The 'Somalia' remark in poll-bound Kerala is perhaps the biggest goof-up that Narendra Modi has committed in his two-year stint in the prime minister's office. It could hurt his party badly in the May 16 election in the southern state.
By comparing Kerala with Somalia, Modi has not just made mockery of himself in the eyes of the statisticians but has actually alienated the Malayali sentiments at a crucial juncture by hurting its pride. In politics of South India, this amounts to suicide.
BJP leaders need to shed 'North Indian instincts' when dealing with South
The BJP, which is by all means is a party dominated by 'North Indian cultural instincts' and a leadership from Gujarat, has so far failed completely to get a grasp of how politics is played in southern parts of the country. It's just not that the language provides a barrier (even it holds true for the Congress today) but even the understanding of the cultural groundings is not strong. [In TN rallies, the Modis and Sonias should speak in Tamil first]
Or else, why would somebody belittle Kerala, the socio-political legacy of which is the best in India, by casually comparing it with an extremely poor country of Africa? It is bound to hurt the Malayali identity.
Polarisation, development do not work as poll startegies in South India
The problem with the BJP and its Hindi-minded leaders is that they see everything through the prism of saffron politics as Plan A or development as Plan B. But neither of these plans are going to work in the southern states and hence the BJP stands very little chance to earn a foothold there.
Modi could have done it by upholding Kerala's pride: Its human development story
Had Modi done his homework on Kerala, he would have seen that the linguistic sub-nationalism which emerged in Kerala in the mid-19th century led to the state's high level of development, something which is not seen say in a state like Uttar Pradesh, though both the states fared similarly during that time. In the case of UP, the absence of a positive sub-nationalism like in Kerala has seen weak public goods and development and the BJP is more adept in handling regions that have negative or no sub-nationalism by means of polarisation.
Attacking politics doesn't always pay off
Modi would have seen the results going in his favour had he used the positive Malayali sub-nationalism by likening the state with any developed country and yet promising to improve things further. But the PM could not ignore the temptation of scoring a political brownie point and belittled the entire state to corner the Congress and Left, the two traditional powers that have ruled the state so far.
A clever Oommen Chandy grabbed the opportunity with both hands
This negative politics took its toll on the entire state's pride and the Kerala CM, Oommen Chandy, a wily politician, grabbed the opportunity with both hands by shooting a strong letter to Modi protesting his Somalia remark. It mobilised the entire Malayali sentiments against Modi, something to which the BJP is yet to find an answer.
Kerala or TN is not same as UP or Bihar; the game of political polarisation will backfire in South
Modi should keep in mind the fact that addressing a rally in a southern state is not the same as doing the same in UP or Bihar. A positive aspect of the sub-nationalisms in South India is that they subsume groupism at lower levels and the assertion of lesser social groups weakens.
This is precisely how parties like the BJP thrive in the Hindi heartland, by wooing social groups. In caste-ridden states, it is a much easier strategy to divide and appease to gain a vote-share.
But in states where such loyalty does not exist at a lower level and the regional identity prevails as a whole, it is dangerous to make a move, even if unknowingly, hurting that identity. And in a highly literate and progressive state like Kerala, it is a disaster. Even the state BJP leaders will be left embarrassed and ashamed of what their top-most leader had said.
Down South, people have little care for Gujarat model; it has its own successful model
It is futile for the BJP to trumpet the Gujarat model of development in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala for the last two states have already earned a reputation in terms of development-be it material or human.
It was not wise for the PM to touch Kerala's development story with a plan to hit the state's traditional rulers. Modi resportedly said the infant mortality rate (IMR) of the state's Scheduled Tribes (STs) is worse than that of Somalia.
Even if the development indicators of Kerala's tribals is not a story to relish, but comparing it with Somalia was far too stretched. Kerala's human development ranking is comparable to a country like Bahrain, one of the best in the Arab world and ranked in top 50 on this planet.
To get an idea of the statistical part, the IMR of Kerala's STs as per the 2001 Health Profile of Scheduled Tribes report is 57 (per 1,000 births) for boys and 63 for girls (see below). The state's IMR, as per 2013 records, is 12, which is 28 places better than the national figure.
For Somalia, the corresponding figure is 85, as per a Unicef report (see below), worse than even the poorly performing parts of Kerala.
Kerala has better ST IMR scores than Gujarat, MP and Chhattisgarh---three BJP-ruled states
In Gujarat, the IMR of the ST boys in 59 and 65 for girls. In Madhya Pradesh, another state the BJP is ruling for over a decade now, the corresponding figures are 110 and again, 110. In Chhattisgarh, where the BJP is also in power since 2003, the figures are 96 and 95, respectively.