Kerala, with its high rate of literacy, remittances from the Gulf, a robust tourism industry and lush plantations, is India’s highest ranked state in human development, and theoretical comparisons with nations put it in the same league as Bahrain at 104 – way above India’s rank of 130. Yet, it has been an irony that the state has been a virtual no-go for investors, who have faced obstacles from organised trade unions and activist non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It is heartening, therefore, to see a communist-led government in Kerala trading its red flag for a red carpet to invite private investors. Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPI (M) chief minister of the newly-elected Left Democratic Front (LDF) government has invited multinationals to invest in the state. This would have been virtually unthinkable two decades ago. Vijayan’s unlikely camaraderie with finance minister Arun Jaitley in line with his promise to create a million jobs over the next five years is a significant omen. The chief minister’s tough-guy pragmatism can possibly introduce the state to a high-growth culture. Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was a tea seller in his youth, Vijayan comes from a family of toddy tappers. The two share a penchant for earthy pragmatism and salesmanship. The Centre should set aside ideological animosities to show Kerala a new way in this new equation.
Vijayan has met Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan, who hails from Kerala, and even spoken of creating Silicon Valley-like hubs in the state, which already has a startup hub not far from the picturesque beach of Kovalam. However, intentions do not turn automatically into investments. The CPI, a junior partner in the LDF, has already sounded some ifs and buts on investment policies.. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), affiliated to the CPI-M, often challenges CPI(M)’s seemingly powerful Marxist czars. CITU keeps its cards close to the chest. From Apollo Tyres to Coca Cola, several high-profile companies have been hurt by union problems or activist protests in Kerala and anecdotal reports of arbitrary demands from militant unionists have put off wary investors. It is time to change all that.
“Both trade unions and managements are taking a cooperative attitude. We will be in favour of bringing in new industries,” Vijayan has declared. He should now start a robust internal dialogue within the Left to build a consensus that might transform what is already a healthy Indian state into a global high-growth zone. The state’s high HDI ranking should be turned into an advantage to attract investors. Can we dream of a future when the educated Keralite will find enclaves of opportunity in her own backwaters rather than in a distant desert across the seas?