Kerala’s Pandemic Response Owes Its Success to Participatory Politics

by David Jenkins and Lipin Ram

7 August 2020


The southern Indian state of Kerala has received laudatory national and international media coverage for its response to the Covid-19 crisis. However, when the statistics are given even a cursory glance, it’s a wonder why Kerala has not received more praise, attention and analysis.

For a state of 36 million people to have recorded a death toll of just 94 so far – despite being the first state in the country to report a case on 20 January (incidentally, a student who was returning from Wuhan) – is a staggering achievement. 

Compare Kerala’s performance to one of the richest corners of the world. New York state, with a population roughly half that of Kerala, has so far reported 375,000 cases and over 20,000 probable deaths. Kerala is also a thoroughly globalised region with a huge expatriate population: the four international airports in the state move nearly 17 million passengers per year. In addition, and in marked contrast to the industrialised West, where elderly people have been at much greater risk of contracting the virus (especially those living in retirement homes), in Kerala contracting the virus and being elderly has not meant an automatic death sentence. Overall, Kerala has a mortality rate of just 0.31%.

Mainstream media coverage and analysis has tended to focus on three major factors. First, long-term investment in public health and welfare state policies. Even The Economist recognises that Kerala mounted its response on the back of substantial state investment. The Kerala Model of Development, as it has long been known, has consistently prioritised social welfare and empowerment, yielding high levels of social trust in the process – the absence of which in the UK has been one of the causes for higher rates of infection and mortality amongst the BAME community – even amidst low levels of per capita wealth. 

Second, the role of effective leadership has received comment. Kerala’s health minister KK Shailaja, a high school teacher – variously lauded as “the coronavirus slayer” and “the Rockstar health minister” – has been widely praised for her administrative credentials, and eulogised as teacher-amma (‘teacher-mother’). Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, long pilloried by the media as a hardliner and overly partisan leader, has also enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in public opinion. 

Other observers have also identified a third factor: Kerala’s well-oiled structures of local self- government institutions, which have played a central role in mitigating the effects of the pandemic. The village panchayaths (village councils) and municipalities have ensured effective home-quarantine, have initiated social distancing guidelines and robust contract tracing through ward-level monitoring committees, and have managed the large number of migrant workers in the state (in stark contrast to injustices done to these workers elsewhere in India). Through welfare provisions and initiatives like community kitchens, these councils have also been key in delivering immediate relief to a population suffering from sudden job and income losses caused by the world’s largest nationwide lockdown.  

But all the above attempts to account for Kerala’s successes, while cognisant of the state’s role in confronting the pandemic, fail to tell enough of Kerala’s story. There is still an inadequate reckoning with the political dynamics underlying Kerala’s response to the crisis, and a related failure to identify the significance of the agents that have been central to that politics – namely, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPIM, and its partisans.

Without a historically grounded understanding of Kerala’s ‘politics of participation’ and the role the CPIM has played in engendering this politics, any analysis of the government’s response can only ever be partial and incomplete, falling into the trap of what anthropologist James Ferguson calls “the anti-politics machine”. Indeed, even the praise heaped onto the shoulders of Shailaja, well deserved as it is, mostly misses the mark: Shailaja is not just a technocratic politician making decisions with a view to both scientific advice and the welfare of the people of Kerala. Imposing the identities of ‘technocrat’ and ‘teacher-amma’ neglects another identity – that of a Communist Party member devoted to her party.

Partisanship in the ‘Land of Coconuts’.

Partisanship, to say nothing of Communist partisanship, has always come freighted with a host of negative connotations. Throughout history, parties have been regarded primarily as sources of violence and faction, contrary both to the public good and citizen security. For many ordinary citizens as well, the party politics of representative democracy has proved a massive turnoff. In the UK, the resounding increase in seats the Tories secured against Labour in December was achieved on the back of a reduced turnout: down from 68.8% to 67.3%. In the US, Donald Trump came to power with around 55% of the people casting a ballot. People are generally furious these days, but parties are the targets of fury, rarely the vehicle for directing it.

Not so in Kerala. Compare the above numbers to the CPIM’s performance at Kerala’s last election. On a turnout of 77.35%, the CPIM won 59 out of the total 140 seats, putting it at the head of the current Left Democratic Front coalition government. Similarly as astounding, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – a party that enjoys a nationwide membership of some 280 million people – won only a single seat.

Of course, the absence of a party does not mean the absence of radical politics. But where there has been radical turbulence in, for example, the US – whether the Wobblies in the early part of the 20th century, the civil rights, anti-war and student movements of 1960s, or the years of sustained rank-and-file labour militancy during the long 1970s, right on down to the teachers’ strikes of the present day – this turbulence was generated not only outside the formal institutional structures of political parties, but against those structures. But in the ‘Land of Coconuts’, it has always been possible to be a radical and a partisan while remaining relevant to political life.

As noted above, mainstream analysis of Kerala’s response to the pandemic has not entirely missed the mark. But where this analysis has correctly identified sustained investments in healthcare, strong leadership and decentralised governance, they have focused on effects rather than causes: healthcare investment is the result of left wing parties continually managing to return to power over the past 60 years; the leadership is comprised of effective partisans guided by party discipline and loyalty.

However, in order to understand how the CPIM, both as the ruling party in Kerala’s government, and as a major part of Kerala’s wider political culture, has helped the state successfully respond to the pandemic, it is instructive to focus on the third of those above explanations: the local self-government institutions that have been put to work confronting the pandemic. This unique feature of the Keralan response to Covid-19 has been the result of long-term political strategy based on both grassroots party activism and disciplined party strategy.  

Devolving power.

The Communist Party of India (CPI) came to power in 1957, in Kerala’s first state legislature election. Under the leadership of EM Sankaran Namboodiripad (popularly known as EMS), this government began a radical transformation of Keralan society, which included extensive land redistribution, breaking the back of Kerala’s notoriously exploitative landlordism. In order to understand the government’s response to Covid-19, it is necessary to take stock of the party’s role in the wider institutional history that underpin the mechanisms of that response.

As part of the 1957 Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC), the party asserted the need to shift from ‘a government of bureaucrats to a government of the people’. However, from as early as 1938, EMS had attacked the then National Congress government of the Madras presidency – which included present-day Kerala – for not fulfilling its promise to empower the panchayaths. He argued that the government had betrayed the hope that “the time for the backward and illiterate millions who live in the interiors of this country to reckon with their own needs and complaints and shape the government accordingly had finally arrived.”

And so, in a speech given after his inauguration as the first chief minister of the unified state of Kerala on 5 April 1957, EMS identifies ‘local self-government’ as one of the key issues for his government:

“It is necessary for the growth of democracy that, much like the power enjoyed by career bureaucrats at various levels of the government, we ensure that the power of elected representatives also be strengthened. However, the following issues need further discussion: what must be the practical form of the above principle, should there be taluk boards similar to the panchayaths in villages, should there be district boards in each district, what must be the nature of relationship between the various local self-governing bodies as well as between them and the bureaucrats, and so on.”

1957 began a kind of party politics that continued with the more recent party-initiated People’s Planning Campaign (PPC). Launched in 1996, the PPC was an unprecedented innovation in governance. A massive 40% of the state’s annual plan budget was to be allocated to institutions of local self-government, such as grama sabhas (village assemblies) and the Kudumbashree collectives – neighbourhood groups which provided micro-credit to women, as well as forging direct linkages between women and local government institutions. This campaign intended to bring people closer to the structures of power and development decisions that impinged on their everyday lives.

In hindsight, for all its ambition, the PPC is best characterised as a steep learning curve for the party. The programme died a quiet death after the CPIM failed to return to power in the statewide elections of 2001. The drawbacks and limitations of the PPC have been well studied: an important critique was that even newly created networks like the padasekhara samithi (paddy-field committee), which were intended to facilitate the PPC’s developmental programmes, suffered from pre-existing fissures drawn along partisan lines, undermining their associational and democratic functions.

Regardless of this failure, however, what is now clear is that these local self-government structures, begun some 60 odd years ago, have evolved into institutions that are perceived, across party lines, as authoritative and legitimate. On the back of these institutions, the CPIM-created Sannadha Sena, a 350,000-strong volunteer force that has been a central part of the state’s response during the Covid-19 crisis. It is to the CPIM’s credit that it shifted emphasis away from an activated party base, and toward party-neutral civil society volunteer mobilisation. Such a shift is evidence that the CPIM has learned from the mistakes of the ‘over-politicised’ PPC.

In an electoral democracy, these long-term course-corrections are difficult to imagine without the organisational structures provided by a dynamic political party. The CPIM’s willingness to learn those lessons, to devolve power to genuinely grassroots institutions, was a result of the PPC experiments in democracy, its failures notwithstanding. When the pandemic hit, crisis management, quarantining, contact tracing and welfare provision did not require a sudden volte-face toward government intervention, but merely the triggering of a well-prepared and people-powered set of institutional responses.  

A party for both street and state.

Admiration for Kerala has never been in short supply. In his 1999 book Development and Freedom, Amartya Sen uses Kerala to counter the notion that human rights-violating authoritarianism is the only means through which economic and political progress can be won. In Hope, Human and Wild, Bill McKibben is effusive in his praise of Kerala, seeing in it an example of living “more lightly on the world”. He is particularly impressed by the alleged truths Kerala’s experiments seem to be upend: “It is as if someone has shown in a lab that flame didn’t require oxygen or that water could freeze at sixty degrees.  Suddenly, in the light of Kerala, whole new chemistries of people and society and money and happiness seem at least conceivable”.

But neither Sen nor McKibben make much of the role of the CPIM in this story. McKibben goes so far as to suggest that although we “have no need for Kerala’s Marxist trappings […] we may have much to learn from its commitment to fairness” – as if Marxism itself is not underpinned by ideas of fairness, nor a party inspired by those ideas a major part of Kerala’s successes. Contra McKibben, Kerala’s astonishing response to the Covid-19 crisis cannot be separated from the history of its partisan politics nor the Marxism that has played out through that politics.

It is difficult to draw easy parallels with western political parties, and it is important to accept that partisan engagement in western democracies is of a different, perhaps inevitably thinner kind. Most basically, there is a difference between what it means to be a partisan and what it means to be a party member. The UK Labour Party, for example, has some half a million members. In raw numbers this makes it the largest political party membership in the EU.  The CPIM – in a much larger nation – has a membership of just over 1 million. But the real contrast lies in the different meanings of partisanship. It is hard work being a CPIM member. There are many Labour members who have never attended a CLP meeting, never knocked on a door, and who suffer no consequences so long as they pay their dues.

However remote Kerala might seem to the industrialised West, there are lessons to be learned. At the very least, there are questions which the CPIM poses to progressive thinking on political parties. For all the energy Occupy-style movements can produce, they have thus far been less successful at building political agencies capable of sustaining that energy. When the protestors leave the streets, parties have not offered institutional vehicles for keeping the fires of righteous anger burning. Nor is it a question of either a party or a movement. The CPIM is also capable of bringing people out into the streets. On 26 January, as protests raged across India against the BJP-led discriminatory National Register of Citizens-Citizenship Amendment Act (NRC-CAA), the CPIM brought some 7 million people onto the streets of Kerala in a 620km-long ‘human chain’ of protest. It is hard to imagine any party in either the US or Europe wielding the power needed to motivate that kind of action.

The history of the party in Kerala is full of such mobilisations, but it is also a history of wielding the power of the state with conviction and purpose whenever the opportunity has arisen. Kerala’s response to the current crisis has shown that the CPIM has fully apprehended the need for a strategy that combines authoritative state intervention with coordinated citizen participation.

Part of the reason why political parties, at their (rare) best, are so necessary is precisely because of the ways they combine the energies of an active, movement-oriented base with at least one face turned toward state power, with an institutionalised setting which allows partisans and leadership to learn from mistakes and failures. Rather than goggle in awe at Kerala’s successful Covid-19 response, or look for quick explanations as to the causes of that success, we should reckon more fully with its (partisan) lessons.  

David Jenkins is a political theorist based in the politics department at the University of Otago. Lipin Ram is an anthropologist based at The Graduate Institute in Geneva.

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