Chief Minister Oommen Chandy never skips his weekly visits to his Puthupally constituency in Kottayam district. Hundreds throng his Karottu Vallakkalil house on Sundays, hoping to catch their MLA and find solutions to their many problems. The day starts early here.
On April 3, a Sunday, not many expected him to make it to Puthupally. Chandy had been camping in Delhi since March 28 to finalise the list of Congress candidates for the assembly elections in May. The talks were getting nowhere, with Chandy and state Congress president V.M. Sudheeran differing over the renomination of five MLAs, three of them ministers. On March 30, Chandy, who has seldom stayed away from Kerala for more than a couple of days at a stretch, decided to go home to Puthupally. He got on a flight, but when it was inordinately delayed because of technical reasons, he decided to stay back, and got sucked into a vortex of endless meetings.
Chandy is a man known for quick decision-making. “He believes in making decisions fast, and will stand by his people until he himself is convinced that they are in the wrong,” said a senior Congress leader who has known him for years. “Also, if he has made a mistake, he will be the first to admit it.”
Sudheeran wanted the five men out—Excise Minister K. Babu (Tripunithura, in Ernakulam), Culture Minister K.C. Joseph (Irikkur, in Kannur), Revenue Minister Adoor Prakash (Konni, in Pathanamthitta), MLAs Benny Behanan and Dominic Presentation (Thrikkakara and Kochi, in Ernakulam, respectively). Having contested many times, Joseph and Presentation should make way for youngsters, Sudheeran argued. Babu, he said, had the bar bribery taint, while he saw Prakash as the person responsible for the controversial land deals the government cleared at the last minute. The least sinned of the lot was Behanan, who allegedly had talked to the solar scam accused Saritha Nair to stop her from naming Congress leaders who had relationships with her. Chandy reasoned that going by Sudheeran's yardstick, Chandy's should be the first name to be dropped from the list.
Sudheeran stood the moral high ground and wanted a strong message to be sent to the electorate ahead of the polls. Chandy, practical and sensible, argued that it was the wrong way to approach elections. “Moral posturing alone will not help win elections,” said a Congress leader. “You have to take the ground realities into account, be practical and back the winning horses.” Chandy said if Babu and Prakash were to be held responsible for government actions, he had more responsibility than them. He had contested and won more elections than Joseph and Presentation. And Saritha had dragged his name into the solar controversy much before Behanan burnt his fingers. He laid his cards before the high command, which continued to dither.
By April 2, Chandy had enough: he reportedly told those concerned that if the five were to be denied tickets, he would rather not contest. “Let Sudheeran and others contest,” he is reported to have said. “I will campaign for all of them.” With that he left for Kerala.
And the party high command, weakened by the massive 2014 Lok Sabha poll defeat across India (Kerala elected 8 of 44 Congress MPs) and the loss of two state governments to dissident trouble, could not afford to see the party's lone mass leader stay away from the elections. Meanwhile, its biggest ally in Kerala, the Indian Union Muslim League, reaffirmed Chandy's leadership. “Chandy has always had very good equations with the allies,” said the Congress leader. “After [former chief minister] Karunakaran, he is the only leader they trust, the only one who can carry them along.”
THE DAY AFTER Chandy left, the signals from the high command indicated that they had decided to go with Chandy's argument. Will Sudheeran take it lying down, was the big question. The KPCC president himself killed it when he said: “This is not a football match to decide who won and who lost. I will go with the high command's decision, whatever it be.”
On April 4 morning, news spread that four of the five men had been cleared but Behanan was likely to miss the bus. Congress leaders close to him got local leaders to sign a last-minute memorandum to the high command. When that did not draw a favourable response, Behanan announced that he was withdrawing his candidature. In Thrikkakara, Congress workers got around to welcome P.T. Thomas, former MP, who was tipped to be nominated. By evening, the candidates' list was out, and all those who were in heaved a sigh of relief.
But there was no one around to explain why Behanan, a first-time MLA who had done good work in his constituency and was expected to retain, lost it. Sudheeran's camp might consider it victory, but it left a bad taste in the mouth.
The only true winner in the week-long joust was Chandy, who emerged with his reputation, as the tallest UDF leader, intact. His staunch defence of his colleagues, and the indispensable tag, are likely to earn him more followers within his own group and his party. Behanan's loss will also be to his advantage, as it shifts the responsibility of the party's performance in the polls partly on to the high command's shoulders.
The drama highlighted the high command's incapability to assess the ground situation correctly and address issues in time. A case in point was a 'letter' T.N. Prathapan, MLA, purportedly wrote to Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi requesting that he be considered for the Kaipamangalam seat in Thrissur district. Prathapan had earlier written to Sudheeran that he would like to keep away from this election to give opportunity to younger leaders. Though Mukul Wasnik, Congress general secretary in charge of Kerala affairs, later denied the existence of such a letter, the damage had been done. Also, the party's screening committee had to meet at least thrice without achieving any result. The list could be finalised only after several interventions from the high command. “Much of the issues should have been sorted out in the party's state election committee,” said a Congress leader. “At the centre, normally only the merits of each candidate are argued and discussed. This time round, the demerits hogged the maximum space.”
As they say, all is well that ends well. On April 3, Chandy just about made it to his constituency. “I am happy that I could make my routine weekly visit to Puthupally,” he wrote in his Facebook page. The post was accompanied by pictures showing him amid people, where he looked most comfortable.