In an interview with TNM, new Kerala Opposition leader VD Satheesan talked about what led to the party’s defeat in the polls, why Congress leaders should have clarity about secularism and more.

Opposition Leader VD SatheesanVD Satheesan / FB
news Politics Thursday, May 27, 2021 - 18:55

Clad in the usual attire of politicians, white mundu and white shirt, VD Satheesan seems calm and confident. The dynamic 56-year-old has been elected by the Congress as the Opposition leader in Kerala, replacing senior leader Ramesh Chennithala. Some term it a generational change in the party in the state. The Congress has two factions – the I group earlier led by the late K Karunakaran and now by Chennithala, and the A group which was led by AK Antony in the past and later by Oommen Chandy.

Satheesan, MLA from Paravur in Ernakulam for the fifth consecutive term, was chosen as the Opposition leader on May 22, post the Congress’ poll debacle in the Assembly elections. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) won only 41 out of the total 140 seats while the CPI(M) led Left Democratic Front (LDF) retained power with a comfortable majority of 99 seats. The Congress seat share in the Assembly is 21 seats.

In an interview with TNM, Satheesan talks about what led to the party’s defeat in the polls, why factionalism shouldn’t be above the party, why Congress leaders should have clarity about secularism and more.

You are the one of the few leaders in the Congress party who opposes communalism with clarity and assertiveness.

The opposition also has certain duties, similar to the government. Congress has an ideological base, of which secularism is the most crucial component. Our priority is to eliminate the communal elements in Kerala. We will fight against both majority and minority communalism. There is a connection between people who endorse both, though they appear to be enemies from the outside. They are enemies who feed each other.

Sangh Parivar is trying to penetrate Kerala in an alarming way. They started a big campaign in the state 10 years ago claiming that the money received for temples is used by the government while money received for mosques and churches is handled by themselves. This caused confusion among Hindu believers who thought their money was being taken by the government. So I did some research, collecting information from all those concerned. I reached the conclusion that no government in Kerala – UDF or LDF – had taken a single paisa from temples, but in fact provided grants to them. I presented this information in the Assembly when the Oommen Chandy government was in power. This earned me a lot of hostility from the Sangh Parivar. Both majority and minority forces joined together to try to defeat me in the elections, but I won with one of the highest margins in the 2016 elections.

But the other Congress leaders in the state don’t speak with clarity about secularism. With regard to women’s entry into Sabarimala temple, they actually spoke along the same lines as the BJP.

How far a state can intervene in religious matters is a debatable question. The way the state government handled the issue was wrong. Such sensitive issues should be handled tactfully. Governance is different. The government took a decision hurriedly (by implementing the Supreme Court verdict of 2018 allowing women of all ages to worship in Sabarimala). This in turn helped the communal forces (to propagate their agenda). Congress, on the other hand, decided to make it a political issue. If we hadn’t taken that stand, BJP would have exploited the issue by communalising it.

But even then, there were Congress leaders who couldn’t differentiate their stand from that of the BJP?

Yes, that I agree. Some Congress MLAs drafted a legislation which the UDF hadn’t approved. The draft was draconian, one which a progressive state like Kerala wouldn’t support. But it all started with the then Devaswom Minister, Kadakampally Surendran, apologising for everything that happened in Sabarimala. By tendering an apology, he admitted that what was done was wrong. Following this, Oommen Chandy said we would correct that wrong.

But the draft confused secular people even more?

I agree. The Congress campaign didn’t go the way it was intended, we lacked clarity. Sabarimala was not there in the campaign list; in between all this happened (Kadakampally’s apology and the draft bill).

Is it a generational change in the Congress? But it took days to reach a consensus on who will be the Opposition leader?

I don’t agree that there was a delay. The Opposition leader was announced 48 hours after the Chief Minister was sworn in. Also, I won’t call it a generation change in the Congress, I would rather call it a change. What happened in Congress was not a dispute over whether Satheesan or Chennithala was needed, but whether a change was needed. In a democratic party, such internal discussions should be promoted.

What went wrong for the party in the elections?

It was foremost an organisational failure. Secondly, preparations for the elections were weak. I’ve been winning from my constituency for the past five times consecutively, increasing the margin every time. I managed to win because of my organisational network and the homework done. But the party, in general, lacked the organisational network. And these days, electioneering has changed, we need professionalism in our preparedness and campaign too. The candidates are products just like soap or detergent. We have to brand ourselves as a party, if we don’t rival fronts will make use of it. On the other hand, the CPI(M) prepared well and had the organisational strength.

Did lack of funds affect Congress’s campaign?

I don’t think so. There was no professionalism. And the mode of communication has changed in the last two decades. You need to have good body language and communication skills, because you’re rated on how you present yourself on TV and how you interact on social media.

Will there be a change in the top order of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC)?

There is a process. There are leaders assigned by the party to decide on that. PC Chacko, a former senior leader, quit citing that the party was under the grip of factionalism. Even I was part of the factionalism. But factions should be never stronger than the party itself, there shouldn’t be an excess of factionalism. I think everyone is now aware of this. And the change (in the Opposition leader post) happened because of that too. Even those who were part of groups now believe that it shouldn’t affect the functioning of the party.


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