The Chennithala-Chandy conundrum

Last Updated: Mon, Jan 06, 2014 07:33 hrs
Oommen Chandy hurt as LDF protesters started stone pelting

So, at last, Ramesh Chennithala has become a minister. He is very likely going to get the Home portfolio which is what he had been angling for. With his induction, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy will expect him to deliver the Nair votes that Chennithala is supposed to represent.

Chandy can't be a happy man. For months, he has been resisting Chennithala's elevation. In April last year, ostensibly to rouse the Congress into activity in the state, Chennithala did a Kerala yatra.

But the actual reason, observers say, was to put pressure on Chandy to include him in the government as deputy chief minister with the charge of the Home portfolio. That seems to have worked.

For the Congress, the stakes are high. In the Assembly elections in May 2011, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) just squeaked past the post with a narrow majority over the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-controlled Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the 140-member state Assembly.

The UDF won 72 seats - just one more than simple majority. The LDF bagged 68 seats. In the 2006 Assembly polls, the LDF had won 98 seats and the UDF 42.

An analysis of the victory revealed that by winning 38 out of 82 Assembly seats it had contested, the Congress' performance was passable. But the real victory belonged to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) that won 20 out of 24 seats it contested.

Muslims are 25 per cent of Kerala's voting population. A factoid is that the IUML got around eight per cent of the votes; but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that got six per cent of the votes got zero seats.

Though the Congress and its allies were able to form a government, this was far short of the stupendous victory in the Lok Sabha elections in 2009: 16 out of 20 Lok Sabha seats.

So, while there is still time for the Assembly elections, it is imperative that the Congress and its allies retain their Lok Sabha seats ahead of the 2014 general elections. Chennithala's induction into the government is one way in which the Congress is struggling with this challenge.

Alarm bells began to ring in May when the Nair Service Society (NSS), an influential caste group which is seen as pro-Congress, announced that it was formally severing links with the Congress.

The perception in Kerala is that the UDF government is led by a combination of minorities: the Christians (represented by Chandy) and the Muslims (led by IUML minister P K Kunhalikutty).

So, there is no one to speak for the Hindus. While Chennithala is a Nair, it is not clear if he egged on the NSS to threaten Chandy. It got worse: The NSS said its doors were open for anyone, including the CPI (M).

Also, the Sreenarayana Dharmaparipalana Yogam, the other big Hindu political organisation representing the Ezhava caste, said it would oppose the Congress. Local issues were at the heart of the decision, but the Congress was worried enough to scramble to reassure both.

The loss of the Nair vote will be a huge setback to the Congress. The Ezhava vote is an even bigger worry. At the end of April, the biggest Ezhava shrine in Kerala, the Sivagiri Mutt in Kollam, had an unexpected visitor: Narendra Modi. The Ezhava leadership claimed that it invited everyone - Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and so on - for a function.

Only Modi responded. In his Kerala visit, Modi achieved what the Congress and the CPI (M) had been united in: to prevent his visit to Kerala. He said as much in his speech: "Although untouchability in social life has come down because of the untiring efforts of our saints, it is increasing in politics." The BJP did get six per cent of the vote.

All this caused blind panic in the Congress: panic which Chennithala leveraged to his advantage. His argument was: he has been the party chief for eight years. Chandy's counter-argument was that he had a perfectly adequate Home Minister (T Radhakrishnan, who has been retained in Cabinet).

Chennithala is a highly organised, charismatic and efficient leader. So, Chandy is right in feeling somewhat threatened by him.

Chennithala's calculation is that in Kerala, the Congress is heading for a fall in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. If he joins the government, someone else will have to take over the state party.

Obviously that person, whoever it is (the party is yet to decide) cannot be expected to deliver miracles in six months. So, if the Congress does really badly, it is Chandy who will have to take the rap.

Then Chennithala will be best positioned to replace Chandy and become chief minister for the remainder of the government's tenure (Assembly elections in Kerala are due only in 2016).

But in the coalition politics of Kerala, even a one per cent swing of votes can cause an unpredictable upheaval. The BJP's performance could be a wild card in 2014. But Chennithala has played his cards right.

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