Chennithala: Opposition leader who fought relentlessly yet failed to be mass leader

Ramesh Chennithala brought to the fore a number of allegations against the LDF government including the Sprinklr case and the deep-sea fishing case.
Kerala Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala among a crowd who gathered during an Assembly election campaign
Kerala Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala among a crowd who gathered during an Assembly election campaign
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The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had not announced a CM candidate prior to the 2016 election. It was expected to be either the 92-year-old Communist veteran VS Achuthanandan who was earlier CM or the former CPI(M) secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. However, considering the advanced years of Achuthanandan, the CPI(M) opted for Pinarayi Vijayan, who had, by then, risen as a strong leader.

On the other side, Congress’s Ramesh Chennithala, assumed charge as Leader of Opposition. However, as the LDF came back to power after securing a spectacular victory, many believe that Ramesh Chennithala failed to rise as a mass leader, unlike VS Achuthanandan, despite his relentless work as Leader of Opposition.

VS, as he is called, had been the most popular face of Kerala politics when he was the Leader of Opposition from 2011 to 2016, just as he used to be when he was the CM from 2006 to 2011. As the Opposition Leader, VS often outweighed the image of then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy for the relentless fights the former fought. He undisputedly won the image of a crusader against corruption and environmental conservation, a voice the state keenly followed.

Ramesh Chennithala, too, put up a relentless fight against the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government — the Sprinklr case, the gold smuggling case and the deep-sea fishing case. The Pinarayi government was forced to withdraw or take action in several instances. He worked harder than his colleagues such as former CM Oommen Chandy and Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President (KPCC) president Mullappally Ramachandran. Ramesh Chennithala, though, could not outweigh the image of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, like VS.

TNM analysed how Ramesh Chennithala fared as the Leader of Opposition. 

A relentless Opposition Leader 

Ramesh Chennithala worked hard to shed light on the lapses of the government in certain issues. In fact, Chennithala is known for holding regular press meets to raise allegations against the government, unlike the previous opposition leaders. But his efforts started paying off in 2020 with the Sprinklr controversy. It was Chennithala who brought the LDF government’s data-sharing deal with the US-based Sprinklr company to the fore. Urging the government to cancel the deal, he alleged that the data collected from COVID-19 patients in the state were being shared with the company and stored in its server, which was a breach of people's right to privacy. 

Chennithala’s allegations snowballed into a controversy and paved the way for days-long debates in the state. The Kerala High Court then passed an order asking the government to anonymise the data. Later, although the Kerala government announced that it withdrew the Sprinklr deal, the Opposition Leader pursued the matter to make sure the deal was cancelled.

When the case of smuggling gold using diplomatic channels came to light, Ramesh Chennaithala kept the Pinarayi government on its toes as it involved some of the government officials as well.

In 2021, Chennithala shed light on the Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) between two government departments and the US-based multinational company, EMCC International, for deep-sea fishing in Kerala. Opposing foreign fishing trawlers, he alleged that the deals would affect the livelihood of the fishermen. The government, after days of debates, protests and denials, cancelled one of the MoUs with Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation Limited (KSIDC). 

Why Chennithala lacks popularity

 “Chennithala worked as one of the most outstanding opposition leaders the state had ever seen, in the last five years,” MG Radhakrishnan, the editor of Asianet News, wrote in an article titled, ‘Still, why is Chennithala's popularity so low?’ The article was published in line with its pre-poll surveys. Chennithala fared poorly in the two pre-poll surveys by Asianet News as well as by other Malayalam news channels.

In the survey, 41% of the participants wanted incumbent Pinarayi Vijayan as the next Chief Minister, while 27% wanted Oommen Chandy and 11% chose Health Minister KK Shailaja. Only 7% of the 11,000 participants from 50 constituencies favoured Chennithala as the CM, while 6% chose BJP state president K Surendran.

“There are two to three reasons for this, the most important being credibility. If a person who has never taken a strong stand against corruption, blames another person for engaging in corruption, how much would people trust him? People won’t be ready to accept it even if the corruption he is calling out is true,” Radhakrishnan wrote. He is referring to the solar scam that jolted the previous Oommen Chandy government.

When the multi-crore solar scam involving several Congress leaders, including Oommen Chandy, broke out, Ramesh Chennithala never took a stand against the matter. Chennithala, who was the Home Minister at the time, mostly resorted to silence.

Even after he took over the mantle of the Leader of Opposition, he remained silent when his party members were involved in a criminal case or made insensitive comments. For instance, Chennithala remained silent when his party colleague and KPCC President Mullappally Ramachandran called Health Minister KK Shailaja a ‘Nipah princess’.

Here is where Chennithala’s image as a leader is contradictory and why he could never rise to the image of a mass leader like VS Achuthanandan. VS used to be vocal even against his own colleagues in the CPI(M). He even doubled as an ‘opposition leader’ in the initial period of the Pinarayi Vijayan government, being critical of its several decisions.

No impact among masses 

As much as Chennaithala relentlessly attacked the LDF government — even when he didn’t get enough support from his own party — it equally failed to create an impact on the people, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when the government was dolling out welfare schemes such as free food kits.

“To tug at people’s heartstrings, you need a mesmerising personality and that is what Chennithala lacks. Combined with this, the senseless comments that he unknowingly makes at times, are counterproductive. Besides, many times, he raised allegations without proof, which attenuated his role as the Leader of Opposition, or his image as a leader who ought to be taken seriously. His statements are often discredited within minutes or hours by social media users,” Amala Anie John, the Assistant Executive Editor of ThouNewz, told TNM.

 “A popular leader does not raise destructive criticisms against the ruling government,” Lakshmi Priya, an assistant professor at the Institute of English Thiruvananthapuram, told TNM. “During the 2018 Kerala floods, he criticised the state government’s flood management measures, but failed to offer people the assurance that he was with them. This raised doubts about his intention and his capabilities as a leader. At a time when the state witnessed unprecedented calamities such as the consecutive floods and Cyclone Ockhi, the government needed the support of the opposition,” said Amala.

Like his party colleagues, Chennithala, too, has made a series of insensitive and derogatory remarks. In one instance, when asked about the rape charge against a man associated with the Congress, he asked if only DYFI people can molest. He also kicked up a row when he remarked that the BJP would be destroyed like the Yadava clan (in the Mahabharata).

Image as secular leader questioned 

Ramesh Chennithala’s integrity as a secular leader was questioned after the Supreme Court pronounced its verdict in the Sabarimala women’s entry issue. It was, in fact, the moment when the Congress party’s secular fabric was questioned. Chennithala is one of the Congress leaders who was vocal about the issue, opposing the Kerala government’s move to follow the court order. A section of people accused the Congress of acting on the same Hindutva political thinking as that of the BJP. Chennithala retrieved the Sabarimala narrative in the 2021 Assembly election too, promising to bring in legislation within 100 days if the UDF came to power.

In fact, reacting to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s allegation that the UDF was silent when Sabarimala devotees were being attacked by the Kerala police, Chennithala remarked that it was the UDF that stood by the devotees, and not the BJP.

Some even questioned his secular stand considering his proximity to the Nair Service Society, a community organisation that represents the dominant Nair caste in Kerala. Chennithala belongs to the community and is viewed as a leader who can consolidate the Nair votes for the Congress. For example, in the Nair-dominant Haripad constituency in Alappuzha, from where Chennithala contested the 2016 elections, he won 75,980 votes, which is 51.05% of the total votes polled. The BJP, on the other hand, got only 10,000 votes, which increased to 30,000 in the 2019 bye-polls.

Though Chennithala has earlier said that people from all faiths and communities would be protected, this did not go down well with those who believe that religion should be separated from faith.

“Chennithala has always been confused about the secular stand he should be taking. He has never been able to rise to the level of a leader who has a secular face,” noted Lakshmi Priya. This is the kind of ideological dilemma the Congress has been facing and Chennithala, in turn, couldn’t build an image as someone who can resist the BJP in Kerala, which has been aggressively defending the right-wing ideology, she added.

“A popular leader is not someone who criticises each and every policy of the ruling government, but who is equally proactive in his actions too. There were a lot of things Chennithala and other Congress leaders could have done during the time of floods, in terms of relief measures. People feel committed to those who help them in times of distress,” Shaji Varkey said.

Concurring with Amala’s point on the leadership struggles within the party, Shaji said, “In Congress, it’s tough for a leader to come back if he or she falls below the top level of leadership. I am not saying CPI(M) is not an individualistic party. In the ‘80s, Kerala consecutively witnessed ministerial instability where an elected government won’t complete the five-year term, although it changed in the ‘90s.”

Stressing why it is time for the opposition to revamp its political comportment, Shaji said, “There was a time when an opposition could take on a government solely by its failures. Things, however, have changed, especially when there are other political developments, like the potential emergence of the BJP in Kerala this election.” 

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