There were no Congress leaders on the flights from Thiruvananthapuram to Delhi last week even as the Congress High Command decided to bring a new legislature party leader. Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala were conspicuous by their absence in Delhi. It was an aberration from the past because a long line of party’s state presidents would airdash Delhi even regarding appointment of District Congress Committee (DCC) presidents and state office-bearers of the frontal organisations.
Congress leaders from Kerala are normally regarded as luckier by their counterparts from other states. For, Kerala leaders used to get quick appointments with Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul and the party general secretaries.
A few years ago, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, the then leader of opposition in Maharashtra assembly had come to Delhi to meet Sonia. But he had to wait for a week in the capital and, out of frustration, he wanted to find out how the Kerala leaders managed to get an appointment on the same day of their arrival in Delhi. Later, he defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and now that Congress is part of the ruling coalition in the state, the education baron is said to be thinking of homecoming.
Decisions on even junior organisational posts in Kerala have seen more rounds of discussions with both groups repeating their claims while unattached leaders like VM Sudheeran, Mullapally Ramachandran, PC Chacko and KV Thomas complaining about the stranglehold of the ‘A’ and ‘I’ groups. But Chandy and Chennithala, while deeply competitive in the constituencies and districts, had also shown remarkable ability to adjust, either to prevent others getting positions or making them less effective.
The complex relationship with the High Command was also buttressed that the two leaders - after the era of K. Karunakaran and AK Antony - were needed for the sake of the larger cohesion of the United Democratic Front (UDF) whose major partners were comfortable dealing with Chandy and Chennithala.
But this reputation got dented first when the local leaders persuaded the High Command to give up the Rajya Sabha seat held by PJ Kurien to Jose K Mani, and later the way the Jose K Mani group left the UDF.
Sonia Gandhi had dealt for long with KM Mani and had not been happy that the party could not retain his son's faction, which was needed for the political and religious cohesion of the UDF.
In the eyes of the national leadership, the plate of misery for Chennithala and Chandy filled up due to the erosion of UDF votes.
Apart from the High Command listening to the demands for accountability for the electoral defeat and the urge for a new face among the Rahul brigade, there have been grumbles that Chennithala could have been allowed to exit more gracefully.
The sentiment is that Sonia or Rahul, and if not then AK Antony or KC Venugopal could've conveyed to Ramesh that he should voluntarily give up his claim.
Instead it was left to blunt speaking Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha to tell Chennithala, Chandy and Mullapally that there would be a new opposition leader.
During the last two decades, this had been the job of Ahmed Patel, who was first Sonia's political secretary and later party’s treasurer.
It was Patel who either recommended or was told about a decision to change a chief minister, leader of opposition or PCC president.
Patel with his persuasive voice and empathy break the bad news and even lend his shoulder for the displaced leader to vent his grievances. He would act as a shock absorber and hear out the frustrated laments. Patel would gently promise that the displaced leader would be considered when opportunities came up in the future. But Kharge has neither authority nor tact.
Antony, among the senior most leaders at the national level, has made it clear for several years that he is above the state congress issues and the group politics.
After shifting to Delhi In 2004 he has confined himself to be a patient listener and an intensive campaigner in every election covering the entire state from Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram. Only in this election his campaign had to be more symbolic.
But despite the public stance, there are party leaders and workers from the state who believe nothing moves in Delhi about Kerala affairs in Congress without the former union defence minister.
There was a political irony involving Chennithala and Tariq Anwar, the general secretary-in-charge of Kerala. Anwar held the same post during Sonia's first year as Congress president, but was looking after Karnataka. As a youth leader of distinction, Chennithala was secretary assisting Anwar.
In 1999, Anwar joined Sharad Pawar in the revolt against Sonia and was expelled. Soon after when there was a move to replace Karnataka PCC president Dharam Singh, Chennithala actively supported the candidature of S M Krishna. Singh was abruptly removed and Krishna was appointed. Krishna led Congress to victory and Chennithala's reputation grew with the High Command. However, Sonia was thankful that Singh did not create a fuss and rewarded him with the chief ministership five years later, even though Krishna had more MLAs.
Now Anwar is general secretary when Chennithala is asked to hand over the baton. But the rehabilitation of Singh and Anwar shows roads are never closed in the Congress for long distance runners.