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Kerala Compares Better With Sweden Than Somalia, Mr. Prime Minister

18/05/2016 7:59 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
LUCKNOW, INDIA - JANUARY 22: Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the convocation of the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University on January 22, 2016 in Lucknow, India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid an emotional tribute to a young scholar from India's lowest Dalit caste who committed suicide last week, a death some have blamed on social discrimination.(Photo by Ashok DuttaHindustan Times via Getty Images).

The Prime Minister has got into the habit of making adversarial remarks in haste and repenting at leisure during election campaigns. Last week, while campaigning for the BJP in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala, Narendra Modi made a comment that the condition of the Scheduled Tribes in Kerala was bleaker than that of the people of Somalia, which ranks abysmally on the Human Development Index (HDI).

This comment has set off a huge protest in Kerala; the people of the state see this comment as an affront to their dignity. The PoMoneModi (Get Lost, Modi) hashtag is trending in the state and hundreds of thousands are pledging support for the campaign which draws on a popular dialogue in Malayalam cinema that rings a bell with every Malayali. Even Gujaratis who live in Kerala have stridently refuted Narendra Modi's claim that the life of tribal communities in Kerala is any worse than that in the rest of India.

It appears that the BJP's Kerala dream has gone sour with a knee-jerk remark by the Prime Minister.

Clearly, the BJP's hope of finding a strong foothold in the southern state of Kerala in this election has received a setback. That Keralites are an educated lot (95% literacy in the state) and they have united to forcefully assert their self-worth in social media. It appears that the BJP's Kerala dream has gone sour with a knee-jerk remark by the Prime Minister.

Modi had made a similarly disparaging remark last year in Bihar that had cost the party dear. In July last year, when Bihar was getting ready for elections (the schedule of elections had not been announced yet), the PM addressed several political rallies in his 'do or die' battle to win Bihar for the BJP.

In one of these rallies (at Muzaffarpur), he told the audience that there was a problem with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's DNA - he tended to ditch his close political associates every now and then. The PM was referring to the 17-year-old political alliance between the BJP and Nitish Kumar's Samata Party\JD(U) that Nitish walked out from in 2013. He also referred to the manner in which Nitish Kumar ditched other close long-term associates, such as Jitan Ram Manjhi, whom he had anointed as the chief minister of the state.

The Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) in Kerala is the least among all states of India...

Narendra Modi's DNA comment was seized by Nitish Kumar as an insult to Bihar. The Chief Minister thundered: "I am a son of Bihar. My DNA is Bihar's DNA. By casting aspersions on my DNA, the Prime Minister has insulted the people of Bihar." Nitish turned the tables on the BJP leadership by interpreting DNA as a metaphor for political identity. Despite damage control attempts by BJP leaders in Bihar such as Sushil Kumar Modi, who mocked Nitish Kumar's attempt to make his personal identity synonymous with that of Bihar. These assertions did not cut much ice. Nitish Kumar latched on to the DNA comment for the next three months and made it the staple cry of his electoral campaign, even starting a drive to collect 50 lakh DNA samples of the people of Bihar to send to the Prime Minister. It was a symbolic protest, but it galvanized the Bihari identity against the BJP. Ultimately, the BJP and its allies -- which had won 31 of 40 seats in the state in the Lok Sabha elections barely a year ago - were reduced to a pulp. Nitish Kumar returned triumphant as the chief minister. While the DNA comment wasn't the sole cause of the BJP's poor show in Bihar, it certainly became a major talking point for the assertion of the Bihari identity that swept aside the BJP.

Modi's comment would have been appropriate for only one Indian state -- Madhya Pradesh -- where the IMR among STs stood at 110 per 1000 births in 2001...

Narendra Modi's Kerala comment is much more dangerous for the party than what he said in Bihar. The Bihar comment was against an individual -- Nitish Kumar (it of course goes to the Bihar leader's credit that he turned a comment on his personality into the 'asmita' or self-pride of the people of the state). But the Kerala comment is against the state as a whole and that is why it is more dangerous.

There is another difference between the Bihar and Kerala comments. Whereas the PM expressed an opinion about the Bihar leader (with which one could agree or disagree), in Kerala his statement flew in the face of facts (no one, not even his party men, could agree with him as the facts spoke otherwise).

What do the facts speak? The Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) in Kerala is the least among all states of India (12 deaths per 1000 live births) and is comparable to countries in the advanced West. Even the current IMR among the STs in Kerala is something that the state can proudly flaunt in the rest of India (nay, the world).

Yes, the Census 2001 data had suggested that the IMR among the STs of Kerala was 60 per thousand (which was still far better than Somalia where the IMR stood at 105 per 1000 births in 2001). Modi's comment would have been appropriate for only one Indian state -- Madhya Pradesh -- where the IMR among STs stood at 110 per 1000 births in 2001 and which was worse than that of Somalia (Uttar Pradesh, at an IMR of 100 per 1000 births was close to the Somalian condition).

An IMR of 12 for the whole of Kerala and an IMR of 14 for the tribal population! It compares well with that of Sweden, Mr. PM, not Somalia!

Kerala was well ahead of these state 15 years ago. And if Narendra Modi would have cared to find out, the government's own tribal nodal officer, Dr R Prebhudas, sent a health status report to the government in April this year that the IMR in Attapadi (the worst-affected tribal block in Kerala) came down to 30 in 2013, plummeting further to 14 in 2015, due to the sustained effort in the tribal area in the last 15 years by the programmes initiated by both the central and the state governments.

An IMR of 12 for the whole of Kerala and an IMR of 14 for the tribal population!

It compares well with that of Sweden, Mr. Prime Minister, not Somalia!

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