the building of rural roads a priority. This encouraged the state’s horticulture industry, with the access to markets making even smallholdings economically viable. (It may be that Parmar recognized the importance of this sector because he was married to the daughter of Satyanand — previously Samuel — Stokes, the anti-caste reformer of American origin who had planted the first apples in these hills.) Parmar worked very closely with, and was an inspirational figure for, the state’s civil servants. On my own trips to Himachal, I have noticed that its IAS officers seem more motivated than in some other parts of India. They identify strongly with the state, and take just pride in its achievements.
I have singled out Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal, but over the years there have been some good chief ministers in other states too. When contemplating the amoral and fantastically corrupt governments they have recently been subject to, Maharashtrians look back nostalgically to the regimes of Y.B. Chavan, who focused on co-operatives and agriculture, and Vasantrao Naik, in whose tenure as chief minister, the state implemented India’s first employment guarantee scheme. Likewise, residents of Karnataka wish their recent chief ministers could be less like themselves and more like Devaraj Urs (who actively promoted land reforms) or Ramakrishna Hegde (who took the panchayati raj seriously).
Who have been the best chief ministers of the past decade? During the election campaign, we heard a great deal about the achievements of Narendra Modi in Gujarat. In fact, some of Modi’s contemporaries have done a decent job, and in more trying circumstances. Bihar was once a byword for crime and backwardness — till Nitish Kumar helped change the narrative by focusing on education, law-and-order, and roads and bridges. In Madhya Pradesh, another land-locked state without the natural or historical advantages that Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have, the administration of Shivraj Singh Chauhan has overseen impressive agricultural growth and the reasonably efficient distribution of public services. In Tripura, a state whose geographical disadvantages are even more extreme, Manik Sarkar’s government has ended a debilitating insurgency, restoring faith in the administration and in the political process.
As I said in the outset, this column is impressionistic, not rigorously researched. We need more systematic studies by historians and political scientists on the role of leaders and leadership in the progress (or lack thereof) of the different states of the Union. But I stand by my main argument — that, rather than look for redemption from Delhi, the media and the citizenry should more seriously scrutinize the performance of politicians in their own states. Ten or twelve good chief ministers can do much more for India — and Indians — than a larger-than-life prime minister in Delhi.