Kerala Assembly elections: Congress needs a paradigm shift

It will be an uphill task for Congress in Kerala to win the Assembly elections this year. The party will have to reinvent and meet new challenges.

Congressmen will have to forget its group squabbles and seat sharing and come up with a new array of candidates who could win the elections. It is also time for a generation shift.

The Congress has taken a big risk by alienating Kerala Congress (M) so that it could try to dominate in the UDF strong-hold of Kottayam— a long-standing dream of Congress men from the district such as the Kottayam MLA, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan. They thought that the death of Kerala Congress leader K. M. Mani gave them the opportunity. However, erosion of votes seen in the panchayat elections even in former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s constituency (Puthuppally) showed that the dream is a difficult one to realise, though Mr. Chandy and Mr. Radhakrishnan will be able to hold their fort. In the strongholds of Ernakulam district, the emergence of Twenty Twenty as a political party is throwing up a new challenge.

These would force the Congress to pay special attention to districts which are not their strongholds and cut losses in districts such as Pathanamthitta. In this scheme of things, Thiruvananthapuram district becomes one where the party has to fight some important battles especially against the BJP.

It has been suggested that top Congress leaders like Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala should contest from Thiruvananthapuram to wrest the Nemom seat from the BJP and the Vattiyoorkavu seat from the CPI (M). However, the leaders were not willing to move out of their pocket boroughs.  Obviously, they could fail in Thiruvananthapuram if BJP and CPI (M) come to a tactical understanding behind the scenes. Many are already concluding that the BJP is forcing Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan for some adjustment, as a quid pro quo against Central agencies going slow on the probes on involvement of the Chief Minister’s Office and some Ministers and Speaker P. Sreeramakrishnan in gold smuggling and other scams. Now, the party is trying to persuade V. M. Sudheeran to contest from Vattiyoorkavu while the strategies for other constituencies are not yet clear.

The party has members of Parliament Rajmohan Unnithan and K. Sudhakaran to hold the fort in Kasaragod and Kannur districts respectively. But K. Muraleedharan, MP, has stated that he would campaign only in his constituency (Vadakara), pointing to ongoing infighting in the party.

Though the honesty and suave manners of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is no match for the divisive politics of Narendra Modi at the national level, the presence of the Wayanad MP can cast a spell in Kerala.  But this has to be matched with selection of inspiring young leaders to win strong-holds of the CPI (M). Names such as that of AICC spokesperson Shama Mohamed has come up in this regard. Congress will also have to think of fielding winnable candidates from outside the party also as the stock of the khadi-wielding politicians with no worthwhile job of their own (other than politics) is fast diminishing. But the scramble for seats among party men has always prevented Congress from scouting for talents outside.

Yet, the party is showing some signs of mending. It is drawing up a well-studied manifesto under the leadership of Shashi Tharoor and other qualified persons.  However, barring Mr. Tharoor, the social media presence of Congress and its outreach to the young are still poor compared to BJP and the CPI (M). Though Congress men are active here and there solo, there is no coordinated action to project policies or political views. In fact, many leaders are found wanting or afraid to take on BJP and even the CPI (M).  This is why it is important for the party have a new generation of leaders with no baggage from the past to carry.

Crucial battle for Oommen Chandy in Kerala

The by-election from Aruvikkara constituency in Kerala is a crucial battle for Ommen Chandy government, beleaguered by corruption charges.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has taken it upon himself to win the election by fielding a novice. He has already addressed or interacted directly with half of the electorate in the constituency.


Finale of by-election campaign in Aruvikkara constituency in Kerala. Photos: Roy Mathew

A victory in Aruvikkara will enable Mr. Chandy to claim that his government still has people’s support. The ruling Front will be winning the third by-election after coming to power in 2011. (It had earlier won by-elections from Neyyattinkara and Piravom).

A defeat would show that support for government has slipped. This would encourage his detractors and he will face increasing pressure over corruption, questionable associations and misdemeanors of his Ministers and his own office. Though challenge to Mr. Chandy’s Chief- Ministership is not as strong as before, a defeat in the by-election can spell serious trouble for Mr. Chandy.

The campaigning is throwing out characteristics of a neck to neck race. However, the chances of the ruling Front (UDF) or Opposition Front (LDF) making a significant advance at the finish line could not be ruled out. The UDF candidate K. S. Sabarinathan, being a novice, has the advantage of being unblemished. The LDF candidate M. Vijayakumar, on the other hand, has to carry his own baggage. He faces an unusual situation of a counter affidavit having filed against his affidavit given as part of his nomination papers.

electionThis may be first time that a counter gets filed against an affidavit filed by a candidate. This could now become a trend in future elections.
The BJP candidate O. Rajagopal is sure to carry away a notable number of votes from the UDF and LDF kitty. He had been runner up in elections from Thiruvananthapuram.

His party’s vote share in Aruvikkara in the Assembly election of 2011 was only less than seven per cent. Mr. Rajagopal, who is popular around Thiruvananthapuram, and his foray into an adjoining area is sure to increase BJP’s votes.

Related links:
Kerala Assembly election database
By-election results: Neyyattinkara and Piravom

Oommen Chandy’s last trial

Chief Minister

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy with Industries Minister P. K. Kunhalikutty, Vice Chairman of State Planning Board K. M. Chandrasekhar and some members of his personal staff. Joppan, accused in the solar scam is just behind Mr. Chandy

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has been called to Delhi for discussions. This will be his last trial as far as his continuation in office is concerned.

Mr. Chandy has tided over the solar scam which threatened to unseat him. Though at a cost, he has practically defeated the Opposition, silenced his opponent group in the party for the time being and brought peace with government Chief Whip P. C. George, who is vice president of the third major party in the ruling front; besides making the media that campaigned against him look ridiculous.

However, his victory could still be unconvincing for the Congress high command. The question that would worry the high command is whether Mr. Chandy could lead the ruling Front in the State to victory in the coming Lok Sabha polls. Congress party’s leverage in the scenario after election would be determined by seats won in the South.  And the message the party is getting from some Congress and other Front leaders in the State is not very positive.

It is notable that both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office as well as Mr. Chandy’s Office has come under allegations. Mr. Singh is facing bigger charges than Mr. Chandy. So, the Congress high command will hesitate to ask Mr. Chandy to step down. Yet, it is notable that Mr. Singh has already expressed willingness to step aside. Will Mr. Chandy also be persuaded to step aside as he names the judge for judicial enquiry into the scam in a few weeks time? It will depend on how far Mr. Chandy could convince the high command that he could lead the party to win substantial number of Lok Sabha seats from the State.

Mainstreaming tribals

Attappady-- a view  Photo: Roy MathewChief Minister Oommen Chandy proposes to bring Attappady tribals to main stream as the government has failed to address their problems after six decades of ‘tribal development’.

Well, his plans are for the next generation. Children from the tribal hamlets are to be educated in special model residential schools and all eligible students given admissions to the Plus One and undergraduate courses.

This is a course of action that had been tried in countries such as USA, Canada and Australia which have invited protests. However, such protests over uprooting the tribals from their culture are muted in Kerala. Many anthropologists hold opinion against weaning tribal children away from their culture and mainstreaming them. But the questions whether they should be allowed to live primitive lives or proselytised to adopt modern lifestyle is an enduring question.

As to the immediate problem of malnutrition among tribals, the government has come up with an answer—community kitchens. Mr. Chandy’s view is that the tribals do not eat well. Many are so lazy that they are willing to cook. It is not clear whether the tribals would come regularly to the community kitchens to eat. Even if they do, that could make them lazier as far as cooking goes. Better, if community kitchens teach them how to cook and encourage them to do their own cooking.

Tribal Women at Agali, Attappady

Tribal Women at Agali, Attappady

But the real problem in Attappady is not that the tribals have not learned to cook or made eating cooked food a habit.  The real issue is alienation of their land, destruction of forests and restrictions on their access to forest resources including food materials. However, the Chief Minister refuse to acknowledge this and take strong measures to resume their lands despite court verdicts. Even problems like drunkardness stemmed from land issues. Alcoholism spread as a result of exploitative tactics of the settlers in Attappady.

Studies have reported that the deaths of infants in Attappady were not the result of alcoholism among their mothers. It happened because of malnutrition. The government wants now wants all tribal women to give birth at hospital to ensure the nutritional status of mothers and children. For this, vehicles are to be provided. On one hand, this is better said than done. Many tribals had failed to get timely medical attention not because of lack of schemes or vehicles but because the officials concerned did not care. On the other side, it is notable that Kerala is emphasising on hospital based deliveries when the West that promoted it is now going back to midwives and deliveries at home.

Chandy, the master stragegist

Cantonment Gate

Cantonment Gate of the Secretariat on the day of the picketing by Opposition

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is master strategist. First, he diverted media attention from the solar panel scam by launching a second run of the Cabinet reshuffle talks. KPCC president Ramesh Chennithala was forced to play along (see previous posting) though he had decided earlier to remain as KPCC chief.

Then, he turned the mode of agitation of the Opposition (siege of the Secretariat or simply picketing) into an issue when the real issue was whether the administration had manipulated the complaint of Saritha S. Nair, one of the accused in the solar scam. Keeping the Cantonment Gate of the Secretariat open suddenly became the issue. The media concluded that a great battle of the gates was in the offing. Inexperienced television reporters probably believed this while the shrewdest ones realised that this is an opportunity to push up ratings. The Opposition played along and may have probably claimed its flesh behind the scenes.

However, experienced reporters knew that the left parties always claimed that they would picket all the gates of the Secretariat. And invariably, the government always managed to keep the Cantonment Gate open for the entry and exit of Ministers and Secretariat staff. Nowadays, the visual media sets the agenda even for the print. Not to fall behind, Malayalam newspapers cried ‘War!’ while English newspapers decided that ‘siege’ was the appropriate word for what was going to happen.

However, on the day of the siege, it turned out to be a tame affair. There was no confrontation between the police and the LDF workers as anticipated. Both sides embraced peace and soon achieved a truce. Even 67 per cent of the Secretariat staff could get into the Secretariat.


LDF workers before the Secretariat on August 12. A television channel even had a studio set up on the top of the building in the middle.

Mr. Chandy then declared two days holiday for the Secretariat on the specious ground that this was to facilitate rehearsal for the Independence Day Parade at Central Stadium behind the Secretariat. The Opposition was not letting in children to practice. The Opposition could claim that they had managed to force closure of the Secretariat; but what was the fun in squatting before an empty Secretariat! And the prospect of continuing the picketing braving the sun and rain for the whole week was not encouraging.

Mr. Chandy then announced that the government was deciding to order a judicial probe, something he was promising all the while after the police completed their investigations. The Opposition seized the opportunity and called off the stir. The BJP alleged that it had a secret pact with government to soft-pedal the Lavlin case against CPI (M) State secretary Pinarai Vijayan and investigation of the murder of T. P. Chandrasekharan who is alleged to have been killed by CPI (M) workers.

Even if this is true, Mr. Chandy is still the winner. His position is secure for the time being. He cannot be successfully challenged now unless some hard evidence crops up against him in the solar scam.


Medical emergency in Thiruvananthapuram

Kerala is facing a medical emergency in its capital. Cholera is spreading following failure the city corporation and the government on waste disposal.

The city collector has clamped prohibitory orders under Section 144 (2) of the Criminal Procedure Code against those who deposit waste at public places and water bodies and those who block movement of waste to waste disposal sites of City Corporation. This is against background of intense protests against waste disposal sites of the city which polluted the neighourhoods.

Now that the solid waste treatment plant of the City Corporation at Vilappilsala is closed following public protests, the waste collection and disposal system of the Corporation have come to a standstill for about a year now. People are forced to throw waste here and there and the results are showing. Cholera and diarrhea and other water borne diseases are spreading in the city and suburbs.  Rodent population in the city has multiplied, and Hantavirus that infects people from rats had been the cause of at least one death in the city.

medical emergency

Patients queuing up at a government hospital in Thiruvananthapuram (old photo)

The mosquito population is also increasing and the Incidence of dengue fever has hit a high. Kerala is now the second in the country, after West Bengal, regarding incidence of dengue fever. Dengue fever has been confirmed in about 2000 persons this year officially and the actual number could be two or three times this number as the count does not cover patients admitted to private hospitals.

The measures being taken by the collector such as the ban orders are unlikely to help much in containing the outbreak.  The collector’s order would only force people to keep waste in their premises and terraces.  It does not make a difference whether waste is rotting in the streets or at homes.  Many homes are on only a few cents of land and they have little means of disposing waste properly as the Corporation has stopped collecting them.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has miserably failed in keeping his promise that new waste treatment plants would be set up in six months in place of the closed plant at Vilappilsala. He also failed to carry out his promise that protect water supply would be extended to Vizhinjam and neighbourhoods in a year.  Apart from the health of its citizens, this trend is going to hit the tourism potential of Kerala.

Endosufan controversy: truth is not easy to decipher

Whether there is any substance in the controversy over the letter written by Principal Secretary (Health) to the Community Medicine Department of Kozhikode Medical College asking, essentially, whether they are willing to make any amends to the report of their studies on endosulfan is not easy to determine.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has denied any wrong-doing by officials of the Health Department in their response to legal notice on endosulfan and that no minister had seen the file or the correspondence.  Even if a Minister has given a directive, the Health Secretary has seen to it that the letter is carefully worded after obtaining the advice of the Law Department.  The letter written by the Health Secretary is reproduced below.

The wordings like the use of ‘impediment’ may suggest a bias in favour of endosulfan manufacturers.  However, the net result of final decision communicated to Mr. Ganesan strengthens the legal case in favour of ban on endosulfan.  From the letter (reproduced below) read with earlier communication to the Department, it would appear that the government is upholding the results of the studies after due process and had shown no bias towards the Department.  It could be that the Principal Secretary Rajiv Sadanandan acted intelligently.

The only problem with the letter is that the date appears to have been over-written. Was it sent before the controversy broke out or after that?

Such doubts arise because the history of the UDF government headed by Oommen Chandy was not one of unblemished support to the victims of endosulfan. As pointed out in an earlier post, the Agriculture Secretary of the Government had signed the report of the Mayee Committee (conclusions are reproduced below) hardly a fortnight before  Mr. Chandy set out to tour the affected villages of Kasaragod district promise solace to the victims in 1984.

Recommendations of Mayee Committee

Chandy’s balancing act

The reshuffle of portfolios of Congress Ministers in Kerala is a disgrace to the State.  Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has given into bullying by communal forces under duress.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy

It is no secret that the communal forces lobbied regarding selection of candidates for elections and choice of ministers behind the scene. The difference now is that the lobbying has come into the open and the Chief Minister has openly succumbed to the pressure. In the process, he has even gone to the extent of shedding the Home portfolio that he held in order to placate the majority community. Communal forces would now become bolder unless secular forces are able to assert themselves more.

Mr.  Chandy is likely to come under more pressure from communal forces as the by-election from Neyyattinkara Assembly constituency nears. At some point, the Chief Minister would land in a position that he could not meet all the demands while his party men would use subterfuge to win ministerial and other positions.

One consequence of the communal balancing act that Mr. Chandy is forced to undertake is that he had neither been able to choose his ministers nor allocate portfolios based on merit.  This had reflected on the performance of his ministry