POLITICS

Why Oommen Chandy's Rumoured Rebellion Could Sink Congress In Kerala

Three leaders firing in three different directions can win no battle.

16/01/2017 12:13 PM IST | Updated 16/01/2017 1:21 PM IST
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Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy arrives at Parliament House to attend the Parliament budget session on March 26, 2012 in New Delhi, India.

Despite a decent run of his government, what grounded the Oommen Chandy dispensation in Kerala last year was not just the deluge of corruption charges that he and his colleagues faced, but also the nonstrategic one-upmanship by its local leaders.

Three leaders firing in three different directions can win no battle, and that had pushed the Chandy government off the edge. Had the leadership of the state unit (Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee) strategically buried its self-seeking multi-directional political aspirations and focussed only on the short-term, the results could have been probably better. The party couldn't have won, but its defeat could have been more honourable.

It was only natural that after the elections, its leader wanted to gain from the defeat. Unfortunately, it's not just one, but three of them: KPCC president VM Sudheeran, former Home Minister and Chief Ministerial aspirant Ramesh Chennithala and Chandy himself. All the three want to be on the driving seat. Had it been just two of them, it could have been possible - one could lead the party while the other nurses parliamentary ambitions; but with a third person also in the fray, it's a problem. Where would the party accommodate him?

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Ramesh Chennithala, President of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC).

That's the situation Chandy has landed himself in. The rivalry between Sudheeran and Chennithala can be contained although it will be a perpetual irritant, but when Chandy is also poking for his share of power and authority, it's a problem. And obviously, the biggest disadvantage for Chandy is that he is on a weak wicket - the man was embroiled in scams that included both sleaze and money, and had lost power and hence in the triangular contest for prominence, the high command in Delhi doesn't seem to care much for him.

But a wily veteran, he has found his way in and Rahul Gandhi has taken note and called him to Delhi. Although he didn't make any open threats or sulked, he just started refusing to cooperate and surreptitiously made an impression in the local media that if he is ignored, he would go regional. Reportedly, KM Mani, the disgraced former finance minister and the head of a Syrian Christian dominated Kerala Congress, and PK Kunhalikkutty, former industries minister and an influential leader of the Indian Union Muslim League, are quite receptive to his idea. A regional outfit that secedes from the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) camp could seal the fate of Congress in the state the way Mamata Banerjee did in West Bengal.

But a wily veteran, he has found his way in and Rahul Gandhi has taken note and called him to Delhi.

The Kerala Congress and the Muslim League can win several seats in their pocket-boroughs. In the 2016 assembly elections, these two parties together won 24 seats, two seats more than what the Congress won in less than half the seats that it contested. If Chandy-Mani-Kunhalikkutty trio joins hands, that will be the end of Congress in the state.

Probably that's why Rahul Gandhi has called Chandy to Delhi for discussions on Monday. Chandy's grouse is that his block (called the "A-group" in the state, A denoting former defence minister AK Antony because he once led this faction) in Congress is not getting enough representation in the reorganisation of the statewide units of the party. While Sudheeran and Chennithala want control of these units to be decided through negotiations, which means that they would take the cake, Chandy wants elections to be held to avoid his marginalisation. Since his proposal was unheeded to, he started non-cooperating with both the state and central units. Stories of his plan with Mani and Kunhalikkutty also simultaneously started doing the rounds.

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Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy during the winter session of Parliament, on December 11, 2015 in New Delhi, India.

It remains to be seen how Rahul Gandhi fixes the three-way fissure. He has no other option, but to accommodate Chandy and his nominees because his potential regional outfit will be fatal for the Congress. But that will dishearten both Sudheeran and Chennithala. Obviously, Sudheeran and Chennithala want to first exclude Chandy and then think about settling the issue between them. Once Chandy gains his way back in, their plans will be spoiled and it will be the same old story of three men leading the pack in three directions.

With these three men in leadership, watching the party's public relations is so much fun - leaders and proxies taking potshots and speaking in multiple, sometimes vulgar, voices smack of a constant boil.

In hindsight, the crisis has been created by the Congress high command itself because it's the one which brought a third player into the party's state leadership when it appointed Sudheeran as the KPCC president out of nowhere in 2014.

Mani will be quite eager to get even with the Congress and the UDF because they, except Chandy and Kunhalikkutty, let him down when he was shot down with corruption charges. This was the worst disgrace in his decades-long career that also foreclosed his possible defection to the Left camp. Mani has always been a regional player, purporting to represent the interests of the farmers in the state, and Kunhalikkutty's sphere of influence and territorial ambitions have also been confined to the state. Probably, Rahul Gandhi has been sufficiently advised about this risk and how bad it could be for the Congress.

In hindsight, the crisis has been created by the Congress high command itself because it's the one which brought a third player into the party's state leadership when it appointed Sudheeran as the KPCC president out of nowhere in 2014.

In fact, Sudheeran was in political wilderness when he was pushed to prominence. Since he had lost his last election in 2004, he had no major role except participating in social campaigns and even criticising the Congress. Till his arrival, the party had to manage only a two-way rivalry between Chandy and Chennithala, but the moment Sudheeran got power, he became a control-freak and expansionist. The rest of the Congress' story is about factional fighting and corruption of its government.

By accommodating Chandy, Rahul Gandhi will be maintaining the status quo; by rejecting him, he will be writing off Kerala. Does he really have an option?

That's the politics of the wily old fox called Oommen Chandy. For years, he looked benign. It's time to shed the sheep's clothing.

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