One way or the other, I have been spending an unusual amount of time in Kerala (even by my standards, that is). The last stint includes a stretch of about three weeks, enough time to reignite a question that is always simmering at the back of my mind. Why is it that India's best educated people are so astoundingly naive when it comes to the political economy?
Coming down to specifics, I am referring to the over-reaction to the Railway and the General Budgets, as well as to the brouhaha to an Asian Development Bank loan to the Government of Kerala. Between them, they are a gloomy demonstration of the shocking mess that politicians have made in my home state.
Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- leapt to congratulate Lalu Prasad Yadav for his Budget. It was one of those rare occasions when the CPI-M-dominated Left Democratic Front, the Congress-led United Democratic Front, and even the media at large fell over themselves to gush adoringly.
This hero-worship was in stark, and painful, contrast to the cold calculations made by the opinion-makers in almost every other state in the Union of India. Nobody in Kerala appeared remotely interested in asking the tough question posed elsewhere, namely 'What is in it for us?'
To the best of my memory, the railway minister mentioned Kerala just once in his speech to Parliament. This came in the form of a vague assurance that the Union railway ministry and the Government of Kerala would set up a joint venture, a wagon building unit in Alappuzha. I do not believe that even this had any specific date attached to it.
Off the record, people in the know admit that Kerala urgently requires two things -- a doubling of tracks and electrification of the lines. Together, the cost is estimated at roughly Rs 5,000 crore.
Going through the estimates, I think the railway minister has allotted merely Rs 300 crore for projects aimed specifically at Kerala. (Believe me, I will be happy to be wrong!) At this laggard's pace, it will be well over a decade-and-a-half before the railway infrastructure in the state is put right.
Did the railway minister speak of daily services to Bangalore and Mumbai? How about electrification of the vital Shornur to Mangalore section (a perennial bottleneck)?
True, Lalu Prasad Yadav did mention electrification of the railway lines connecting Thiruvananthapuram to Kanyakumari as well as the one linking Thrissur and Guruvayur. But the date of completion was airily dismissed as somewhere in the ambit of the 11th Five Year Plan. That is in contrast to the Jalandhar-Jammu, Barabanki-Gorakhpur-Barauni, and Tiruchirapalli-Madurai sections, all three proposed to be taken up in 2007-2008.
Each of the 20 Lok Sabha MPs elected from Kerala supports the United Progressive Alliance ministry. Fat lot of good it does to Kerala!
The bouquets for the railway minister contrast vividly with the brickbats hurled at the Union finance minister. Once again, opinion-makers of all hues were united. The tone was set at the top, when the chief minister of Kerala solemnly intoned that the Budget had neglected the farm sector.
I am no fan of P Chidambaram's Budget. But it is a bit steep to say that the Union finance minister has completely ignored the agriculture sector. He has, for instance, a Tea Fund for the 'replantation and rejuvenation' of the tea sector. He has also promised similar financial mechanisms for 'coffee, rubber, spices, cashew and coconut.'
Every single one of those items is vital if Kerala's farmers are to break the habit of depending exclusively on rice to earn their living. (There was also, as I recall, mention of support for the coir industry.) The devil is in the details, of course, but it I don't think the General Budget deserves to be condemned outright.
Brickbats (for P Chidambaram) and bouquets (for Lalu Prasad Yadav) alike may turn out to be transient phenomena in Kerala judging by the Asian Development Bank case. This Rs 122 crore deal has a peculiar history.
The negotiations date back at least to 1996. The deal was nearly scuppered a couple of times on some pretext or the other. (Generally, on the all-purpose excuse that it was 'anti-people', which sounds wonderfully sinister but explains absolutely nothing!) Eleven years, and several chief ministers, later, the deal has been struck on the same terms as those available in 1996.
Over a decade of modernisation has been eaten by the locusts because a bunch of politicians thought obstruction was a short-cut to the headlines.
That is the economic history of Kerala in a nutshell for you! Our leaders have their act down pat -- we support those who do nothing for us, yet act like Sherlock Holmes on Moriarty's track if someone offers a helping hand (whether the Union finance minister or the Asian Development Bank).
And Keralites still wonder wistfully why Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi are not spoken of in the same league as Chennai, Hyderabad, and Bengalooru!