If there is anyone who could do a Kerala version of the legendary political sitcom 'Yes Minister', a British series that so hilariously depicted the politician bureaucrat symbiosis, it would be former bureaucrat D Babu Paul. No one has chronicled bureaucracy and its love-hate bond with Kerala politics with as much flair and wit as Babu Paul.
But unfortunately for those who would like a searing satire on elections in Kerala, Babu Paul held sway at a time when politics was a peaceful sedate affair. “At the most we had some minor silly scuffles related to graffiti on walls,” the 78-year-old former bureaucrat said, seated in his book-stacked study at his home in a leafy suburb of Thiruvananthapuram. He almost sounded bored by the topic.
Nonetheless, elections were momentous for him in another way. They introduced him to three stalwarts of Kerala politics: E M S Namboodirippad, Baby John and O Rajagopal. Babu Paul's administrative association with polls was brief, limited to his early years in the IAS, especially between 1970 and 1975 when he was district collector for first Palakkad and then Idukki.
During the 1970 Assembly polls, Babu Paul (as the Palakkad district election officer) had to deal with a complaint that seemed slightly more serious than the silly graffiti troubles that collectors normally had to contend with then. “Both the CPM and the Congress had opposed the election poster of Bharatiya Jana Sangh candidate O Rajagopal, and wanted strict action against the candidate. They said it appealed to religion and sought to create a sectarian divide,” Babu Paul said. The constituency in question was Palakkad, R Krishnan was the CPM candidate and A Chandran Nair was the Congress-backed Independent.
A quixotic Sanghi
For Babu Paul, the Jana Sangh candidate was an intriguing character. “Here was a man with a flourishing practice who, driven by some quixotic fervour, had shut down his office and had taken a plunge into politics with no hope whatsoever of making it anywhere,” Babu Paul said. He made it a point to ask the 40-year-old candidate what made him chuck a promising career and choose a path so uncertain.
“He told me then that he had got a call and had to obey. This had impressed me,” the former bureaucrat said. He also learned that Rajagopal was influenced by the writings of former Jana Sangh president and RSS thinker Deendayal Updhyaya.
Babu Paul does not remember what Rajagopal's poster said. “I went through it and found that it had a Hindu nationalist tone but was not as harmful as the CPM and the Congress were making it out to be,” he said. So he called all the three parties to his office for a final settlement. P Balan, the much revered Congress leader who was then the district Congress president, was the most vociferous. Babu Paul said Rajagopal was his usual calm self.
“I called Balan aside and asked him why he was making such a fuss. This man Rajagopal is already in the habit of forfeiting deposits and his party has no roots in the area. I asked Balan why he wanted to make an issue out of this and give a candidate with no hope of victory unnecessary importance,” Babu Paul said. The matter ended there.
Rajagopal came third as expected, but for a change he gave the two main parties a big scare. CPM's R Krishnan retained the seat with a margin of 5,460 votes but the difference between the Congress independent and Rajagopal was a mere 2,000 votes. Nearly three years ago in 1967, Rajagopal could win just 4,649 votes and had forfeited his deposit. “Our bond now spans nearly half a century. Even now, whenever he has the time, Rajagopal comes here to have a chat over tea,” Babu Paul said.
A humble colossus
It was during the same 1970 Assembly election that Babu Paul came face-to-face with E M S Namboodirippad for the first time. EMS was the CPM candidate in Pattambi, an Assembly constituency in Palakkad. “The counting of votes was on and I was making my booth visits. As I walked into one of the booths, the officials as usual stood up. EMS was also there with his agents. He too stood up along with the others,” Babu Paul said.
For Babu Paul, this was a lesson in humility. “The man was so humble. He was a former chief minister and a towering leader. I was just a 30-year-old officer. Even if he had not got up, no one would have noticed and no one would have found fault with it either,” he said. Babu Paul went up to EMS and greeted him with hands together like in a prayer. The great man returned the greeting. EMS defeated CPI's E P Gopalan by a margin of 3,432 votes.
Later in life, EMS became a “guru” to Babu Paul. “I used to send him some of my writings,” he said. They became so close that EMS had graced the wedding of Babu Paul's son even though by that time he had stopped attending the weddings of the sons and daughters of even close comrades.
A laid-back giant
Babu Paul came across RSP founder and former minister Baby John even earlier, when he was Kollam sub-collector. Again, it was in connection with Assembly polls. “One day N Sreekantan Nair (the legendary trade union leader and founder of Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) along with Baby John) walked into my office. The last day for filing nominations was very near. Sreekantan Nair said he came to pick up the nomination papers for Baby John from my office. Given Baby's character there is no way he could have done this, he told me,” Babu Paul said.
He assured Sreekantan Nair that Baby John had indeed picked up the papers the previous day. “What I did not tell him was that Baby John had come to my quarters very late asking for the papers. I had to walk to the office, open it, and hand over the papers to him,” Babu Paul said.
It was with Baby John that Babu Paul had a lasting professional partnership. “The man was a giant, least interested in petty things,” Babu Paul said.