In his first book South vs North: India’s Great Divide (Juggernaut Books), Chennai-based data scientist and author Nilakantan RS analyses how Southern Indian states are far ahead of states in the North. He also explores how the Centre has been undercutting the Southern states, which have better track records in the areas of health, education and economy.
In an extensive interview to The Federal over email, Nilakantan talks about the nature of the South-North divide, and its likely causes. A trained engineer from Clemson University, South Carolina, who works with one of India’s largest fintech firms, Nilakantan argues that all the five Dravidian states — Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana — have fared better consistently in terms of their governance outcomes, the health of their citizens, the education they offer, and the economic opportunities they provide.
However, the Union government has not been in a position to run the divergent states in the South and the North with uniform programmes and policies, he underlines. For an orderly shift of power away from the Union government and towards the states and local governments, Nilakantan proposes ‘gamified direct democracy,’ which will facilitate ‘rectitude’ in terms of democratic structure and a shot at utilitarian outcomes for all of India’s population.
In South vs North, you analyse how South India is a different country, in stark contrast with northern India. Is this divide inextricably linked to policy-making and governance?
Societies are complex and complicated. To argue a specific policy resulted in every improvement that the society experienced is the job of politicians. The rest of us hopefully do not fall into that trap. But it is true that policy making, the room for errors and experimentation in that process and a general responsiveness of governments towards improving the lives of people has a positive impact on society. At least, as a species that likes to tell stories — about us and to ourselves — it is important for us to tell those stories with appropriate evidence so that we move civilization forward.
What has led to India’s regional imbalance getting substantially skewed in favour of the south in recent years? Since South India is culturally and linguistically distinct from North India, how strong has the factor of sub-nationalism been and how has it worked as a force multiplier?
Sub-nationalism is cited as an important reason in literature. It’s easier to think how this’d work if we think of Nordic countries or Japan for a moment instead of India. A small and relatively homogeneous society that’s bound together by a common sense of belonging, we can imagine, has higher trust factor and is consequently more altruistic. The reverse is true as the scale of society expands and the number of cleavages increases.
This is just one factor though. What is that common pull, how benign or majoritarian it gets and how small is too small are all questions that do not have good answers. But the fact is, in India, it seems to have worked and it’s useful to acknowledge that. At the least, we should not try to quell it, as the nationalist politics of the 21st century seems to aspire towards.
Among the five Dravidian states — Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana — Kerala and Tamil Nadu have fared better consistently in terms of their governance outcomes, the health of their citizens, the education they offer and the economic opportunities they provide. What has made these two states stay ahead of the rest of India?
A focus on education. Broad-based and universal benefits for most government programmes instead of targeting them. The destruction of the feudal hold on rural economies. Their longer history of social movements. A greater degree of sub-nationalism. Pleasant accident. The exact reason is difficult to point out. But the confluence of all these factors could have only helped. But given where we are, I hope the discussion is to focus on what we can do going forward given where we are, instead of focusing on why we are where we are.
You highlight how Karnataka has been a bit of a disappointment among its southern peers; its ability to retain children at the higher secondary level vis-à-vis secondary level is among the worst in the country. The state, of late, has been a flashpoint of needless political controversies like the hijab ban in schools. Why is Karnataka not doing well as it could in the crucial education sector?
Karnataka’s problem in retaining students at the level of Higher Secondary education pre-dates the current BJP government. However, adding impediments — such as banning girls from school for the kind of clothes they wear — to an already worrying GER at the Higher Secondary level surely cannot be a good thing. Karnataka’s problems at the Higher Secondary level, in one way, are a problem caused by its excellent GER in lower grades. And the state is unable to retain those children in High School at that level. The reasons are likely to be complex and needs a lot more focused research to diagnose and target with a policy prescription.
You dedicate the book to Madras, your “beloved and demanding home.” What kind of relationship do you share with the city? How do you look at its evolution?
Cities are strange because most modern cities are similar in that they have roughly the same things and yet they are vastly different in terms of how individuals experience it. Madras to me has been a home that constantly pushes me towards taking thought forward and having the environment for it. The status hierarchy in my corner of the city is decided by who pushes thought forward and who doesn’t. And that is both a rewarding and scary place to call home.
Could you briefly outline the various ways the Centre is punishing the South for performing better, as it were, undercutting the peninsular states through national schemes in the area of health, education and economy; the minutiae of budgeting, tax policy or allocation of resources? What impact does it have on the people of these states?
States in southern India are in a particular bind. They have vastly better metrics in health, education and economic opportunities — which means that they cannot have a one-size-fits -all policy devised for the Indo-Gangetic Plains work for them. They need different policies that work at their state level. Except that’s becoming increasingly impossible in the current climate of One Nation, One Policy in every aspect of governance. Their policy needs are also likely to be more expensive on a per-capita level given their place in the development trajectory.
Except the resource allocation formulae adopted by the union use population as the most important factor which makes them receive far less than what they need or what they contribute. And then in terms of the general tax-sharing, the southern states end up receiving a lot less of what they contribute to the consolidated fund of India because of the ways in which taxation and Finance Commission allocations work.
In a democracy, these are complex issues which need political capital. And here they are threatened with the unfreezing of delimitation which will likely erode their already insignificant political capital! In essence, the southern states are at the risk of becoming vassal states if nothing is done.
You explain in the book how the southern states are doing well because they have achieved stable populations through good governance, but this is exactly what threatens to rob them of political power and resource allocation. How do you foresee the South-North imbalance playing out after the electoral delimitation of 2026?
This is the most significant faultline in independent India. The stable populations of southern India and the exponentially increasing one in northern India means we either have to punish success in policy making in the south by robbing them of their MPs or punish people for bad governance in the north by relegating their votes to nothing by retaining status quo distribution of seats in Parliament. This is what the dilemma is when the delimitation expires in 2026. There is no good solution within the current structure of government and democracy that we can think of. Which is why, I propose an alternative: Gamified Direct Democracy. I hope readers read the book and see for themselves that’s the only good way out.
How have electoral politics and the rise of nationalism as a dominant political ideology dented India’s cherished notion of unity in diversity?
We can tell ourselves any story. Unity in Diversity was one such story.
The real question is: how is our structure of democracy reflecting the will of the people? If we consider that question and take a dispassionate look at our democracy, it’s apparent our democracy does a terrible job of representing the will of the people. Within that ill-suited way of running the country, there being bad faith actors who take advantage of the situation either in the name of nationalism or religion is natural in a large democracy.
So, what we need to do is focus on fixing the transmission efficiency of democracy; the downstream issues of hyper-nationalism, I think, will fix themselves. And even if they don’t, at that point, it’d be the true representation of people’s will. The point of democracy is not to be right; it’s to be acceptable.
In recent years, we have seen the failure of institutional checks and balances in democracies around the world consequent with the rise of a charismatic populist leader. Even though the politics of personality is untenable in modern times, these demagogues seem unstoppable. Where do you think democracies have gone wrong?
We have set up a bad system that does a terrible job of representation and thus these bad actors arise. To focus on these populists and demagogues is to focus on the symptoms; the disease, in my opinion, is the transmission efficiency of the will of the people. The solution to that, I claim, is gamified direct democracy.
How feasible is the shift from the representative model of democracy to gamified direct democracy, with multiple layers of vetoes?
We need to divorce the merits of the solution from the probability of it being implemented. The former I am confident of; the latter is something that time will tell!
You underline that the structure of a strong Union, which was important after Independence to thwart the possibility of fragmentation and civil war, has outlived its utility in the 21st century. By tending towards a unitary and centralized government, without taking into account the divergent needs of the North and South, the Indian Union is traversing a dangerous path that may lead to civil strife and violence. Do you see India increasingly gravitating towards such a situation in recent years?
Yes, sadly that seems to be the case.