The BJP cannot win the hearts of Malayalis. Any plan to sow the seeds of distrust would not find takers here.
Few can match the talent of Oommen Chandy for travelling with ease—both time and distance. Forty-six years after he won his first assembly election in Puthuppally constituency in Kottayam district, he is at the peak of his political career, and could well become the first in Kerala to win a second consecutive term as chief minister.
At 72, Chandy is not daunted by the prospect of a long election campaign in oppressive heat. When THE WEEK met him in Thiruvananthapuram, he had just returned from a journey that covered double the length of Kerala. As he got into a Toyota Innova to make his way to campaign meetings in Kollam, Alappuzha and Kottayam districts, he looked calm and confident as ever. Excerpts from an interview:
At a time when controversies and allegations are hounding the government, are you confident of returning to power?
Most of these allegations are not against the government, but against the chief minister. The allegations against others are small when compared with the charges against the CM.
Look at the history of the allegations. The United Democratic Front government came to power with a majority of two seats. The prediction was that it would fall within six months. But it did not, and the opposition went berserk. They started organising protests. But they failed miserably, as the CPI(M) could not convince even its cadres, let alone the people, of the need for such protests.
Then the opposition started making allegations: the solar scam issue, the bar bribe controversy, charges of corruption related to the Vizhinjam port project, and so on. But the UDF continued to win elections. In the Lok Sabha polls, it won 12 of 20 seats. The Aruvikkara assembly bypoll was won by a margin of more than 10,000 votes.
The solar scam issue is back in focus.
The people in Kerala abhor corruption. They also abhor false allegations made with the intent of tarnishing someone’s image. The day the solar issue broke, I told the assembly, ‘The government has not lost a single rupee. It has not aided the accused. Those who were cheated were private parties. There has been no failure on the government’s part in taking action against the accused.’
The opposition has not denied what I said. They haven’t cooperated with the judicial commission inquiring into the matter. They haven’t provided any proof to back their allegations. They are only trying to fool the people, which they can’t, as evident from the election victories in recent times. That is why the UDF, which has solid results to show for its five-year rule, will win the polls again.
It is said there is intense rivalry among the three senior-most Congress leaders—you, Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala and state party president V.M. Sudheeran.
That is a wrong assumption. We are united, and we have only one aim: to win this election. Differences of opinion do arise in a party that allows space for opinions.
Along with development, the UDF is banking on its liquor policy, under which bar hotels were closed down, to win votes. People credit Sudheeran for bringing the policy to pass.
That is a misunderstanding.
Sudheeran has a longstanding position on what liquor policy should be. But the liquor policy of the UDF was not a sudden decision taken on emotional grounds. When K. Karunakaran was chief minister, he appointed the Udayabhanu commission to shape a longterm liquor policy. Even before that commission came into being, there was another committee with me as the convener, formed to resolve an agitation led by [activist] M.P. Manmadhan demanding the closure of a toddy shop in Ernakulam district. After many sittings, the committee decided that the toddy shop must be shut down.
Then came the Udayabhanu commission, which submitted its report when the LDF was in power. The LDF did not act on the report, which proposed to ban hard spirits and promote low-alcohol drinks such as beer and wine. It was based on this report that [chief minister] A.K. Antony banned arrack. That was the first step. The next big step was taken by this government. It is the continuation of a policy that had its origins in the committee formed by Karunakaran.
The LDF was ambivalent about its own liquor policy, until CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said bar hotels would not be reopened. Do you consider it an endorsement for the government policy?
Left leaders in Kerala have an understanding with owners of bar hotels. They say their policy is to encourage ‘abstinence from alcohol’. How can abstinence be a government policy? Abstinence is a social call. Liquor policy, on the other hand, involves making decisions on the production, distribution and taxation of liquor. In Chavara [in Kollam district], the LDF has fielded a bar owner who quit the Congress protesting the liquor policy. Their actions and their talk raise suspicion [about their commitment to liquor-free Kerala]. That is why Yechury was forced to react. For the UDF, it is the first victory of the campaign season.
Left leaders say the Congress is conspiring with the BJP to defeat some of its candidates.
It proves that the CPI(M) has already conceded defeat. How can the Congress and the BJP join hands? The Congress is taking on the BJP at the Centre. It is the sole party that has no history of association with the BJP. In 1977, the CPI(M) joined hands with the Jana Sangh after it became the Janata Party. I was a UDF candidate in the 1977 assembly polls. The CPI(M) and the BJP together campaigned against me. In fact, they went to the polls together in the 20 Lok Sabha seats and 140 assembly seats in Kerala.
In last year’s Bihar elections, the left did not join the Grand Alliance of the Congress, the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Had the left been part of the alliance, the BJP would have lost at least 11 more seats, and its defeat would have been even more humiliating. By alleging that the Congress and the BJP are conspiring to defeat it in Kerala, the left is applying for anticipatory bail before the announcement of results.
In West Bengal, the Congress and the Left have joined hands.
We are confident that it will not have any impact on the election here. But the Kerala unit of the CPI(M) fears otherwise. That is why it opposed the tie-up.
What are the BJP’s chances of winning a seat?
The BJP cannot win the hearts of Malayalis. In Kerala, people and communities live in harmony. They love and trust each other. Any plan to sow the seeds of distrust would not find takers here. That is why there is a tradition in Kerala, of people overcoming political barriers and coming together to defeat the BJP every time they sense that there is a chance of that party winning an election.
The BJP and its ally, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, say the UDF government has been giving undue benefits to minority communities.
Anybody can say that against an alliance that has the Muslim League and the [Christian-dominated] Kerala Congress as constituents. I have only one thing to say in reply: Take a good look at the performance and report card of the government.