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India’s deep south: Southern comfort

MAHATMA GANDHI would not have enjoyed Texfair 2016 in Coimbatore in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The man hated machines and factories, and promoted Indian independence by urging every household to spin its own cotton yarn. But on display at the textile fair were bobbins, rollers, waste balers, quality-control sensors and much, much more.

Indeed, India is vying with China to be the world’s biggest producer of yarn, with over 45m spindles twirling around the clock. But what is striking about the trade fair is how so much of the modern wizardry on show is made not in better-known industrial centres around the world but in Coimbatore itself, a city of just 1.6m some 500 kilometres (310 miles) south-west of Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital.

The fast-growing city is an inelegant sprawl stretching into groves of coconut palms. It teems with technical institutes, bustling factories and civic spirit. Earnest and ambitious, Coimbatore evokes the American Midwest of a century ago. A regional manufacturers’ group that was founded in 1933 during Gandhi’s homespun campaign has now designed, built and marketed a hand-held, battery-operated cotton picker that it claims is six times more efficient than human fingers.

Gandhi would have been appalled. But the gadget says something about the quiet success of parts of India’s deep south. Mill owners worry that with day wages in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Kerala to the west now far higher than those in northern India, local cotton may grow uncompetitive. Tea planters in the hills west of Coimbatore are already squeezed. One landowner, in Kerala’s Wayanad region, where silver oaks shade trim ranks of tea bushes, says that his pickers get 300 rupees (about $4.50) a day, nearly three times the wage in Darjeeling in India’s north.

It may not sound like much, but it is also more than the average Indian earns. And as a whole, GDP per person in Tamil Nadu and Kerala is 68% and 41% higher respectively than the national average of $1,390 a year. With the south’s booming new industries, better education and higher wages contrasted with declining industries in the north and east, India is undergoing a shift a bit like the American one from the rustbelt to the sunbelt in the 1980s. Kerala shares in this new industrialisation less than Tamil Nadu, but that is balanced by another source of prosperity: remittances from abroad. As many as one in ten of Kerala’s 35m people work in the rich Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Their remittances boost local incomes, property prices and demand for better schools. Kerala, under leftist governments for the past six decades, already has India’s best state education and its highest literacy rate. Its school district has again topped nationwide exams for 17-year-olds, followed by Chennai region, covering the rest of southern India.

Yet India’s deep south has not transmuted growing prosperity into greater political clout. It remains largely aloof from broader political trends, including a slugging match between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in office nationally under Narendra Modi, the prime minister, and Congress, the once-dominant centre-left party that worships Gandhi. In elections across four Indian states that wrapped up on May 19th, attention elsewhere focused largely on the fortunes of those two parties. The BJP’s capture from Congress of Assam in the north-east was seen as a big boost for Mr Modi. Congress’s failure to take any state was seen as a sign of decay.

Voters in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which has 72m people, paid hardly any attention at all. In both states the contest was between long-established state-level parties. Keralites and Tamils alike admit that in terms of policy not much distinguishes the rival parties. For a generation, power in Kerala has alternated between two left-of-centre coalitions. Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, has been in thrall to parties that both make “Dravidian progress”—a reference to South India’s linguistic and racial separateness from the “Aryan”, Hindi-dominated north—part of their name.

Elections are often bidding wars. In Tamil Nadu this has meant offers of household goods or simple cash. The favoured lure in Kerala, where politics is so staid that rival party bands traditionally deliver a joint crescendo in village squares to mark the end of campaigning, has been promises of ever more generous welfare.

In practice, voters often punish the party in power. But this year voters in Tamil Nadu re-elected the incumbent government for the first time in a generation. The AIADMK, whose boss is a former actress known as Jayalalithaa, had the stronger party machine and a track record of generosity. It secured victory over the DMK, from which it split in 1972. The outcome in Kerala was more traditional. The corruption-tainted ruling coalition, led by a local affiliate of Congress, was trounced by the communist-led Left Front.

Interestingly, gains were made by a newcomer to Keralite politics since the last state elections in 2011: Mr Modi’s BJP. It picked up just one seat in the 140-member state assembly, but almost doubled its proportion of votes, to 15%. To some, the Hindu-nationalist party’s entry reflects the impatience of Kerala’s growing (and mostly Hindu) middle class with the handout politics that tends, on paper at least, to favour religious minorities in a state that is 27% Muslim and 18% Christian. But Keralites fed up with both Congress and the hammer-and-sickle mob, both of which have failed to foster industrialisation and jobs, may have felt they had nowhere else to go.

Source: Economist