As he completes his 50th consecutive year as a legislator in Kerala Assembly, Congress veteran Oommen Chandy says he is absolutely satisfied with everything his party and the people have given him.
In a chat with Onmanorama ahead of the celebrations planned by his party in the golden jubilee year, Oommen Chandy opens up about his special bond with Puthuppally constituency, recollects his election experiences and exudes confidence about the UDF’s chances in the next assembly polls.
He also rates the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Kerala government’s COVID containment measures and answers the crucial question – on whether he wishes to have another term as chief minister?
You have been representing Puthupally for the last 50 years. It means the people have complete faith in you. Puthupally constituency has now become synonymous with Oommen Chandy. How did you make it possible?
I became a candidate in Puthuppally in 1970. The party was then split into INC (Organization) and the Indira faction. The entire party drifted to the INC (O) and there was almost no one on the other side. Among the 21 committee members, only three had stayed with Indira Gandhi. Kottayam had 11 electoral seats then. Rated on the probability of winning, Puthupally held the last spot. So, when ally RSP asked for a seat in Kottayam, the party offered them Puthupally that had the least chance of winning. I, however, didn’t have the courage to tell the leaders to not give up the seat. So, I decided not to contest in that election.
It was then that RSP leader Sreekandan Nair told M N Govindan Nair that they didn’t have the right candidate for Puthupally. Instead, they asked for the nearby Akalakunnam seat. M N Govindan knew that AK Antony and Vayalar Ravi wished I should contest from Puthupally. He called them to the BTH and informed them about RSP’s decision. That is how I came into the electoral politics. I didn’t know anything about election or politics then, had no followers and the party too didn’t have an election committee. It was the people who actually conducted that election.
Weren’t you below 30 then?
I was just past 26 then. There were students and some Youth Congress workers with us. But that wasn’t enough to form a proper election agenda or help with the campaigning. People understood this and they formed committees in the five panchayats. They bore the expenses and took charge of everything. So, my first election belonged to the people. It formed a special bond between me and the people of this constituency. The party had become a significant factor in the elections that followed. By the time of the next election, the party had come back with renewed strength. But the cooperation, love and support that I experienced from the people during my first election had really touched my heart. It even brought a change in how I perceive politics. I share unique bonds with every home in Puthupullay. All the members in those families may have voted for me; in case they are in the opposite group, at least one member would have voted for me. Or the kids there may have shouted slogans for me. The close ties with these families have even influenced my character. It motivated me to not oppose anyone or take extreme actions that could upset them.
Even your opposing candidates say that you know everyone in the constituency by their names. How true is that or is it just an exaggerated statement?
There isn’t a single home in my constituency where I haven’t visited at least once. My relationship with the constituency is beyond political reasons. It must be there for my own mental satisfaction. It genuinely bothers me in case I am not at place, if a death happens in a family or when they need me. This close bond with the constituency is the reason why I don’t really like leaving Kerala.
Did you or the party ever contemplate fielding you from a different constituency at least on an experimental basis?
No. It has never happened.
We all know that the district Congress committee has planned a grand event, on September 17, to celebrate your golden jubilee. It would have been a mega political event had it not been for the COVID pandemic. Some media even project it as Oommen Chandy’s grand announcement for next year’s assembly elections.
There is no base for any such things. I haven’t even decided whether I should contest in the next election as I am someone who had lots of opportunities. My party has given me more than what I deserve. Most importantly, the people gave me their love. I am satisfied with my life and activities as a public figure and also with the opportunities that I have had. So, I do not think too much about the future. I tried to dissuade my colleagues at Kottayam from conducting the event. But they contacted the KPCC president and the opposition leader. They assured me that all the Covid-19 protocols would be followed and that I should allow it. Otherwise, my personal opinion was to postpone such an event considering the present times.
What do you think are the UDF's chances in the forthcoming elections?
UDF is very confident about the elections. Though the Congress had faced a setback in the parliamentary elections nationally, we had a huge win in Kerala. When the current government was in opposition, they had accused the UDF government of many things. However, they have not been able to take any actions. A cabinet sub-committee was formed under minister AK Balan to check corruption (during the UDF government). It’s been two years since the committee was formed, but they haven’t been able to find any corruption or file a case. Even though vigilance cases were filed against a few ministers, no action has been taken until now. In the last election, they have actually conned the people by saying that we were corrupt. Now, the people are repenting that they had fallen for such dishonest campaigns. So, UDF will definitely have a grand success in next year’s election. The chief minister had tried to trivialize the problems raised by the leader of the opposition Ramesh Chennithala. He tried to ignore the opposition leader by not addressing those problems. Now, people have realized that there is truth in what the opposition leader had been saying.
Most importantly, the people of Kerala wish for a peaceful life. What have they done now? The government has approached the Supreme Court against the CBI investigation in the Periya twin murder case. They spent Rs 88 lakh to bring in high profile lawyers from Delhi to obtain a stay for the High Court single bench’s order. Usually, the government is the plaintiff in a murder case. Here, the government acts by forgetting their constitutional responsibilities. This wouldn’t be accepted by anyone who desires a peaceful atmosphere. Why does the CPM try to save the murderers? Let them do well for the people and allow the opposition to point out their mistakes. That is how a political party should perform. However, the Marxist party’s style is of violence and repression. So, there is no doubt that people would favour UDF in the next election.
Just because you have mentioned political violence allow me to ask this. Congress members are the accused in a recent murder. Can you blame just a single party for such violence?
Violence and murder are heinous crimes, no matter who does that. Congress has got nothing to do with the murders at Venjaramoodu. The investigation is progressing. Those murders were an aftermath of the vendetta between two groups. The details of it will be out in the investigation. In case a Congress worker is involved in it, we will not protect the culprits. But, will the Marxist party take the same stance? Why would they spend hefty amounts from the state treasury to save the murderers of Kripesh and Sharath Lal (in Periya of Kasaragod)? So, the Congress and the Marxists are on opposite sides when it comes to the approach towards political violence.
Three factors have been pointed out as the reasons for the UDF's sweep in the LS polls. Kerala’s desire to see another UPA government at the center, the ‘Rahul Gandhi effect’ and the Sabarimala controversy. But these three factors are absent now.
People believe that they have been tricked in the last election. Other than having a UPA government at the Centre, the other two factors are still valid. It was the Achutanandan government which filed the affidavit that wounded the sentiments of the Sabarimala devotees. However, it was revoked by the UDF government that followed. I believe that we should protect the interests of the devotees. The Supreme Court too has taken a stance similar to the one taken by UDF. The LDF does not stand for the people but for the party and its ideals.
Do you think there is still a Rahul Gandhi effect in Kerala?
Rahul Gandhi should return as the president of the party as soon as possible. There is no leadership crisis in the Congress party. Everyone wishes for Rahul Gandhi’s return. Rahul Gandhi is the most apt leader to lead Congress in the present political context in India and to unite everyone irrespective of their language, race or culture.
In the Parliament election Rahul Gandhi was a candidate in Wayanad and was expected to be the PM in case the UPA comes to power. However, that is not the situation when it comes to assembly elections.
Rahul Gandhi has become a part of Kerala -- he is an MP from Kerala. It is his responsibility to work for the state. Bihar will soon go to the polls followed by Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam. It would then be followed by Gujarat. So, we would proceed with an action plan aimed for the parliamentary elections in 2024. The Congress and the UPA will put up a strong fight to defeat BJP in these states.
It was a master stroke to field Rahul Gandhi as a candidate in Wayanad. Now, some people joke whether he would be projected as Kerala’s Chief Minister as well.
Rahul Gandhi is a leader of India. There is no point in discussing him coming to the leadership of a state. But, this is the time when a leader like him has become imperative. That is why people express concern when he is taking time to take back his position as president. Everyone wants him to take up the reins and lead. The AICC meeting hasn’t been convened yet due to the Covid 19 pandemic. However, a decision would be taken regarding this as soon as possible.
As a former chief minister, how do you rate Kerala government’s response to the Covid 19 pandemic?
I think it is not right to raise severe criticisms against the health department especially at a time when COVID- 19 pandemic is at its peak. It is important to work together to ensure the health and well being of the people. However, the government could have done some things better. Everywhere else in the world, health workers are being treated with respect. But, here in Kerala, money is being forced out of their hands. Health workers, police and a few other departments involved in disaster management deserve credit for their amazing work during the times of the pandemic. No matter how bad the financial situation is, it is not right to take money from the people who work hard. Actions like this would only dishearten them.
The global community has accepted the fact that the pandemic cannot be controlled through total lockdown alone. People cannot work or earn their living. I wouldn’t blame the state government for that. However, the central government could have taken more practical measures.
My personal opinion is that the government should have brought back Indians from other countries way before the pandemic began spreading with such intensity. Safe evacuation of people from abroad or movement of citizens within the country should have been done immediately after the first phase of the lockdown. I think there had been a delay in that.
Besides, the government could have been more efficient in arranging treatment facilities or quarantine facilities for people.
Despite all these criticisms, don’t you think the government deserves credit for controlling the death rate as compared to other states?
Yes, definitely. However, did it happen only because of what is done now? It has been possible because of the tremendous progress that we have achieved in all these years. It is commendable that we could lower the death rate. But, we must discuss the matter with experts in this field to understand whether it has been possible only because of what is done now.
You are usually calmer even when you are severely criticized or attacked. Recently, when the gold smuggling controversy came out, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan challenged the media asking whether they were comparing his office with your tenure and what happened during then. However, you didn’t react to those comments despite it being a personal attack.
Let the people decide. I had welcomed any investigation when allegations were raised against me. Now, the power is with those who had raised the allegations. All the files are with them. However, they have not been able to prove anything. They alleged that our government created the solar project worth Rs 10,000 crore to help someone. They could have revealed those files when they came to power. I am confident that I have done no wrong. I believe that I will be punished if I had done even the smallest crime. My words gain credibility as people observe the activities of this government. Meanwhile, the government loses its credibility as they are not able to perform as they had promised to the people.
You have often said that you took decisions swiftly and hence there were chances for it to go wrong. However, you preferred moving forward by correcting those mistakes. Do you think the data controversy related to Sprinkler was the result of a swift decision that didn’t go as expected, especially during the pandemic times?
Why does he refuse to withdraw it even after realizing that it was a mistake? As far as I am concerned, I try to do only what I believe is right. If I do 100 things, at least 10 among them are likely to go wrong. So, I had asked the bureaucrats to point out the mistakes to me or they had the freedom to note them on the files. I could then rectify the mistakes. If I think that I will do something only after studying it in detail, then you may not be able to get things done. But, I was particular about getting 90 things right even if the remaining 10 go wrong. I have no ego regarding the ones that didn’t work. A leader shouldn’t have a sense of false prestige. He should be ready to clarify things to the people.
Is the term ‘false prestige’ aimed at the current Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan?
Never, it is just my way of working in the public domain. I wasn’t aiming at anyone when I said that. I am always open with the people.
Though you mentioned that there isn’t a leadership crisis in the party, those who observe politics closely may think that there is actually a crisis. What do you think are reasons for the party’s poor performance? How can it overcome all these challenges?
For political parties, there may be good times and bad times too. It is true that things aren’t looking brighter for Congress right now. However, I am sure that the party would survive it. Indira Gandhi’s defeat in 1977 was quite harsh. However, the Congress made a comeback within just three years. Things were surely different during those times. Despite the defeat, the party was strong in South India. So, even though Congress failed miserably in other states, its organizational stability had been amazing. There is absolutely no doubt that the Congress would make a strong comeback. Congress is the only party that can lead India on a true democratic path.
What is our financial situation now? Our relationship with neighbours has deteriorated. Why have our once friendly neighbours joined sides with our enemies? It’s all talk and no action.
2024 would definitely be the time when people realize that only the Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, can bring back India’s lost glory.
But, a strong organizational setup that could actually lead to that aim cannot be seen in many states.
I can understand when you say that there are problems in the organizational setup. But Congress will get through all these and move forward. It would become the people’s need for the Congress party to comeback.
Political analysts propose self introspection and planning a strategy as the solutions to overcome the present crises. The 23 members who have signed a letter asking for a full time, visible leadership have only made a democratic demand. But the news that has been coming out suggests that these members have been targetted.
That is not true at all. All of them, including Gulam Nabi Azad and Mukul Vasnik are in the Congress Working Committee. I don’t see it as an action against the leadership. However, the letter shouldn’t have been leaked. None of them have questioned Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. Instead, they have just expressed their concern about why Rahul Gandhi is taking so much time to take back the position.
In a democracy, every party has their own good times and bad times. In case of an autocratic or military rule, they have significance as long as they have power. Meanwhile, in a democracy, elections determine the fate of a party.
Do you agree to the content of the letter that was signed by 23 leaders including Shashi Tharoor?
In a democratic party, anyone can express their opinion or dissents. However, there is a proper structure for that. It has to be done inside the party. Congress is not a party that fears criticism. It had faced fierce criticisms during the independence movement and even after gaining the governing power. But, democratic principles must be followed while expressing or discussing dissent. I don’t know whether the letter was deliberately leaked or not. Whatsoever, I think that the letter shouldn’t have come out.
Do you think that an election should happen within the party? Even leaders like Shashi Tharoor, who signed the letter, have been quite vocal about it.
Congress has always stood for elections. I wish to reiterate that there aren’t any issues in the party that are intense enough to stall elections. Moreover, I must emphasize that there has been no voice of dissent against the leadership. The 23 members have done that urging Rahul Gandhi to comeback soon. However, it became a controversy after the letter was given a different colour when it came out.
You have already said that you do not wish to contest elections any more and that you are satisfied with your political career. Do you still wish for another shot at the chief minister’s post?
It is the Congress high command that decides who would be the chief minister. The state leadership has got nothing to do with it. I wish to clarify just two things. The party and the people have given me more than what I deserve. Besides, I don’t think you need a position to serve the people. If you have a heart, you need no power to work for the people. I have only had the positions that came to me as a Congress MLA. Other than that, the position of the AICC general secretary is the one that I got almost 50 years after becoming the Youth Congress president. I have never felt that it is a limitation to not have a position. You can work if you have the heart and willingness. So, I don’t wish or wait for a position just to complete the work that I have begun. I have had lots of opportunities and that is the reason why I could complete 50 years. In fact, the credit for this does not belong to me but goes to the party and the people who have voted for me.
Will the Congress have a chief minister candidate for the 2021 election in Kerala?
As per the general tradition of the party, a chief ministerial candidate is never announced beforehand.