Updated: September 17, 2020 9:41:13 am
On September 17, former Kerala chief minister and Congress stalwart Oommen Chandy is set to complete 50 years as a member of the state Assembly – a feat that no Congress leader has achieved in the state and perhaps even in India.
In the Kerala Assembly, only KM Mani, the chief of the regional outfit Kerala Congress (M) who died in April last year, and KR Gowri, the 101-year-old former Communist icon, have had longer terms. Across India, K Karunanidhi, the late DMK patriarch, holds the record for the longest term as a member in a state Assembly.
Chandy’s feat is exceptional because he has won 11 consecutive times from his hometown constituency of Puthuppally in Kottayam district. He made his way into the Kerala Assembly in 1970 at the age of 27 after winning his debut election from Puthuppally, which had been designated a Communist stronghold until then. In fact, party insiders told Chandy, who was named state Youth Congress president that year, that if he were to come second, it wouldn’t be a terrible thing. But the young Congress leader stunned his detractors by winning the seat with a margin of over 7,000 votes.
Since then, the Congress leadership in the state has rarely had to worry about its chances in Puthuppally as long as Chandy was the candidate. Only the margins mattered. He won every time he contested – 1977, 1980, 1982, 1987, 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016. With the electoral wins under his belt, he gradually climbed up the ladder of the state’s politics, becoming minister for the first time post-Emergency in the 1977 government headed by K Karunakaran.
It was also the time when the party was in the middle of a great churning with factions being propped up by rival leaders Karunakaran and AK Antony. Chandy chose Antony’s side and contributed to deepening the factional war within the party that lingers even today. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, when the Congress failed to win a single seat in Kerala, then-CM Antony was forced to resign, paving the way for Chandy, his closest confidante, to rise to the highest office in the state. As Antony departed from state politics making his move to New Delhi, Chandy took over as the head of the ‘A’ group within Congress in Kerala, leaving his imprint on every organisational matter from choosing candidates for elections to making shrewd negotiations with allies.
His organisational prowess was matched with an affable personality that made him dear to the state’s voters as the face of the party’s election campaigns. During his first term as CM, Chandy travelled extensively across the state, seeking to project himself as ‘approachable’ and someone the voters could count on. It also helped to undo the damages the party had faced in the previous Lok Sabha elections. Though the Congress lost in the 2006 Assembly elections, the party under the leadership of Chandy, fought back to win a majority of seats in the 2009 LS elections and the local body elections the following year. He was the Leader of Opposition in that period.
In 2011, when the Congress-led UDF returned to power on a razor-thin majority of two seats and Chandy was picked by the high command as CM once again, political observers predicted the government wouldn’t last long. The Congress not only had internal problems of its own, but it also had to contend with overarching ambitions of allies like the Muslim League and Kerala Congress (M). But it goes to the credit of Chandy and also to Kerala’s bipolar political establishment that his government with a two-seat majority went on to complete the five-year term. In contrast, state governments today, with much bigger majorities, are splintering with allegations of poaching and horse-trading.
To be sure, Chandy’s five-year tenure as CM wasn’t exactly peaceful. Two major corruption scams, the solar scandal and the bar bribery scandal, erupted, threatening to take the sheen off his neat image. Even his own office was seen as compromised. But, undeterred by the allegations, Chandy continued to do what he does best: reaching out to the public directly and inquiring about their problems. He set out for a ‘jana samparka paripady’ or mass contact programme by touring through the state’s 14 districts, conducting ‘jan-adalats’ and clearing petitions of the people on the spot. The idea, he said, was to cut bureaucratic red-tape and be a responsive government.
Thousands of people landed up at these programmes to interact directly with the CM and resolve their problems. Even amid the storm of corruption allegations, it helped Chandy reclaim his image as a man of the masses. In 2013, he received the UN Global Award for Public Service for his work in the mass contact programme.
After the party’s defeat in the 2016 Assembly elections, Chandy has not been his former active self in the state’s political scene, due to a throat illness and also his promotion as an AICC general secretary with charge of affairs in Andhra Pradesh. But he is learnt to have told the central leadership that his heart remains in Kerala where his inputs carry greater weight than in New Delhi. Despite his age and health, the 76-year-old was a star campaigner and the main crowd-puller in last year’s Lok Sabha elections, helping the UDF shore up a record 19 out of 20 seats.
Incidentally, Chandy’s completion of half a century as an MLA comes just eight months ahead of a decisive Assembly election in Kerala where odds are too tough to be stacked towards either the LDF or the UDF. A state that has alternated between the two coalitions since 1980, a small percentage of neutral, floating voters usually decide the fate.
If the LDF is re-elected, Pinarayi Vijayan in all likelihood will be the chief minister. But the same cannot be said for the UDF which has never presented a face before polls. Interestingly, an opinion survey published by Asianet-CFore in July said 23% of the respondents favoured Chandy as the next CM, trailing only Vijayan who had 27% of the votes. The only other Congress leader cited by respondents was Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala with just 5% support.
In interviews, Chandy, when asked about CM candidate, has repeated the universal line: ‘the high command will decide.’ But read between the words and he hasn’t ruled himself out.
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