WINNING HEARTS

Affable Nirmala Sitharaman strikes a chord with Malayalis

virmala-sitharaman-cyclone-victims Union Minister for Defence Nirmala Sitharaman meeting with the people affected by Cyclone Ockhi | PTI

Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s speeches to overwrought fishing community crowds in Vizhinjam and Poonthura hamlets in coastal Thiruvananthapuram district, some days ago, have impressed many Malayalis. Sitharaman managed to strike a chord with the natives who were till then seething at the administration and were directing their anger on Kerala ministers like J. Mercykutty Amma and Kadakampally Surendran. This, after the state was hit by cyclone Ockhi on November 30, that claimed over 30 lives. More than 100 fishermen are still missing.

Speaking in Tamil, Sitharaman convinced people in cyclone-hit Vizhinjam and Poonthura that the defence forces would continue search operations till the last fishermen was found. The state BJP leaders, who had accompanied her, had suggested to her to speak in Tamil, her mother tongue, so that the people assembled there understand. Said Sitharaman, “This is not the time to show your anger. I have come to help you. I promise you that your husbands and kids will be rescued. I am using warships to find out my brothers and sisters. The Coast Guard, the Air Force and the Navy will not back off until the last person is saved.”

When THE WEEK contacted Sitharaman, her office informed us that she was closely monitoring the rescue operations. The Kerala government’s relief efforts came under fire from people in coastal belt of southern Kerala, who said its response was sluggish right from the start.

Said J. Mercikutty Amma, state fisheries minister, to THE WEEK, “I agree there was some confusion on November 30, December 1 and December 2. The government didn’t know what to do. The sea was rough. The Air Force and the Navy officials told us that the visibility was less and hence they could not search properly. I can understand the reaction from the people. They were very angry and were sad that things were taking time. Now there is better coordination between the Central and state agencies. We will find the remaining fishermen soon.”

Mercikutty Amma said it was unfair on our part to compare her visit to the coastal belt to the visit by the Union minister. “The Union minister was in a much better position to convince people, as she had more resources in her hand. She came only after a few days and hence didn’t face people’s wrath, unlike how it was in our case. By the time she came many fishermen were rescued,” she said, “I don’t see it as an advantage for the BJP in Kerala.”

State BJP general secretary M.T. Ramesh told THE WEEK that the defence minister managed to comfort the people in distress. When asked if Sitharaman’s services would be used more often in Kerala to benefit the BJP in the state, Ramesh said it was early to respond to such a query. The assembly elections in Kerala is slated for 2021. “She is a senior leader in the party and we need her constant support,” said Ramesh.

The 58-year-old Sitharaman is known for her gifted oratory skills and has a clean record as a Union minister. She had formerly served as the minister of state for commerce and industry with independent charge. Sitharaman is fluent in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. “I am not a BJP man. But I listen to her attentively whenever she speaks. Her speech to the fishing community in Thiruvananthapuram was too good to be missed,” said Ranjith Nair, a computer engineer based in Kochi.

Sources in the BJP said Sitharaman’s help would be sought more often in Kerala.

O. Rajagopal, BJP MLA in Kerala and former Union minister told THE WEEK that Sitharaman's address to the fishing community has helped boost the image of BJP in the state. He said she listened patiently to the woes of the community although some of them were agitated.

He further said this was a lesson for the CPI(M) leaders in the state. “Their people-management skill is very poor. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was booed by an angry crowd when he visited Vizhinjam. He had to literally run from there,” said Rajagopal.

Rajagopal said it was wrong on the part of the state government to not have taken the cyclone warning seriously. “There was a delay by a day. Or else, we wouldn’t have lost so many lives,” he said.

CM Vijayan, though, dismissed the allegations. He said the state received the cyclone warning at 12pm on November 30.

The Indian Meteorological Department and the Central Ocean Research Institute, apparently, had alerted the State Disaster Management Authority at 5 pm on November 29. The state government didn’t evacuate people on the night of November 29 and the morning of November 30. Or else, the impact of cyclone could have been reduced.

The CPI(M) secretary in Kerala, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not speaking on the damage caused by cyclone Ockhi in Kerala. “There is a clear laxity on his part in personally acknowledging the sufferings of the people in Kerala,” said Balakrishnan.

Many cyclones in the north Indian Ocean channel are named by the Indian Meteorological Department. The name Ockhi was given by the meteorological department in Bangladesh. Ockhi, in Bengali, means eye.    

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