Minister Thomas Chandy’s resignation put an end to an unprecedented stand-off in Kerala politics. But the mumblings and rumblings over the quitting are far from over. In fact, the CPM and the CPI have been at daggers drawn since then. CPI cornering the credit for forcing the issue of Chandy’s resignation – by boycotting a cabinet meeting – has not gone down well with the ‘big brother’.
The Thomas Chandy episode also demonstrated the depths to which present-day politicians in the state have deviated from the gold standards of a previous era where politicians would readily resign in the wake of allegations and come back after getting their names cleared. The politicians in the state have always prided themselves on leading by example, going back to the days of EMS Namboothirippad.
Times have changed. Politics has evolved with society and has come to reflect the values of the era they operate in. If politicians from an earlier era were generally regarded to be far ahead of the lowest common denominator in the society, further democratisation has afforded almost everyone with a chance to catapult themselves into the echelons of power, provided they play their cards well.
Thomas Chandy’s case is quite unique in the state, as being a rich businessman is still considered a handicap to win elections in Kerala. Politicians who lead a frugal existence, like his former cabinet colleague Ramachandran Kadannappally, are still more sought after than moneybags with no political moorings.
It was a curious set of circumstances, which also involved the Left parties, that led to the creation of bourgeoisie like Chandy in the Kuttanad region.
‘Kayal Raja’ Muricken
When Travancore was facing a food crisis in the 1930s, an enterprising farmer Murikkummoottil Thommen Joseph (or ‘Kayal Raja’ Muricken as he was known later) sought and received operational permission from the Travancore Maharaja to reclaim the shallow fertile lake bed at the conjugation of rivers into paddy fields. Like the Dykes of Netherlands, Muricken proceeded to build dykes or bunds in these marshy lake (kayal) beds and emptied the water within them to make them fit for paddy cultivation. He oversaw the creation of three massive enclosures of cultivable lake beds totalling more than 2,000 acres and named them Chithira, Rani and Marthandam – after the members of the Travancore palace.
Post the land reforms enacted by the Communist party becoming a law in 1970, the CPI-Congress alliance government under C Achutha Menon took over the paddy blocks from Muricken and the government directly oversaw farming from 1972-75. In 1975, the government distributed 1,600 acres of this land to 1,580 farmers. But soon, the fragmentation and sale of individual plots led to the unravelling of this ingenious undertaking.
As two of the blocks – Chithira and Rani – became fallow in the mid-nineties and in the wake of urbanisation and construction of roads, the land usage pattern saw massive changes, and levelling them for housing and other purposes became common.
In came businessmen like Chandy, who would go on to purchase vast number of plots in benami names to convert them into resorts and other opportunities.
With people waking up to the effects of global warming and damage to the ecosystem, the Left government of VS Achuthanandan did some damage control by enacting the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act in 2008. But even to this day, no data bank for land has been drawn up for the state to effectively implement it.
Politics of immorality
Coming back to political leaders and their moral compass, leaders like AK Antony have time and again demonstrated the knack of resigning at the right moment, only to come back stronger. K Karunakaran’s resignation within days of taking charge as Chief Minister for the first time in 1977 was merely for an adverse remark in the infamous Rajan case judgement by J Subramanian Potti.
AK Antony, who replaced him, chose to resign himself when the Congress leadership chose to tactically back Indira Gandhi in the Chikmagalur byelections against the Janata Party (Indira Gandhi split the Congress party to float Congress (I) on 1 January 1978 in the interim). PK Vasudevan Nair, who replaced AK Antony as the Chief Minister in the Congress-CPI alliance government, resigned in the wake of a renewed call for Left unity and readily gave up his chair.
Old timers recall how PKV took a state transport bus upon resignation as CM to his native place Perumbavoor. This simplicity can be juxtaposed with Thomas Chandy’s brazen act of travelling in his official car even after tendering his resignation.
Oommen Chandy’s ‘conscience’
It was Oommen Chandy’s tenure as Chief Minister in his last term that saw many political conventions going for a toss. Since Chandy merely had a majority of two in the assembly, it became tough for him to not yield to his coalition partners’ demands. KM Mani’s resignation in the wake of the Bar bribery scandal had to be literally snatched away from him.
Oommen Chandy’s conduct post the Solar scam wasn’t above board too as he justified his non-resignation with the ‘conscience argument’. An argument he would resort to many times in the days ahead. Chandy’s conduct during his first term (2004-2006), when he replaced AK Antony, was markedly different as he got senior Congress leaders KP Viswanathan and KK Ramachandran to resign swiftly in the wake of allegations and court observations. Chandy had also dropped Kerala Congress leaders TM Jacob and R Balakrishna Pilla from the Cabinet, ostensibly on account of corruption allegations against them, when he took over from Antony.
But Chandy had a different set of rules for himself and his colleagues in his second term. When the Vigilance court ordered the registration of an FIR against Excise Minister K Babu, Chandy kept Babu’s resignation pending till the High Court stayed it.
Pinarayi Vijayan is emulating the brazenness of the previous regime and his image as a strong Chief Minister took a beating with his indecisiveness and lack of will to secure Thomas Chandy’s resignation in time. A Communist Chief Minister trying to shield a millionaire cabinet colleague hasn’t gone down well with many comrades who still swear by the values of old school Communists.
Is this going to be the new normal in Kerala politics? Or was this an aberration? Only time will tell.