Chalk and cheese
The ongoing debate on Uttar Pradesh versus Kerala appears to be a true case of history repeating itself as farce. About a decade ago, a heated debate rose among top Indian economists which also spilled into political and social realms. The high-profile polemic, ‘Gujarat vs Kerala’, was over which state followed the right path to development that brought benefits to its people. It was led by Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze who backed the Kerala model of State-driven social and economic development as opposed to Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, Economics professors at the Columbia University, who swore by Gujarat’s pro-private sector path.
Although the debate was also fired by mutual political and personal differences, it raised profound issues regarding economic and social development. Besides, both Gujarat and Kerala were among the top states, with much to showcase as their respective strengths in different fields to counter the other. But the present debate is about two states which are in no way comparable on most yardsticks. Uttar Pradesh does not come near Kerala in most economic or social yardsticks on any assessment, even those by Central government agencies.
The present row was kicked off by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, on February 10 while launching the assembly election campaign in his state. He posted a video on Twitter, calling the people of UP to vote the Bharatiya Janata Party back so that the state wouldn’t become Kerala, Kashmir or Bengal. Adityanath said, “I have to tell you something that is there in my heart. A lot of wonderful things have happened in these five years. Beware. If you miss, the labour of these five years will be washed away. And it will not take much time for UP to turn into Kashmir, Bengal or Kerala.”
The Kerala chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, hit back immediately. On the same night, he tweeted; “If UP turns into Kerala as @myogiadityanath fears, it will enjoy the best education, health services, social welfare, living standards and have a harmonious society in which people won’t be murdered in the name of religion and caste. That’s what the people of UP would want.” Vijayan tweeted the same message in Hindi too, tagging Adityanath.
The former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, pitched in as well — “He should be so lucky. J&K has less poverty, better human development indices, less crime & generally better standards of living than U.P.” On February 14, at election meetings in UP held in support of the Samajwadi Party, West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, roared, “Women are burnt alive and peasants get murdered in that state. The CM there is not a ‘yogi’ but a ‘bhogi’. If India has to be saved, UP will have to be saved first.”
Vijayan later issued another statement in which he said that he really wished that UP’s people cast their votes with “due carelessness” so that they would achieve Kerala-like development. He reeled out statistics from the latest report on the index of Sustainable Development Goals by the Niti Aayog in which Kerala emerged as the best state for the third year in a row as against UP, which is among the bottom five of the 28 states. The index evaluates progress of states and Union territories on various parameters, including health, education, gender, economic growth, institutions, climate change and environment. While Kerala’s overall score was 75, UP ended up with 60, with Bihar being the worst with 52. UP scored better than Kerala only on 2 of the 16 parameters.
Adityanath’s gaffe couldn’t have come at a better time for Vijayan and the Left Democratic Front government, which have been at the receiving end of criticism for some time from the Opposition and the media because of various allegations. With Kerala’s ‘pride being hurt’, the Opposition, except the BJP, and sections of media, which were at the LDF’s jugular, joined hands to lambast Adityanath. The Opposition leader, V.D. Satheesan, of the Congress, tweeted: “Dear#UP, vote to be like Kerala. Choose plurality, harmony, inclusive development to bigotry. Keralites, Bengalis and Kashmiris are also proud Indians.” The Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor, tweeted that UP would be so lucky if its people vote like Kerala, Bengal and Kashmir — “Kashmir’s beauty, Bengal’s culture and Kerala’s education would do wonders for the place. UP is wonderful; pity about its government.”
Kerala’s largest circulated newspaper, Malayala Manorama, traditionally a fierce critic of the Left, editorially condemned Adityanath’s comments as an affront to India’s unity in diversity. Another newspaper opined that Adityanath’s claim that the state could become Kerala, West Bengal or Jammu and Kashmir if he is not voted back to office “is a dog whistle, plain and simple and disquieting. These states have a substantial Muslim population”.
Only Kerala’s BJP was left unenviably to defend Adityanath, saying he was referring to the political murders and the law-and-order situation. Adityanath, too, was forced to offer an explanation a week after — that his reference to Kerala, Kashmir and Bengal was made in the context of the violence and anarchy taking place in these states at a time when elections were going on peacefully in UP.
Kerala has long been a bugbear for Adityanath. During a visit in October 2017, he asked Kerala — famed for its public health system — to learn from UP on how to run healthcare, given the high incidence of chikungunia and dengue cases. His comment raised much ridicule as 1,317 children had died owing to oxygen deprivation just a month earlier at the State-run B.R.D. Medical College hospital in Adityanath’s constituency of Gorakhpur.
(M.G. Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram, has worked with various print and electronic media organizations)