LDF spins a debate on Kerala economy into UDF MPs' fear of BJP

Finance Minister KN Balagopal. File Photo: Manorama Online

Tiruvananthapuram: With the Lok Sabha elections just around the corner, the UDF should have seen this coming.

An adjournment motion on Kerala's grave fiscal crisis in the Assembly on Wednesday was shrewdly refocused by the ruling benches into the alleged reluctance of the UDF MPs to speak against the BJP-led government at the Centre.

Finance Minister K N Balagopal chose to ignore certain important fiscal issues raised by Opposition Leader V D Satheesan but made sure to reiterate his pet peeve that the 18 UDF MPs had refused to both sign a joint memorandum listing the state's grievances against the Centre and be part of a state delegation to meet the Union finance minister.

Balagopal attributed Kerala's fiscal stress to the vindictive anti-federal approach of the Centre that was incrementally depriving Kerala of its traditional entitlements. And as the cream topping for the cake of his anti-Centre argument, Balagopal blamed the MPs for not cooperating with the state in its fight for survival against the Centre.

He said the UDF MPs were concerned solely about baiting the LDF government. "At the height of the Manipur crisis, Congress MP Benny Behanan was heard raising an issue related to the Kerala police in Parliament," Balagopal said.

This effectively steered the debate on the economy to politics. The Opposition Leader objected to the minister's mention of MPs in the Assembly and wanted his remarks expunged. Speaker A N Shamseer refused.

In defence of the UDF MPs, Satheesan said that it was Rajya Sabha MP Elamaram Kareem who had met the MPs and sought signatures from them. "The MPs should have been approached by the state government and not a Rajya Sabha MP," Satheesan said. Earlier in the Assembly, Ramesh Chennithala had said that the MPs should have been approached by the "appropriate authorities".

Hinting that the UDF MPs were being egoistic, law minister P Rajeeve said that when Oommen Chandy was Chief Minister a joint memorandum was usually brought to Kerala MPs by Kodikkunnil Suresh MP.

The Chief Minister, too, weighed in. "There was consensus at the meeting of MPs that Kerala should apply pressure on the Centre. It was in this spirit that a memorandum was drawn up. Not only did they decline to sign the memorandum but also refused to be part of a joint delegation to meet the Union Finance Minister," the Chief Minister said.

Congress MLA Roji M John made a vehement objection. He said the memorandum differed from what was discussed at the meeting of MPs. "If there were any changes, they could have said that," the Chief Minister said. "They could have said that certain portions in the memorandum were not right. But they did not have any such argument. Reality is, they did not want to sign a joint memorandum against the BJP government," he said.

Satheesan said that only Google meets were held with MPs in the last few years. "There is no communication from the state government to the MPs on any major issue," he said.

He sensed the LDF intention. "You are trying to politicise this debate on the economy," he said. Satheesan then declared that the UDF would publish a detailed note on the Kerala-related issues taken up by Kerala MPs in Parliament.

At this point, former Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala chipped in. "When Thomas Isaac was the finance minister, he used to first consult the Opposition Leader on all major issues like GST, lottery and when there was a need for southern states to forge a united front. The Opposition Leader would then coordinate with the MPs," he said and asked Balagopal: "Why can't you too talk to the Opposition Leader?"

The Chief Minister found this amusing. "Do you mean to say that the MPs refused to sign the memorandum because the finance minister did not consult the Opposition Leader? I don't think even the Opposition Leader would say this," he said with a smile.

After this, the finance minister brushed aside the fiscal crisis and declared in a tone of finality: "In front of the people, the UDF's 18 MPs have been exposed. People have realised that they were not ready to even sign a joint memorandum."

Balagopal then shifted the debate further to the danger looming over the country's federal structure. He called attention to the 15th Finance Commission's decision to adopt the 2011 census as the standard measure in Centre-State relations, as opposed to the 1971 census.

He said the reorganization of Parliament would happen in 2026 on the basis of the 2011 population. "If this happens, a state with 80 MPs will get 120 MPs and Kerala with 20 will see its representation dropping to 14 from 20. This will affect the equilibrium of national politics," he said.

Balagopal was essentially arguing that the Congress was too caught up in its hatred for the CPM that it was not aware of the danger posed to federalism by the BJP.

Satheesan by now realised that the narrative was seized by the ruling bench. "The finance minister who talked for 44 minutes did not respond to any of the grave issues that we had raised. He was trying to foist the entire blame of the fiscal crisis on the 18 UDF MPs. He was merely trying to hide his inefficiency," Satheesan said and staged a walk out in protest against what he termed the "insult of UDF MPs".

But the Chief Minister was not ready to let the Opposition Leader have the last word. He pulled the debate back to the LDF narrative that the UDF was reluctant to take on the BJP.

"This has always been the position of the Congress party," the Chief Minister said. "When the Centre was trying to smother the cooperative sector, I had requested the then Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala in this very floor to mount a joint protest. He agreed to the proposal in principle. But after discussions within the party, the Congress decided not to be part of such a pressure tactic . We had to fight alone. They are afraid of taking on the Centre," he said, winding up the debate.

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