A rough ride ahead

Print edition : September 24, 2004

Oommen Chandy, who replaces A.K. Antony as Kerala's Chief Minister, has unenviable tasks at hand - refurbish the image of an unpopular government, rein in assertive coalition partners, and tackle the factionalism in the State unit of the Congress.

in Thiruvananthapuram

THE dramatic resignation of A.K. Antony as the Chief Minister of Kerala on August 29, minutes after Congress president Sonia Gandhi left Thiruvananthapuram following a day's visit to the State, was perhaps his most lacklustre political renunciation ever. The euphoria and public support that overwhelmed him twice earlier when he resigned, as Chief Minister in 1978 and as Union Minister for Civil Supplies in 1995, was sorely absent this time. Instead, the glory fell on the man who replaced him on August 31, Oommen Chandy, chosen successor and long-time lieutenant, who had been, of late, also a silent critic of Antony's unpopular and unpredictably idealistic political positions.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy with former Chief Ministers K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony, and party leader Anil Shastri after the swearing in ceremony in Thiruvananthapuram on September 1.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

Antony's claim that his resignation was to satisfy his "conscience" and to accept "moral responsibility" for the drubbing the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition received in the Lok Sabha elections also did not enthuse people. "My conscience was my guide in all the crucial decisions I made. It does not permit me now to continue in this office. So I resigned," Antony told mediapersons soon after handing over the resignation letter to Governor R.L. Bhatia. Yet Antony continued in office for over three months after the election debacle in May, and though he said that he had been waiting for clearance from the party high command to step down, he was simultaneously making preparations for a Cabinet reshuffle to refurbish the image of the UDF before the local bodies elections due in six months.

However, the real reason for his resignation has been left unsaid and is widely believed to be the Congress high command's assertion that he should replace all the party Ministers in the Cabinet. Antony, on the other hand, wanted to retain a few of them while reorganising the Ministry. While removing all the Congress Ministers would have given the impression that they alone were responsible for the election defeat, Antony surely believed, as he said while announcing his resignation, that "several factors were responsible for it".

There is no doubt that Antony resented the suggestion that his party rivals or the coalition partners had no role in the UDF's debacle. Another apparent irritant was the efforts by some sections, including Antony's close associates, to put the blame for the poor choice of candidates on him alone. At every occasion after the election results were announced, he reminded the people that the unpopular decision to give the party ticket to former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran's children, former Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president K. Muraleedharan (in an Assembly byelection) and K. Padmaja Venugopal, was not his alone and that all coalition partners demanded that Karunakaran and Antony should sink their differences and work together for the UDF.

THE Antony-led UDF that came to power in May 2001 winning 100 of the 140 Assembly seats was a tale of disappointment in the three years that it held the reins of government. Within a year of its inauguration, all its grand designs for the State crumbled under the factional war re-launched by Karunakaran, his two children and their supporters under the banner of the `I' (Indira) group. The Congress vs Congress games within the ruling coalition that at one time saw the Antony group winning over Muraleedharan to its side for a while paralysed the functioning of the government at all levels, eroded the authority of the Chief Minister over his ministerial colleagues, and led to prominent coalition partners gaining the upper hand in governance and making fiefs out of the Ministries under their control. Collective responsibility became a mirage and the Chief Minister had no say over the decisions and goings on in several Ministries.

As he tried to hold on to his principles in exclusivity and gave a free rein to coalition partners and party rivals, Antony slowly began to alienate even his close supporters and depend more and more on the bureaucracy and the State police. His policy of allowing the State police total freedom in functioning and preventing political interference in their work received the admiration of the people and was lapped up by the State police; but it caused deep resentment among party workers. From his second year in office, Antony started hearing ordinary Congress workers complaining loudly that his style of governance was restraining them "from enjoying the fruits of their own party's rule".

Hence at all crucial junctures, as a party, the State unit of the Congress failed to support its Chief Minister and the government, whether it be in the efforts to shore up the State's finances, or in alleviating the sufferings of the ordinary people, especially the rural poor, the tribal people and Dalits. Its flagship event to attract badly needed investments into the State, the Global Investors Meet (GIM), became an embarrassing failure. For over a month in early 2002, government employees, with covert support from Karunakaran, paralysed the administration when they went on strike seeking restoration of the emoluments that Antony had withdrawn soon after coming to power. The government was forced to withdraw a hastily introduced increase in electricity tariffs. An agitation by tribal people demanding restoration of alienated land eventually led to a brutal and highly unpopular police action on them at Muthanga in Wayanad district. Antony stood helpless as corruption charges, including those regarding sanctioning of large-scale projects, schools and colleges and encroachment of forest land, continued to be levelled against his Ministerial colleagues. Several coalition partners began to utilise Antony's uncomfortable position within the Congress to their own ends and to put pressure on the Chief Minister personally whenever he chose to raise indirect objections to their misdemeanours.

The communal killings in Marad and Antony's politically unwise and controversial statements on minorities that followed were used to the hilt by several coalition partners, especially the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent of the UDF which controlled key portfolios of Industry, Education, Public Works and Local Bodies, to put pressure on the Chief Minister personally and politically (Frontline, October 24, 2003). It was the last straw: Antony's honeymoon with the coalition partners ended there, and soon the Chief Minister, with his reputation for simplicity and integrity, began to author his party's worst ever electoral performance in the State in May 2004, even as the coalition partners joined the chorus for his `surrender' or removal.

Antony's resignation marks a change in the three-decade-old factional war in the State unit of the Congress, in which Karunakaran and Antony were the main players, leading the most prominent factions which had been the bane of the State and the party for so long, pulling it down on every occasion it came back to power. Surely, former Chief Minister Karunakaran's refrain from day one of the new government was that `Antony must go', revengeful as he was about Antony replacing him as Chief Minister at the end of a similar bitter factional war in 1995, a year before the term of the then UDF government concluded. Yet Karunakaran had to pay a heavy price for pursuing his dream revenge this time: he was sidelined as never before by the party high command, his children literally became pet hates of the entire State and the `I' group he nurtured all along as a powerful party within a party lay in a shambles, unable even to suggest an alternative to Antony when its long-lost dream finally came true.

Antony, on the other hand, has the satisfaction of submitting his resignation when his archrival Karunakaran least expected it, of overseeing the deactivation of the `I' group and of sidelining its leader who had been a thorn in his flesh for the past 30 years. Perhaps he also has the satisfaction of having a man of his choice - Oommen Chandy, who had been his lieutenant, the fulcrum of the Antony group, a people's politician who had earned respect by refusing positions in the party and the government on several occasions literally to serve Antony's wishes or to save him from embarrassment - as his successor. Interestingly, even a year earlier Karunakaran had set the whole party game in such a way that whenever Antony stepped down, his son Muraleedharan would have had the most emphatic claim for the Chief Minister's post, as the representative of the `I' group. But then, it was a dream that turned sour, as Karunakaran stepped beyond the precipice of factional politics.

AT his first formal media briefing at the State Secretariat, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy was asked whether he would continue with the controversial policies of the previous government. He replied: "The policies of the UDF as explained in its manifesto will continue. But every individual has his own way and style of functioning. When individuals change there will be corresponding changes, naturally."

The Chief Minister added, pointedly, that "in a democracy, the political leadership should decide the policy of the new government. The job of the bureaucracy is to implement those policies. But we need the cooperation of the bureaucracy. We will take them into confidence". On the new government's police policy, he said: "The police must provide protection to the life and property of the people. They must behave decently towards people's representatives. These principles must be strictly followed by the police. Public men have a right to raise the complaints they receive at any forum. If the complaints are genuine, the police must take action."

Indirectly, the new Chief Minister was indicating that the real change will be in the style of functioning of the new government and not in its policies, which the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) alleged repeatedly were "anti-people" and created a lot of distress for the ordinary people of the State. Many of the policies of the Antony government were controversial, especially the recent one regarding the sanctioning of self-financing professional colleges. The new Chief Minister has, however, declared that he will continue Antony's education policy. Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan said: "Oommen Chandy thus represents `Antonyism without Antony'." But if Antony gave a free rein to his officials and the police, and allowed them to function independently, Oommen Chandy now wants them to take orders from the politicians and elected representatives. The new Chief Minister seems to have tailored an outlook to make his own party workers and MLAs happy. But the big question is, what does he hold in store for the people of the State?

With his popularity among friends and foes alike and with his practical politics, Oommen Chandy may score as a Chief Minister where Antony failed with his restraining idealism, honesty and simplicity. As Antony's confidant and as the convener of the ruling UDF, Oommen Chandy had so far been the troubleshooter, the consensus-maker and the fund-raiser - a trapeze artiste in all the hazy political pressure points in coalition-ruled Kerala, where, significantly, Antony feared to tread. Already, Ministry-making has brought in a basket of problems in its wake. The list of 11 Congress Ministers (including the Chief Minister) that got the high command's approval on September 3 was understandably dominated by `A' group supporters. Prominent Karunakaran loyalists did not find a place. Two of the three MLAs selected from the `I' group too were not to Karunakaran's liking. Within the UDF, the unilateral decision of the Congress not to include two of the coalition partners - the pro-Karunakaran Kerala Congress groups led by former Ministers R. Balakrishna Pillai and T.M. Jacob - in the Ministry for their alleged role in defeating UDF candidates in the Lok Sabha elections, proved to be a shocker, bound to have long-term repercussions in the new Ministry and Kerala's coalition politics. Karunakaran described the decision as "humiliation" of his group and its leaders and harshly criticised "the wrong move" to sideline the Kerala Congress groups. He warned the new Chief Minister "not to forget his predecessor's fate".

No doubt, Oommen Chandy's biggest political challenges will be the very same ones that proved to be Antony's undoing - factionalism within his party, the high command's incompetence in controlling it, and the unrestrained action of coalition partners. Only time will tell whether the coming of Oommen Chandy marks a turning point in Congress politics in Kerala.

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