As the political battle heats up for the local body elections, Malayala Manorama's Special Correspondent in Thiruvananthapuram Sujith Nair starts a special interview series called 'CrossFire' with prominent political personalities of the state.
The first in this series is an interview with the Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala.
Are you the UDF's chief ministerial candidate for the Assembly elections?
That has not been decided. Congress doesn't put forward any name in advance. We believe in collective leadership. That will continue.
But as the leader of the Opposition, the next turn could be Ramesh Chennithala's?
That is something for others to evaluate. I make no such claim. It is for the people and the party to decide.
Won't former chief minister Oommen Chandy also be in the fray?
The discussion on the candidates for Assembly elections has not yet started. Now what is before us is the panchayat election.
Do you see the possibility of the CM's post being shared over two terms?
Isn't it for the party to decide on such matters? We are not thinking about it now. The aim of the UDF is to win both the elections to the local body and Assembly.
In between, there was a row as to you had berated Rahul Gandhi. Did it cause any personal harm? Have you cleared it up with Rahul?
That campaign was unrealistic. He knows me well. Rahulji is not someone who thinks about me that way. I am continuing as the leader of the Opposition in Kerala only because of the faith Soniaji and he have in me. I have been associated with that family since the time of Indira Gandhi. Some media had distorted what I had said.
Were you hurt when you didn't get the expected rating in some popularity surveys for the choice of CM?
That is no problem at all. When the LDF was in Opposition, there were occasions when Pinarayi Vijayan had got only 2 per cent support as the chief ministerial candidate. Didn't all the polls say that the Grand Alliance would win by a huge majority in the just-concluded Bihar elections? What did the results show? If you ask a question to 100 people and present it as the opinion of lakhs, it need not necessarily be correct.
As the Leader of Opposition, you have effectively raised many issues against the government, but some criticisms coming from within your own camp claim that the Opposition is not strong enough!
Now there are no such criticisms. Everyone is satisfied with the work of the Opposition. In the last four-and-a-half years, I have done as much as an Opposition leader can possibly do. But as the scale of government's corruption and mismanagement grows in size, some may feel the opposition may not be proportionate enough to match that. But that will give you the strength to voice your protests louder.
In the current political situation, the LDF is completely on the defensive. Yet, the UDF does not seem confident enough about winning the local body elections.
We are quite confident. The public sentiment is strong against the four-and-a-half-year LDF rule. You may not be sensing it. But we can see it. This is exactly what happened during the Lok Sabha elections, too. The UDF will make great strides in the local body polls.
After the last local body election, the UDF could win only one corporation. How many will you get this time?
There will be good gains in all the corporations. A systematic work is being done accordingly. We have already announced the candidates. In the past, the exact picture of UDF candidates would come out only when they are being withdrawn. The unity and mutual trust of the constituents of the UDF is reflected in seat-sharing agreement and the names of candidates. We solved all the problems that arose together.
Won't the rebels cause a problem?
This time, the problem of rebels is not significant. Under the leadership of the KPCC president, a concerted effort is being made to keep the rebels at bay.
But isn't the seat distribution everywhere happening on the basis of groups in the party?
There is bound to be some of that. Factions are a reality. But the party is moving forward in unison without much noise about it.
Will the UDF face a problem if people refrain from going to the polling booth fearing COVID?
Everyone will go to vote. The elections are being held in wards with very few voters. Candidates will ensure that voters cast their ballots. They are all connected. The turnout will be higher this time than in the previous elections.
CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has stepped down. Does the Opposition think that it is now the turn of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan?
Of course. Pinarayi should have resigned before Kodiyeri. One wicket is down. The next wicket will also fall shortly.
Isn't the gold smuggling controversy that has diminished LDF's chances of continuing in power and given the UDF high hopes?
That is a misconception. Kerala always thinks differently. They usually do not give anyone more than five years to rule. A good PR agency's work was done by talking about continuation of power. No one, however, has taken it at face value.
If the tumult caused by the central investigating agencies too is giving UDF hopes, why can't it be termed a BJP-UDF partnership?
This is, in fact, an alliance between the CPM and the BJP. That is why this investigation is dragging on. Didn't the Lavlin case get postponed 20 times? Do you need any more proof of the BJP-CPM connection? Does the Chief Minister ever mention the name of the Prime Minister or Amit Shah? It was said the ministers would protest against the Centre. Then why did they withdraw? All this proves the adjustment between them.
The Opposition seems to have had a soft corner for Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. Did you abandon that later?
We have never personally attacked Kodiyeri. We didn't make an issue when his eldest son faced problems. We did not even raise them in the Assembly. But Kodiyeri constantly denounced and insulted me, my family and my father who died 23 years ago. He held a press conference against me saying I had bought an iPhone that I had never purchased. We realised that he was not extending the dignity we extend to him. After that realisation, we began to retort. The son was involved in drug dealing activities from the house of the party secretary! Then the father makes baseless allegations against us. Also when facts come out, we can't remain silent.
Even though he is a rival, did you feel sympathy when his family was subjected to a 26-hour raid by the ED?
Wasn't all that trouble invited? Didn't he live in that house called ‘Kodiyeri'? Wasn't this business and drug trade centred around that place? Shouldn't Kodiyeri have asked his son how the money came? Isn't that a father's responsibility? Wouldn't it attract my attention if my son starts handling large sums of money? Kodiyeri is facing the problem for not fulfilling that duty.
You, too, have two sons, just like Kodiyeri
I'm proud of my children. They do not go after unnecessary things. They do their job. I have never felt that they want to be known under my identity. They are two people who want to maintain their privacy. It was only when a teacher at Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences who knew me asked, 'Who is Ramesh Chennithala's son studying in this class?' did Rohit stand up. They have never misused my name anywhere.
Is it because the father closely monitors the children?
It is the mother who does that well. I also pay attention. But the mother's attention is important. Nowhere have I seen Anita present herself as my wife.
The post of CPM state secretary has been given to A Vijayaraghavan, who is also the LDF convener.
He is a good friend of mine. Let him prove his own prowess. It is unnatural for a person to be given two titles. It indicates that the CPM has complex problems that are difficult to be solved.
CPM leaders say Kodiyeri Balakrishnan will return.
We do not believe that he stepped down only because of illness. When he went to America, he did not give the post of the state party secretary to anyone else. He was forced to stand aside due to the case against his son. Given the severity of the allegations, his return as the party's state secretary is almost impossible.
If the gains in the local body elections are not as expected, won't the UDF be worried about its prospects in the Assembly elections?
Never. What happened earlier when the LDF, which had won most of the district councils, held the Assembly elections early? The two are different. Local, personal and family ties are important factors in panchayat elections. It is not just a political struggle. Politics matters. But local body elections are not like the Assembly polls. This time we are more confident about both the polls.
This is the first election for the Kerala Congress led by Jose K Mani contesting as part of the LDF after leaving the UDF. Will this not be a setback for the UDF in central Kerala?
We will not have any problems because of that. The section of people who placed their trust in the Kerala Congress usually vote for the UDF. None of them will vote for the LDF in this election either. Jose K Mani is going to understand that soon.