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Coronavirus: Liberal privilege that sank Kerala. Here is what went wrong

In theory, the role of the media is to keep governments accountable. But what happens when media is so in love with the ruling party that they would never point out the slightest negative about a state? You get Kerala.

When it comes to the Coronavirus, there is a lot of good news around, at least for the time being. Yesterday, the total number of fresh Covid cases in India fell below the 60,000 mark for the first time in 81 days, as opposed to nearly 90,000 recoveries. The nationwide recovery ratio has crossed 96%, showing that active cases now make up only a small fraction of those who contracted the disease. Additionally, the vaccination program has picked up, with some 38 lakh vaccine doses administered yesterday. The cumulative number of vaccine doses is now approaching 30 crore, roughly equal to the entire population of the United States.

But amid the good cheer, there is something that sticks out. The state of Kerala, with its tiny population of 3 crore people, now leads the country in daily new Covid cases. Over 20% of fresh new cases yesterday were from Kerala alone. And before anyone rushes in with the usual mythmaking about “Kerala model,” this is not because Kerala is testing more. If anything, Kerala is testing too little. In fact, Kerala’s test positivity rate is above 10%, which is frightening. For comparison, the nationwide test positivity rate yesterday was only 3.33%. The second wave is under control almost everywhere. Except Kerala.

How did it go so wrong for Kerala? And how did the terrible numbers for Kerala go almost unreported? Actually, these two things are connected.

First, let us agree this should not be happening in Kerala. At least Maharashtra had an excuse. Maharashtra has lots of densely populated, highly industrialized urban centers. People across the country flock to the state for a living. The same is true, even if to a lesser extent, for states such as Gujarat, Karnataka or Tamil Nadu. At least Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had an excuse. These are among India’s poorest and most backward states. The state governments there don’t have enough resources.

What is Kerala’s excuse? They are neither poor nor backward, nor would they ever admit to being so. Kerala has little manufacturing and no big urban centers. In fact, no city from Kerala appears even in the list of the 50 most populated cities in India. Additionally, Kerala has a famously high level of literacy, which should make it easy for the government to disseminate information effectively and create awareness. Kerala also leads the nation on various mythical parameters such as Human Development Index (HDI).

Then, there is the globally acclaimed Kerala healthcare model, driven by the vision of Shailaja “Teacher.” Oh, excuse me, did I say Shailaja Teacher? I actually meant to talk about the vision of the Chief Minister’s son in law Mohammad Riyas. Undoubtedly, it was Riyas’ foresight and guidance that was the real power behind the success of Kerala model. Why else would Pinarayi Vijayan drop Shailaja from the Cabinet and include his son in law as a minister? Over the decades, the contribution of sons, daughters, uncles, cousins, nephews, etc to India’s development has been immense.

The media won’t tell you about the failure of the Kerala model because it is mostly the media’s fault in the first place. In theory, the role of the media is to keep governments accountable. But what happens when media is so in love with the ruling party that they would never point out the slightest negative about a state? You get Kerala.

The media has always been soft on ‘secular’ ruled states. That’s why everyone ‘knows’ about the communal attack on an elderly Muslim man in Ghaziabad the other day, even though the incident had nothing to do with religion. But the decades of political violence in Bengal have never become an issue, not nationally and not even in Bengal. Jyoti Basu may have presided over 28,000 political murders during his first 20 years in power, but who cares? For that matter, who even knows? That’s liberal privilege.

By now, the public is used to this. They have even developed a certain amount of “herd immunity” against it. Despite all the media glorification of ‘secular’ parties and their many ‘youth icons,’ the BJP has consistently gained strength across the country for the last 30 years. Ironically, the media bias against BJP has often worked to the party’s strength. If there is a BJP government around, even a traffic jam can become national news. If you don’t believe me, see this.

So BJP governments are under pressure to deliver simply to survive. This in turn leads to people voting for more BJP governments. Over a long period of time, lazy ‘secular’ regimes get voted out. This is how Congress went from a 200 minimum seat party to a 150 maximum seat party between 1977 and 2014. In the same time, the BJP went from a party of 2 seats to a 182 maximum seat party and now a 200 minimum seat party.

But all this breaks down when you have a pandemic. The virus cares neither for state lines nor party lines. In the fight against the pandemic, we are only as strong as our weakest link. And when the media makes up fake narratives to defend their ‘secular’ ideals, they put us all in danger.

A Maharashtra minister recently revealed that they would get calls from media persons urging them to reduce the number of tests so that the numbers from the state could be artificially reduced. The minister did not reveal the name(s) of the journalist(s) involved, but most of the media thinks like this anyway. They will protect the image of the ‘secular’ Maharashtra government at all cost, including that of the nation itself.

In fact, the second wave began in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. The data proves this beyond a doubt. If the media had done its job raising awareness in late March and early April, people would have started taking precautions right away. Think of the lives that could have been saved. Perhaps the lockdown could have been avoided, saving millions of livelihoods. But, politics got in the way. The media had to wait for the second wave to reach Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. Once there were BJP governments to blame, the second wave began ‘officially’ on our TV screens. Then, you could pretend that BJP rallies in Bengal had spread the virus in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh a month ago.

Another thing you could not talk about was the farmer unions’ protest acting as a super spreader in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. Did you say there was a Kumbh Mela happening in Uttarakhand? Yes, that must definitely be to blame.

The liberal privilege is what sank Kerala. There wasn’t a BJP government or even a BJP MP or BJP MLA in sight who could be blamed. And thus, for day after day and week after week, Kerala got a pass. The state was even having an election. The fate of the last Communist government in India was in the balance. The media would protect them at all cost, even if it meant that every single Indian would get Covid.

Again, you know who doesn’t give a pass to people for being “liberal”? The Coronavirus. The CPI(M) won the election, the liberals celebrated, CPI(M) leaders distributed plum portfolios to their relatives and settled down to enjoy five more years of unending media praise. But the Coronavirus kept spreading.

And right now, even as India believes the second wave is behind us, the virus is still hiding in plain sight in one state. If the people of that state speak out, the media will remind them that they have the best literacy and the best HDI. And so they should never complain. But one of these days, the virus will start spreading again. It will perhaps make a stop in Bengaluru, where it could get noticed. But I am guessing the media will choose to wait strategically till it reaches Gujarat, for more effect. And the third wave begins “officially” when the spread reaches Uttar Pradesh. And then, it will all be the fault of “Gaumutra.”

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a columnist and author.  

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