As this writer reached Puthupally House in Thiruvananthapuram to meet Ommen Chandy for an interaction to mark his 50 years as a legislator, there was an unexpected surprise. On the drawing room desk was the book ‘Sabhayile Porattam,’ by Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala. He had sent it to Oommen Chandy ahead of the publishing event wherein Oommen Chandy is expected to speak. The pertinent question is whether both the leaders would fight, shoulder-to-shoulder, and take the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) to victory in the upcoming Assembly polls. The bigger suspense is this: who would be the Chief Minister if the UDF secures a majority.
Oommen Chandy the indispensable
As Oommen Chandy completes 50 years as a legislator from Puthupally, it is increasingly clear that he will be in the electoral fray this time too. He has been indicating that in various media interactions too. Sources close to him say that he had been also indicating that this would be the best time to call it quits. But, the grapevine has it that no one wants to hear of Oommen Chandy hanging up his boots.
All factions of the Congress deem the presence of Oommen Chandy, the most ‘people-friendly’ leader, vital to the party’s win in the elections. The leaders of allies also are of the same opinion. For them, keeping the Left Democratic Front (LDF) out of power is the most pivotal thing. Power-sharing and chief-ministership could be decided later. Leaders assume that Oommen Chandy ha clear plans on such aspects.
Chennithala: Awaiting his turn
It is only natural for Ramesh Chennithala to think that it is his turn, especially after being the Leader of the Opposition for five years. He doesn’t think that the A-faction or Oommen Chandy himself would rise in rebellion. When UDF faced electoral defeat in 2016, Oommen Chandy was the one who proposed Chennithala as the Leader of Opposition. Also, they share a good personal rapport in spite of acrimonious exchanges during group-level discussions. Sources close to them know that they have regular telephone conversations. Chennithala seeks Oommen Chandy’s opinion and takes a stance in tandem. On his part, Oomen Chandy too takes care to avoid anything that would be construed as against the Leader of the Opposition. So, Oommen Chandy never does anything that negates the leadership of Chennithala.
In spite of all this, some leaders think there is a proxy war between the leaders when it comes to chief minister-ship. Leaders close to Chennithala tell him that Chandy’s stance that the Chief Minister would be decided by the Central leadership indicates that the latter is in the fray. Chennithala, on a lighter note, says he would also be mandated to give a similar reply if asked.
In 2011, Oommen Chandy was the Leader of the Opposition and neither the UDF nor the Congress had announced him as Chief Minister candidate. Chennithala, who was the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president then, had also contested the elections. The I-group saw him as prospective Chief Minister material but the role fell on Oommen Chandy ultimately.
Some observers think both leaders will fix terms and share the CM’s post. However, neither the LDF nor the UDF is still ready to adopt this power-sharing strategy at the state level. The fronts often adopt this at the local body level.
Some observers think both the leaders will enter into some unwritten pact and move ahead on mutual trust and understanding.
Chennithala is not opposed to the fact that Oommen Chandy will be in the electoral fray this time too. The Congress could emulate the 2016 CPI(M) model where V.S. Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan led the party together. The CPI(M) also adopted a similar strategy and refused to explicitly state who the Chief Minister would be.
Chandy Oommen factor
Speculation is rife that the seasoned leader that Oommen Chandy is could try to secure a political or electoral entry for son Chandy Oommen. The Chandy Oommen factor is also being actively discussed in the Congress circles.
Chandy Oommen, earlier a Youth Congress office-bearer, is not averse to entering politics, either. He is in New Delhi and is a lawyer in the Supreme Court and takes up teaching assignments. Earlier, there were reports that Chandy Oommen would be fielded from an Assembly constituency in Pathanamthitta. But sources close to Oommen Chandy deny this. They said the senior leader was not very keen on both of them contesting the elections at a time.
Chandy Oommen may enter the fray from ‘home turf’ Puthupally after his ‘Appa’ (father) exits the political scene. The exact time or date is not known. It is prudent to keep guessing; also an integral part of the Congress political-scape.