A virus, social democracy, and dividends for Kerala-THE HINDU-18-04-2020


Kerala’s much heralded success in social development has invited endless theories of its cultural, historical or geographical exceptionalism. But taming a pandemic and rapidly building out a massive and tailored safety net is fundamentally about the relation of the state to its citizens. From its first Assembly election in 1957, through alternating coalitions of Communist and Congress-led governments, iterated cycles of social mobilisation and state responses have forged what is in effect a robust social democracy. The current crisis underscores the comparative advantages of social democracy.

To begin with, social democracies are built on an encompassing social pact with a political commitment to providing basic welfare and broad-based opportunity to all citizens. These movements not only nurtured a strong sense of social citizenship but also drove reforms that have incrementally strengthened the legal and institutional capacity for public action. Fourth, that pressure has also fuelled Kerala’s push over the last two decades to empower local government. Nowhere in India are local governments as resourced and as capable as in Kerala.

Chain of decision-making

A government’s capacity to respond to a cascading crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic relies on a very fragile chain of mobilising financial and societal resources, getting state actors to fulfil directives, coordinating across multiple authorities and jurisdictions and maybe, most importantly, getting citizens to comply. Vijayan directly appeal to Malayalees’ sense of citizenship by declaring that the response was less an enforcement issue than about people’s participation, but also pointedly reminded the public that the virus does not discriminate, destigmatising the pandemic.

Second, the government was able to leverage a broad and dense health-care system that despite the recent growth of private health services, has maintained a robust public presence. Private provisioning of a public good has never made much sense, but as anyone watching the chaos in the United States has learned, there is nothing like a pandemic to expose the obvious coordination problems that for-profit health systems face. Kerala’s public health-care workers are also of course highly unionised and organised, and from the outset the government lay emphasis on protecting the health of first responders.

Pivot of local governments:

Fourth, you can get the politics right and you can have a great public health-care system, but its effectiveness in a crisis like this will only be as good as the infamous last kilometre. Beyond the peak, every country in the world, and especially India, will be dealing with the economic and welfare consequences of the pandemic for years. President Donald Trump has claimed “total” authority and is threatening to usurp the power of Governors, the Bharatiya Janata Party has exploited the crisis to communalise the pandemic and to silence its critics, and things are as bad as they are to begin with because of China’s authoritarian DNA. At a time when India’s democracy was already in crisis, it is important to be reminded that Kerala has managed the crisis with the most resolve, the most compassion and the best results of any large State in India.

And that it has done so precisely by building on legacies of egalitarianism, social rights and public trust. Patrick Heller is Lyn Crost Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Brown University, U. .

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