When Narendra Modi touched down at the naval airbase in Kochi on December 14, for his first visit to Kerala after becoming the prime minister, it was natural to expect the limelight to be solely on him. The BJP, on a high after an impressive performance in the recent local body elections, was hoping for a major political boost from the visit. In the end, however, the man who benefited the most from the PM's visit was Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.
Parties on both sides of Kerala's bitter left-right political divide closed ranks in supporting Chandy after he was asked to keep away from a function held on December 15 in Kollam to unveil the statue of R. Shankar, Congress leader and former chief minister. Shankar was also a tall leader of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), an organisation of the numerically strong Ezhava community. The decision was conveyed to the chief minister by Vellappally Natesan, the general secretary of the SNDP. Natesan had initially requested Chandy to preside over the function and sought his help in inviting the prime minister. A few days before the function, however, Natesan called up Chandy and asked him to skip the ceremony. Within hours of the phone call, the chief minister's office issued a press statement that Chandy would stay away, on Natesan's request.
Chandy soon saw his political rivals, including opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan rallying behind him, terming Natesan's move an insult to the state. “Vellappally is trying to install an RSS Shankar,” said Achuthanandan, alleging that the sangh parivar was behind Natesan's flipflop.
Natesan said his decision was based on an intelligence report that Chandy's presence at the venue could result in a law and order problem since many SNDP members were angry with him after the police registered a case against Natesan for his controversial remarks during a march he undertook across Kerala from November 23 to December 5, ahead of the launch of his political party, the Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena. After the government announced Rs.10 lakh as compensation for the next of kin of P. Naushad, an autorickshaw driver, who lost his life while trying to save two people from a manhole in Kozhikode, Natesan said the move smacked of communal bias. Following widespread protests against his comments, a case under IPC section 153(a) was registered against Natesan. There are also allegations about financial irregularities in the micro-finance scheme run by the SNDP.
In protest against the snub to Chandy, the Congress organised a prayer meeting in front of Shankar's statue in Thiruvananthapuram, while Modi unveiled the statue in Kollam.
Adding a communal twist to the controversy, apart from Chandy, A.A. Aziz, the MLA representing Eravipuram near Kollam, was also kept out of the function, while local MP M.K. Premachandran, MLA P.K. Gurudasan and mayor V. Rajendrababu were invited. All of them stayed away in protest. Shankar's son, Mohan Shankar, who is a member of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, too, stayed away and instead went to the prayer meeting organised by the Congress. Mohan told THE WEEK that he was hurt by a story which appeared in Janmabhoomi, the BJP mouthpiece in Malayalam, claiming that his father was an RSS activist. “The sangh parivar is trying to saffronise and appropriate our icons. After Vallabhbhai Patel, now it is the turn of my father. My father had no truck with the RSS, and my family and I will stridently oppose any such move,” he said. Mohan, however, was associated with the sangh parivar in the past, as he was a BJP candidate in the 2006 assembly elections.
The issue rocked both houses of Parliament, with MPs from the state demanding an explanation from the prime minister's office. Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the PMO was not responsible for Chandy's omission and that the state government had written to the PMO about his absence. In an interview with THE WEEK, Chandy said the letter was sent upon the insistence of the PMO. He also said Natesan was not to be blamed for the fiasco. Natesan, meanwhile, declined to react to Chandy's comments, but blamed state Congress president V.M. Sudheeran and Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala for what he called was a witch-hunt against him.
The central leadership of the Congress has come out in Chandy's support. Party vice president Rahul Gandhi said the chief minister represented the voice of the people of Kerala and the prime minister had insulted that voice. “This is simply not acceptable,” said Rahul.
Although Chandy said the needle of suspicion behind who really kept him out pointed towards the BJP, the party had denied any role. V. Muraleedharan, state president of the BJP, said there was no need for Chandy to attend the function.
The Christmas season is proving to be one of joy for the beleaguered Chandy. Reeling from a series of setbacks, from the below par performance in the local body elections, the bar bribe scandal which led to the resignation of finance minister K.M. Mani, the solar scandal, a tussle with the top brass of the state police and the bitter faction feud within the Congress, Chandy was going through a major political crisis. The failure of Biju Radhakrishnan, a prime accused in the solar scam, to produce a CD, which he said he would expose, boosted Chandy's image and created an element of sympathy and support for him. And, there followed the major political victory of outmanoeuvring Natesan and the BJP. In one stroke, he got his sworn enemies in the opposition and the rivals within his own party to rally behind him and succeeded in recreating a largely positive image among the general public.
The controversy has been a bitter learning experience for Natesan, who formally entered the political fray in Kerala with the blessings of the sangh parivar. Although Natesan denies any truck with the BJP, the statue unveiling controversy has made it clear that he is counting on its support. And Modi seems to be obliging him. While addressing BJP workers in Thrissur on December 14, the prime minister forcefully pushed for a third front in Kerala, linking it with the teachings of SNDP founder Sree Narayana Guru, dropping enough hints about a possible alliance with the BDJS.
The snub to Chandy was, however, something the BJP and Natesan could well have avoided. It brought the perennial rivals, the left and the Congress, together and Modi's visit to Kerala was overshadowed by the controversy. Chandy proved to be a craftier strategist, and the BJP and Natesan seem to have a long way to go in matching his moves.