In the lead-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the Pinarayi Vijayan led Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) government in Kerala has revived and refashioned a campaign tactic used in 2011 by Oommen Chandy, the late Congress leader and former Chief Minister. Chandy’s mass outreach programs or ‘Jana Sambarka Paripadi’ elevated him to the status of an icon of Kerala politics. On November 18, the Kerala CM launched his own campaign called ‘Nava Kerala Sadas’. While the similarities with Chandy’s idea are apparent, Vijayan’s mass contact programme takes a different approach.
More than a decade ago, Chandy initiated his pathbreaking mass outreach programme accompanied by a few ministers and local MLAs. Chandy reached districts, directly engaging with the public, attentively listening to grievances, and accepting written petitions. This endeavour, which elevated Chandy’s populist image, attracted thousands who gathered around him.
Chandy had already cultivated the image of an approachable leader because of the access he provided to citizens at his Puthupally residence. But the Jana Sambarka Paripadi marked a pivotal milestone in his political journey. Government data indicates that Chandy successfully addressed over 10 lakh complaints through the programme, earning him a United Nations award for public service in 2013.
Embarking on a thirty six-day journey across all districts in Kerala aboard a bus, the CM and his cabinet have been covering four constituencies each day. Vijayan’s Nava Kerala Sadas cannot be described purely as a mass outreach alone. He does accept grievances from the public but the schedule is also packed with other activities such as seminars, speeches, and cultural events. Chandy, on the other hand, would spend his entire time interacting with the people and spend hours on end, sometimes the entire day, at a single spot.
Nava Kerala Sadas operates through officers who register complaints, showcasing various government-designed programmes. Despite the differences, Nava Kerala Sadas has successfully mobilised the masses, drawing people to the venues to engage with the cabinet and address their concerns.
Each venue features addresses by the Chief Minister, insights from selected individuals, interactions with members of the public, seminars, cultural events, and the acceptance of public grievances.
Nava Kerala Sadas has witnessed an overwhelming response, with a significant number of petitions received from various constituencies. Kozhikode district alone contributed 45,897 petitions, while Wayanad registered 19,003 petitions. The trend continues in Kannur, with 28,630 complaints, and Kasaragod, which saw 14,232 grievances submitted.
To streamline the petition submission process, exclusive counters are set up at each venue. Here, people can submit their petitions, which are then registered by officers, assigning unique register numbers for tracking. For transparency and accessibility, updates on the status of these complaints are made available on the official website, https://www.navakeralasadas.kerala.gov.in.
Complainants can conveniently check the progress by entering their register number or mobile number. The system aims to ensure a timely resolution, ideally within 45 days.
The initiation of Nava Kerala Sadas has had its share of controversies, as critics have labelled it a fashionable and extravagant version of the earlier Jana Sambarka Paripadi. Since the announcement of the event, controversies have persisted throughout its 10-day duration.
The government's directive to Local Self Governments (LSGs) such as village, town, and city councils to raise funds for Nava Kerala Sadas stirred controversy. LSG Department additional chief secretary Sarada Muraleedharan issued an order permitting local bodies to utilise their own funds for the event.
Grama panchayats were allowed to spend up to Rs 50,000, municipalities and block panchayats up to Rs 1 lakh, corporations up to Rs 2 lakh, and district panchayats up to Rs 3 lakh. While LSGs under CPI(M) rule provided funds, opposition-led Congress ones resisted. Opposition leader VD Satheesan accused Pinarayi Vijayan of violating the Kerala Municipal Act, 1994, alleging the misuse of LSGD funds for LDF's publicity. Many United Democratic Front and BJP-led LSGDs did not cooperate with the event.
The controversy extended to the choice of transportation, with Chief Minister and Ministers opting for a Kerala State Road Transport Corporation's special Mercedes Benz luxury coach, reportedly costing Rs 1.05 crore. Critics argued that such extravagant expenses were unnecessary and imposed an undue burden on the state's finances. Transport Minister Antony Raju defended the decision, citing cost reduction and public convenience, with plans to repurpose the bus for budget tourism afterward.
Media reports contradicted the government's claims, revealing alleged luxury features, including a hydraulic lift inside the luxury bus and a kitchen. This prompted a dispute between the government and the media.
Opposition leader VD Satheesan claimed that the government coerced participation, leading to overcrowded events. Allegations extended to pressure on Kudumbasree members and government officers to participate.
Violence erupted when Youth Congress workers were assaulted by DYFI workers on the second day, prompting protests. The Youth Congress workers waved black flags at the Chief Minister and tried to block the vehicle travelled by ministers. The attack on protesters was widely criticised, but the CM denied it was an assault.
Another controversy arose when an Education Department official in Malappuram allegedly directed headmasters to ensure student attendance at public meetings, a directive denied by the Education Department. The High Court intervened, emphasising that students should not be used for non-educational purposes.