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Kerala’s Challenges in Comparative Perspective in the Years of the Pandemic

Linking Public Action

Kerala suffers less from clientelism, authoritarianism, and neo-liberalism than many other parts of the world, but it is affected by the universal dilemma of how to unify numerous actors and build democratic links between the local, the wider government, and the economy. This article’s comparative insights indicate that the state requires democratic partnership governance to avoid parties and individual leaders cornering power.

Kerala has again testified to the importance of having decentralised governance and public action. During the floods in 2018 and 2019, local governments combined state support with their own resources and those of civil society, facilitating, for example, the participation of the fisherfolk and other volunteers in the rescue work. Similarly, in fighting the Nipah virus in 2018 and the COVID-19 in 2020, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Health Minister K K Shailaja and her team, backed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, and Finance Minister T M Thomas Isaac (a pioneer of decentralised people’s planning), among others, could immediately, from January, support and rely on local governments and civil society in containing community transmission and “flattening the curve.” The measures included educating residents, tracking the spread of the viruses, and organising local quarantines, along with providing food and welfare, especially for vulnerable sections of the population (Chathukulam and Tharamangalam 2020; Heller 2020; Isaac and Sadanandan 2020; Rahul and Ranjith 2020).

In April and May 2020, however, numerous challenges occurred that were difficult to handle locally. We shall return to the details, but the hurdles indicated how decentralised governance and action alone were insufficient. Comparative insights point to two basic dilemmas. First, the political and economic context. Second, whether and how it is possible to link local governance and public action to wider arenas and efforts.

This article focuses on the links and joint actions, given that they are crucial to improving contextual conditions. Most excitingly, after several months of uphill effort to handle the challenge, the Kerala LDF managed by late 2020 and early 2021 to design a way of linking the local to broader efforts. Not so much with regard to the struggle against COVID-19 as such, but, equally important, to social and economic challenges. The new links were initiated within the framework of comprehensive welfare, development, and job creation policies—which in turn paved the way for electoral gain. This dynamic supports the results from comparative studies, which indicate that similar priorities are potentially unifying and transformative, if governed democratically. But first the general challenges.

Context Matters

Decentralisation and local action do not make sense in all contexts. In Sweden, for example, it is now clear that privatisation (including subcontracting) and new public management have undermined impartial and democratic local governance of public welfare.

Similarly, decentralised governance and public action often suffer from ethno­nationalism, as in Eastern Europe, and religious-nationalism, as in the case of the Sangh Parivar in India. This is in addition to clientelism, neo-patrimonialism, and, at times, warlordism, as in West Asia and North Africa. Much of the same app­lies to the processes of decentralisation in Indonesia and the Philippines combined with political bossism. Usually, top-down intervention, as in parts of East Asia or in Bonapartist France, is no solution. The same applies to party dominance, as with the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and the previous Left Front in West Bengal (Törnquist 2021a).

Some of all these hurdles are present in Kerala too, but to a lesser extent, as its decentralisation and public action benefit from a comparatively favourable history of social-religious reform movements and popular movements for equal citizen rights and land reforms (Tharakan 1998; Harriss and Törnquist 2016a).

Primacy of Links

The second, and less often talked of, general dilemma, however, is as important in Kerala as elsewhere. It relates to the links and coordination between the local and the wider government, economic sectors and markets, public and private actors, and local, workplace and statewide actions. Building such links is not easy. Even the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party was unable to coordinate development in the scattered people’s communes in what Vivienne Shue (1994) called a “cellularised” economy. It therefore conceded to Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, which nourished collusion between politicians-cum-party people and business­persons. So the key question is whether there are democratic alternatives.

Case of Sweden

As mentioned, not even the celebrated Swedish public administration and welfare state have stood tall. In addition to being undermined by privatisation and new public management, especially in the case of the care for the elderly, much of the solid, although at times rigid, state direction, along with partnership governance, has been decentralised. Power has passed on to semi-autonomous regions and muni­cipalities with councils elected in conjunction with the general election. This political and economic devolution sounds fine, but multilevel governance makes it hard for people to find out who is responsible for what, to keep politicians and administrators responsible, and to cast their vote based on sufficient information.

Moreover, the central government and state authorities have proved to lack the power to address crises such as the pandemic. Most operational responsibilities are with 21 different regions, which are not always well-coordinated, and suffer from poor synchronisation with their 290 municipalities. Hence, it was difficult to decide on quick, radical measures to contain the virus, such as testing, tracing, and selective lockdowns to reduce the high rate of transmission and implement them. When the government and the central authority finally insisted on massive testing and tracking, the implementation stumbled over confused governance and limited capacity, even though central funds were made available.

Similarly, while the care for the elderly is to be handled by municipalities, the regions remain responsible for their medical care, which they have neglected—and the coordination between the two is bad. To make things worse, the regions and municipalities have their own central confederation, which is not a part of the public administration, and is not subject to the rules on democratic transparency and impartiality. It often serves as an employer organisation and pressure group. Equally deplorable, the contributions by civil society were fragmented and the historically celebrated cooperation bet­ween unions and employers was often neglected, including with regard to workplace safety.

This is not to argue in favour of central statist commands and complete lockdowns, as has been the practice in many other countries, usually without better results. Swedish citizens, especially those of a certain age, have obeyed public recommendations to the same extent as people in most European countries that have imposed compulsory measures. The major causes for the Swedish debacle are that new public management and poor linkages between various parts of the public administration have reduced the capacity of the state to decide on and quickly implement preventive measures, provide medical services, protect the elderly, and conduct mass testing and tracking.

Case of India

Another important insight may be illustrated with the impressive rights reforms in India during the centre-left United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments between 2004 and 2014 (Ruparelia 2013; Harriss 2016; Törnquist 2021a). The National Advisory Council under Sonia Gandhi facilitated numerous social acti­vists, concerned scholars, and administrators. The reforms included the Right to Information Act, 2005, which mandated government agencies to release information about their activities to citizens upon request. The remarkable National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (NREGA) ruled that adults in every rural household had the right to 100 days of wage employment from the state. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 gave tribal communities the right to traditionally cultivated land and protected and conserved forests. Another law was making education for children under 14 free and compulsory, and the National Food Security Act, 2013 aimed to provide subsidised food to two-thirds of the population.

There were certainly several problems. One was that much of the support was targeted, not universal, which reduced enthusiasm among the growing, aspirational middle classes, for whom there was not much in the programmes. Another was that the rights and welfare measures neglected health and education. Yet another was that the reforms were separated from the liberal economic policies, rather than designed to transform them into a comprehensive welfare-based economic strategy.

But the most fundamental hurdles were related to implementation. The reforms suffered from a generally poor standard of public administration. A 2011 bill on citizens’ right to timely delivery of goods and services and redressal of their grievances was never enacted, only applied in several states in watered-down forms. Equally serious, the grassroots were rarely organised. As well put by political economist John Harriss (2016), the impressive schemes were more top-down than anchored in the experiences and commitments of progressive popular movements and organisations. In other words, the linkages with the grassroots were inadequate. Following the left’s poor performance in the 2009 election, activists and beneficiaries could not do much to improve things. This impotence worsened after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained power in 2014 and even diluted the rights programmes, largely relying instead on a divisive popular base and semi-private relief through the Sangh parivar.

Case of Kerala

In contrast, activists and scholars in Kerala had done better from the mid-1980s onwards. They started with civil society campaigns such as those for literacy, group farming, and resource mapping, in cooperation with sympathetic politicians and administrators. This was followed in the mid-1990s by decentralisation and the People’s Plan Campaign. Both foste­red change from the bottom up—based on local priorities and governance, within the framework of general instructions from the Kerala State Planning Board. Equally important, there was new democratic space for popular action, beyond party–partisan organisations and an opportunity to reinvent them (Isaac and Franke 2000; Törnquist 1995, 2021a).

It is true that some corruption was also decentralised in this process; that the institutionalisation of popular participation was delayed; that production was not prioritised on the ground; that the development seminars were closed down after some time; and that the attendance in gram sabhas diminished. Mostly, the middle classes stayed away, including unemployed educated youth, as there was little for them in the targeted benefits. Finally, from the 2000 local government polls and 2001 state assembly elections, political leaders and parties hijacked the process, and the focus on a negotiated local unity based on welfare and development priorities was undermined (Törnquist 2021a).

In spite of this, not everything was lost. Until today, much of the state’s planning budget is for local development and there are functioning village, block, and district governments. The state and the people can relate to them. Since 2016, there have also been missions to coordinate state departments’ and agencies’ work in support of the decentralised responsibility for health, schools, housing, and waste and environmental management. In addition, there are a myriad of local issue and interest associations, and some of the popular action has survived, especially the women’s Kudumbashree labour groups with 4.5 million members in about 3,00,000 neighbourhood groups (Heller et al 2007; Isaac 2014; Rajesh 2020; Martin 2021).

As noted earlier, Kerala’s struggle against the floods as well as the Nipah and COVID-19 viruses proved how crucial the new decentralised governance, local popular space, and public action really were. To contain COVID-19, local health authorities and civil society joined hands for several months by informing citizens about how to avoid the virus, tracking infections, arranging local quarantines, providing food and welfare, and initiating economic self-help projects. This was remarkably successful and based on equal civil rights and democracy (Chathukulam and Tharamangalam 2020; Heller 2020; Isaac and Sadanandan 2020; Rahul and Ranjith 2020). Its leaders and activists even acquired fame world wide (Spinney 2020).

Unresolved Hurdles

The rights activists in New Delhi (from 2004 to 2014), who started from above and prioritised broad reforms, suffered from insufficient implementation through local governments and their sociopolitical base among the grassroots. But the Kerala campaigners (from 1980 to 2000), who started from below and benefited from a solid base, never managed to fully link their local roots and actions with democratically governed wider programmes and citizen action movements. These weaknesses became obvious by April and May 2020 during the struggle against COVID-19, when local action proved insufficient (Chathukulam and Tharamangalam 2020; Törnquist 2021).

Most obviously, there was, by then, a need for broad state-level welfare schemes to guarantee people’s livelihood and support production. Further, local action could not handle the increasing conflicts with the central government on how to monitor the health status of the huge number of migrants returning home. There had to be joint measures, beyond the communities, to fight the increasing community transmission of the virus and handle the extensive travel when the Onam harvest festival came around. The recommendations on social distancing and mobility to contain COVID-19 were sometimes too zealously enforced, which in some cases even called for police intervention. Meanwhile, local elections were on the horizon, and it was hard for politicians to insist on strict discipline; party priorities and the lack of a unifying overall policy disrupted joint local action against the pandemic.

On the state level, the handling of sensitive individual health data was politicised and issues beyond the urgent common challenges were blown up in the media, such as a gold-smuggling case involving a secretary of the chief minister (Krishnakumar 2020a, 2020b, 2020c). By early 2021, community transmission in Kerala was among the highest in the country (Maya 2021). In short, the initial local containment of the pandemic was not followed up with sufficient statewide measures and coordination. Thus, there was a risk that top-down governance and paternalism would overtake the efforts at a democratic combination of public and citizen action.

As already indicated, these dynamics brought to mind crucial unresolved problems during the bottom-up struggle for popular development from the late 1980s to the early 2000s (Törnquist 2021a). One is that even though there are now many more local development-oriented associations and action groups that address various grievances (Velayudhan 2020), their prime rationale is still not to link groups and issues in other local settings. And when they try, it is difficult. Beyond the local level, there is a shortage of forums for cooperation and negotiation with various partners. So the focus is often on action for special issues and demands—and on gaining patronage from political leaders. The major partial exception is the Kudumbashree groups. Meanwhile, synergies with the “old” organisations and movements related to production and work, such as unions and farmers organisations, remain poor. Historically, they used to provide the much-needed linkages. But now, for decades, they have been subordinated to the priorities of political parties and lost their focus on popular development and universal welfare.

Similarly, the original focus on issues that can be addressed and resolved locally continues to make it hard to consider linkages with the “outside world,” including broader markets, modern economic development, extensive labour migration, and remittances. At the same time, there is no formula for comprehensive planning, including environmental concerns, both public and private assets, resources, and investments.

The ideological priority of grassroots-oriented activists was to shape and expand “non-capitalist” spheres of popular development, maybe as a step towards people’s communes. But building local alternatives was difficult to combine with struggles to tame and alter the wider frameworks where capitalism remained dominant. And while there was a general model for linking central and local planning, this was mainly about general principles and the primacy of local needs and resource mobilisation. This was fine in many ways, but it remained unclear as to how local priorities would fit into a broad transformative reform programme, if any, that could link actors, sectors, and multiple levels of governance.

New Road Maps?

In theory, some of the missing links can be constructed by centralist and high-handed means. This seems to have been important in places that most successfully contained COVID-19, though the efficient actions in East Asia were rarely by force. Nor were they in the form of complete lockdowns, as frequently attempted in Europe. That was only applied when the contagion went “out of control.” The successful countries relied instead on their experiences and infrastructure from the previous containment SARS. The main methods were early, speedy, and continuous mass testing and contact tracing, along with instructions about physical distancing, hygiene, and quarantine.

However, of course, the efficient implementation of all this seems to have called for centralised apparatuses with undisputed authority to collect personal data and information to trace people and instruct them how to behave (Kheng and Heymann 2020; Sundrum 2021). And later on, the powerful leaders obviously ignored the need to follow up with a massive vaccination programme. Are there no more liberal and democratic ways of coordinating resources and actors?

Kerala managed through local public action, until it had to be coordinated and supplemented on a wider scale. The local advances in Kerala were remarkable. Generally, in the global South, and increasingly often elsewhere too, such as in the United States (US), impartial democratic governance is rare. The trust in the usual links between state and society—the public administration and the judiciary, political parties and leaders, related organisations, media and networks—is limited.

One useful historical insight into the problems and options is the rise and character of the equal citizenship rights in Scandinavia (Harriss and Törnquist 2016; Sandvik 2016; Svensson 2016; Trägårdh 2007). This did not only rest with the relative independence of propertied farmers and their role in pre-democratic local governance, along with the church, the gentry, and the bourgeois. With rapid industrialisation in the second part of the 19th century, the local format proved inadequate for providing relief to the increasing number of impoverished labourers. Democratisation through elections, parties, and parliament was fine, but self-help was insufficient. So there had to be universal welfare state programmes too. Yet, how would it be governed?

In the face of these challenges, and to manage public programmes, the labour movement did not want to reinvigorate the “bourgeois state apparatuses” run by authoritative bureaucrats. So a system of democratic partnership governance was negotiated on policy development and implementation. This was based on a democratic representation of the organisations of employers, labourers, and professionals—beyond party partisanship—combined with impartial administrators and independent experts. As the benefits became increasingly universal, middle-class people also gained from them. The system comprised public committees (with the representation of the various partners concerned) to prepare government proposals with wide public consultations and hearings. This fostered general trust in the welfare system. During half a decade, this partnership governance in the place of bureaucratic and party dominance generated vibrant and stable links between the state and society, and the central and local, and prompted coordination among all actors. This would have been a good complement to a liberal parliamentary democracy.

The Scandinavian partnership model may still be a source of inspiration, but it obviously cannot serve as a blueprint. For one, it rested on high state capacity, strong national and democratic issue and interest-oriented organisations with a capacity to represent, negotiate, and discipline parties and politicians. It also required favourable governments—all of which are endangered spaces in the global South, even in Kerala. In addition, the preconditions have now been undermined in Scandinavia, especially in Sweden—from inside by “iron triangles” and weakened popular movements, and from outside by neo-liberalism (Therborn 2018; Törnquist 2021a).

Yet, the need to somehow develop governance through a crucial democratic partnership, to foster links in society and the state, and between them, is as important as ever. As noted, the authoritarian road maps have not been very successful, and there are signs of more democratic options. In the comparative research that I have been involved in, the positive signs relate to struggles for broad reforms in favour of welfare-based development (Törnquist and Harriss 2016a; Törnquist 2021a).

The Kerala Twist

But let us first return to Kerala in mid-2020, when there were good reasons to be concerned about the problems in scaling up the initially successful local public action to contain COVID-19 (Krishnakumar 2020a, 2020b, 2020c; Chathukulam and Tharamangalam 2020; Törnquist 2021). The problem was not just administrative and organisational links and coordination for the containment of the virus, especially given the rising community transmission and the need for large-scale testing and tracing. Perhaps even more important, it was also about an increasing number of people, including returning migrants, without employment and livelihood, adding to the already high rate of unemployment, especially among the educated youth. Meanwhile, the hostile government in New Delhi made every effort to reduce the capacity of the Kerala government. And the upcoming local elections in December meant that all kinds of mistakes and issues were blown up.

Remarkably, however, these dynamics soon changed. Finance minister Isaac not only promoted participatory local governance, which was now basic to Kerala’s ability to stand tall, but also found ways of improving private and public resource mobilisation. This included making use of cooperative banking and the controversial Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), which provided some leeway in the face of New Delhi’s hostile budget policy. Meanwhile, it was possible for health minister Shailaja, in particular, and chief minister Pinarayi to mobilise the people against COVID-19 and provide inclusive welfare measures.

In other words, the main reason for the new opening in Kerala seems to have come from the effort of the LDF to prioritise combining state-financed and coordinated welfare, and job-generating reforms, with local contributions and implementation. In addition, extra efforts were made to include liberal allies in an electoral alliance and to trust local candidates with good records in social and development work. For example, 70% of the seats reserved for women in the local bodies were reported to have been won by
Kudumbashree members (Martin 2021).

This response to the multiple crises in health, livelihood, and development did not fully solve the COVID-19 problem. But it addressed people’s social and economic problems by connecting various parts of central and local public governance, catching the imagination of numerous activists and the wider electorate, including the increasingly vulnerable middle classes. The outcome was a compelling victory in the local government elections despite all the hardship and harsh criticism from New Delhi and the local opposition. The LDF sustained its remarkable result from 2015 (with a clear majority of the gram and block panchayats, 11 of the 14 district panchayats, and almost half of the number of municipalities and corporations) (Krishnakumar 2020d; Kerala Bureau 2020; Philip 2020).

Most importantly, on the one hand, the politically successful combination of welfare and inclusive development policies and, on the other, local governance and contributions, along with state-level direction, paved the way for drafting a more visionary long-term budget, backed up by the state planning board (GIFT 2021). This served as a basis for the manifesto of the May 2021 assembly elections, in terms of what finance minister Isaac called “a new edition to the Kerala Model” (Hindu 2021).

In contrast to the emphasis on local priorities, self-help, and resource mobilisation in the 1990s, the new vision focused on supplementing local public action with, for example, electronic platforms for temporary jobs and combining it with major state-driven investments in infrastructure, education, and training, along with private investments in value-added production. It was, thus, bold to bet on the educated youth, and promote internationally competitive and environmentally sustainable “knowledge-based development” (Anand et al 2021; Newsclick 2021). The vision looked beyond the reliance on remittances from migrant labourers in the oil-based Gulf economies. In a major conference on the new priorities for Kerala, Indian industrialists and Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz lent their support to the state’s cause (Kerala Looks Ahead 2021).

The political outcome was that an incumbent government, for the first time in 40 years in Kerala, was re-elected (Cleetus 2021; Dennis 2021; Krishnakumar 2021; Menon 2021; Prasad and Devvis 2021; Sunilraj and Sasikumar 2021). The results of a special post-poll survey conducted by the Lokniti-CSDS for the Hindu were unambiguous—voters did not vote for a person but for a party and its politics; they appreciated the effective and socially just manner in which natural disasters and the pandemic were managed, and they were positive about the development plans.

In other words, Kerala and the LDF did what European social democrats failed to do–counter right-wing identity populism with internationally viable welfare-based development policies. Equally important, the electoral results indicated that this was possible when not only the less fortunate people, but also the middle class, including the migrants, who had drawn on Kerala’s health and education polices to make their way individually in the neo-liberal framework, realised that they too were in need of public welfare and development policy support.

But will it be possible to take the full advantage of the new opening and implement the new vision? At the time of writing, it is still an open question; for example, how the wide engagement in favour of democratic local governance, resource mobilisation, and new development priorities will be able to influence (and be represented in) the new political administration.

Comparative Encouragements and Worries

Promisingly, the Kerala opening reminds of those in other contexts. Kerala’s consistent land reforms and lack of attractive commodities such as crude oil meant that it was not up against strong oligarchs—who often prefer to invest in extractive and not inclusive development—as, for example, in Brazil when Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff tried their best. Even in parts of the global South such as in Indonesia, with weaker and more fragmented civic and popular organisations, it has proved possible, over a decade, to build broad local and national alliances of unions, informal labour groups, civil society organisations, and politicians behind comprehensive welfare and development reforms. The best example of its success was the campaign for the national public health reform in the early 2010s (Djani et al 2017; Törnquist 2021a).

Yet, there are also worrying lessons in Indonesian and other international developments (Törnquist 2021a). One is that there needs to be a chain of transformative reform programmes. In Indonesia, the leading actors and related think tanks did not prepare follow-up reforms. So the broad alliance and transformative process came to a halt.

Another stumbling block is that paradigmatic models call for adaptation in other settings. Among others, the social democratic growth strategy from Scandinavia, also adopted by the International Labour Organization, presupposes a good capacity to create new jobs when old ones disappear as a result of social pacts to combine improved productivity with better conditions for labourers who keep their jobs. Consequently, the model is less fruitful in countries with huge numbers of informal labour and the unemployed, tragically illustrated by South Africa. In these contexts—and Kerala is among them—there must also be forceful supplementary policies to generate more decent and important jobs (Nattrass and Seekings 2019). Encouragingly, this seems to be a priority in the new Kerala plan (Anand et al 2021; Newsclick 2021).

The other major worry, however, is unresolved in Kerala as well. It is that there must be representation and inclusive negotiations with all major partners that are affected to design, finance and implement welfare-based development reforms. This would include employers as well as unions, organisations among informal labour and professionals, and issue-driven groups such as for women’s and indigenous people’s rights and the environment. In addition, the reforms need to be comprehensive rather than separate. Talks about minimum wages, for example, are harder if one cannot also consider employment conditions, job creation, and welfare programmes. The institutions and practice of this kind of democratic partnership governance have usually been neglected. In Indonesia, for example, there was no framework to negotiate general agreements on wage levels, employment conditions, and welfare measures. And there was a poor represent­ation of the parties concerned, especially from among unions and organisations of informal labourers. The unfortunate substitute was leftist and rightist populism and transactional deals, followed by confrontations and losses for the progressives in particular (Törnquist 2021a).

Similarly, citizens’ local associations must work together at the central Kerala level. Otherwise, the outcome will be as in Brazil where the participatory budgeting in Puerto Alegre and elsewhere could not stop the corruption in Brasília, the capital. And the risks involved if a dominant party tries to be a substitute are more than obvious from, for example, South Africa and West Bengal (Törnquist 2021a).

Kerala Might

In Kerala, the struggle for decentralised public action and development was guided by the state planning board, which provided instructions about consultations and broad agreements on local priorities. As we know, there was less focus on comprehensive policies and planning. Beyond public investments, it was difficult to consider private assets and resources, as well as the economy outside the local setting and the coordination of local popular action in wider arenas.

Fortunately, some of this may now be addressed in the context of the statewide welfare and economic reforms that were indicated in the five-year budget plan and the conference, “Kerala Looks Ahead” (2021). In other words, there is a chance to build crucial links between the local and wider government, and the economy and popular actions in the very process of designing and implementing the reform programmes. But the remaining challenge is to also create a format for partnership governance of the comprehensive reform programmes. How shall all concerned partners participate and contribute? There is no forceful developmental state hand, as was once in South Korea. Are there democratic alternatives?

One dilemma, then, is the scattered and party-partisan character of interest and issue-based organisations at the side of labour as well as capital, reducing the feasibility of the Scandinavian model. Another challenge is how to improve the welfare and education system so that they become more supportive of production, and transformative at that.

Yet another hurdle is the unavoidable negotiations on finance and investments. This is a particularly sensitive issue because the West Bengal Left Front’s concessions to big capital subsequently led to its demise. In addition, Kerala has no currency of its own, limited rights to tax and borrow, and is constrained by an unfriendly central government (Oommen 2021). In Kerala, there is thus a special need for partnership governance. New Delhi must be criticised for monopolising fiscal and other public resources, but it is even more important to build trustworthy forums for partnership between government, capital, labour, and civil society to mobilise and coordinate supplementary resources, and to decide what skills, know­ledge, and welfare reforms need to be given priority to. Innovative solutions are necessary, involving partnerships between public and private actors. And as widely admitted under the pandemic around the world, it is absolutely necessary to stimulate crisis-ridden economies with promising potential, even by debt financing, as long as it does not cause high inflation.

But the deals and social pacts need to be democratically anchored—among people and entrepreneurs in general. In my understanding, these issues of governance have been given very little attention compared to economic and educational priorities, most recently at the state planning board’s international congress “Kerala Looks Ahead” (2021). Given the progressives’ previous emphasis on democratic participation, it would be a contradiction of sorts, and a possible source of instability, if the necessary negotiations and agreements were to rest with individuals within the government, leading parties, or expert committees.


The struggle against COVID-19, and the process of a fair socio-economic recovery, illustrate, again, that decentralised governance and public action are necessary, but insufficient. This is partly because of the prevalence of clientelistic, authoritarian, or neo-liberal governance in many contexts. Yet, even in Kerala, where the strong elements of democratic and participatory local government and public action helped contain the pandemic for several months, it was not enough. There was also a second and universal dilemma: how to unify numerous actors and build links between the local and wider government, economy, and popular actions, without resorting to centrist and authoritarian means. These challenges remained unresolved ever since the implementation of democratic participatory governance and planning in the 1990s.

Paradigmatic models of democratic partnership governance such as from Scandinavia are still useful as sources of inspiration but cannot be copied, given the global South’s limitations. Yet, while short of sufficiently solid organisations, one may instead commence on the basis of policies and alliances to foster comprehensive reforms, and thus strengthen such organisations, and impartial and efficient administration. There are positive experiences from the global South of forming broad alliances for the development and implementation of welfare reforms, like the universal public health reform in Indonesia. Kerala’s envisioned reform programme combines, on the one hand, state provisioning of welfare, and job-generating reforms and, on the other, investments in education and training, infrastructure and value-added production. This will be in cooperation with local governments and civil society as well as private entrepreneurs, towards inclusive and sustainable knowledge-based development. Thus, there is potential to build the necessary links between a local and wider government, the economy and partners concerned in the very process of designing and implementing a comprehensive reform programme. The remaining challenge, then, is to shape a democratic format for partnership governance of the programmes so that all partners concerned can participate and contribute, including in matters of finance. If that fails, there is a risk that powerful party leaders and ministers will dominate. 


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Updated On : 19th Jun, 2022
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