I became collector of Siwan, a district in North Bihar, in 1972 at the comparatively young age of 28 and got married soon thereafter. Our first daughter was born the next year in Kottayam. Because of the prevailing political tension in the state, I was unable to leave the district to bring my wife and baby from Kottayam. My wife’s brother, therefore, came with her by train and I received them at the Patna station.
At the Patna circuit house, the district collector dropped in to see the baby in the evening. He was quite expansive as he described the elaborate security arrangements that he had made to deal with the threatened gherao of the Assembly/Secretariat complex by the opposition parties and student organisations scheduled for a couple of days later.
He was absolutely certain that the arrangements were adequate to prevent any real blockade. We left the next morning for Siwan and the gherao of the Patna Secretariat took place a day later.
Unfortunately, however, the security forces could not prevent large scale rioting and arson in the whole of New Patna. Later it transpired that the state cabinet was continuously in session on the day of gherao and had given strict instructions to the collector to avoid use of force while tackling the agitators. Such decisions rarely remain secret and the agitators knew that whatever they did would not attract a forceful response from the police.
In other words, the police were supposed to deal with the crowd with their hands tied. There can be no greater recipe for mob violence. Ultimately all hell broke loose and all the instructions were forgotten when the policemen were physically attacked. Police opened fire at four locations resulting in several deaths.
Old people like me would remember that this was the agitation that was later transformed into the Jayaprakash agitation that engulfed the whole of North India and led to the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi.
I was reminded of this incident as I watched Kerala politics over the last few years. Most people in Kerala are not impressed by the allegations of corruption flying thick and fast on the eve of the state elections. The people who make these allegations believe that some taint would stick when so many allegations are made.
Everyone knows that these allegations cannot be proved but then allegations of corruption are generally very difficult to prove even if they are true. It is, therefore, natural for people to think that there must be fire if there is smoke. In Kerala, however, making wild allegations against all and sundry has become a habit with many politicians and lobbyists and Keralites have begun to think that smoke can be artificially manufactured without fire.
Even Achuthanandan would have been accused of sleeping with some woman of ill repute if he were 10 years younger. His age is his protective shield. The allegations drama in Kerala seems to have become a theatre of the absurd. In this process, even the really corrupt people are able to get away dismissing all allegations as imaginary.
What had affected the popularity of chief minister Oommen Chandy were not these baseless allegations but his perceived softness in dealing with the Congress' allies, particularly the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress. Of course, dealing with political allies is not the same as tackling a violent mob and one has to choose the right moment and the right issue to strike.
In a scenario where a majority of legislators of UDF belong to minority communities, however, the chief minister should have been more cautious in conceding the demands of these parties who mainly represent two minority communities. The way the portfolio allocation was done and the chief minister meekly surrendered to the strident demand for the fifth cabinet berth for Muslim League left the majority community, even the traditional UDF supporters, seething with anger.
Notwithstanding the allocation of finance to KM Mani, even Christians were angry. It appeared that government decisions were not being taken in the cabinet but at Panakkad. This is what caused the unprecedented surge of BJP support in Kerala.
The resentment of the majority community has not dissipated. The latent support for BJP in Kerala is much more than the open support that is visible above the surface. Many people do not vote for BJP only because they do not want to waste their votes on a party that is unlikely to win and BJP in Kerala will not be able to cross that threshold until it is able to win the support of a significant section of the Christian community because of the peculiar demographic composition of the state.
Yet, BJP has been able to have a major impact on the electoral prospects of both the fronts in varying degrees. Congress, in particular, can ignore this development only at its peril. The standoff directly with Sudheeran and indirectly with the Congress high command has, however, enhanced the image of Oommen Chandy.
After Karunakaran, no other Congress leader had refused to be cowed down by the high command – until now. In the eyes of the people of Kerala, Oommen Chandy has emerged from this fracas much taller and a fighter to boot. This is in spite of the claim made by a Muslim League leader that the League had intervened with the Congress high command on the side of the chief minister.
League leaders should know better. In fact, Oommen Chandy did not need anybody’s support in this matter because anyone with the faintest acquaintance with Kerala politics would know that there is no other leader in UDF in Kerala or Delhi who can lead the party’s election campaign at this moment.
He is the only leader with a pan-Kerala appeal who can recognize at least a couple of people by name and face in every village of Kerala. Achuthanandan’s daily demand for Oommen Chandy’s resignation, voiced in the most offensive language, has not dented the latter’s image and is seen as the reflection of the frustrations of an old man.
People of Kerala like strong leaders and a strong government. That was why they voted back to power the alliance that had been ruling Kerala during the Emergency. A strong leader is not, however, one who keeps opposing everything and everybody all the time. A strong leader is one with strength of vision, strength of character and strength of personality. A strong leader is one who would refuse to kowtow to shrill critics at home or super leaders in Delhi.
There are only two state leaders who are perceived to have these qualities: Oommen Chandy and Pinarayi Vijayan. I am inclined to believe that conceding Achuthanandan’s great desire to contest the election again is only a strategic retreat by Pinarayi to prevent Vellappally from making inroads into the Ezhava vote base of CPM.
The general public, however, see this as surrender to the dictats of Delhi leaders who have no grassroot support anywhere. Delhi leaders go by the media reports of Acchuthanandan’s popularity. The truth is Achuthanandan’s support base is vocal and loud but small. People of Kerala would like to see that the choice of Kerala chief minister reflects the will of the people of Kerala rather than that of some rootless wonders sitting in Delhi.
For once Oommen Chandy has proved his point. It is going to be your turn now, Pinarayi. There is a perceptible yearning for economic progress and development in the state. Development cannot be substituted by a cacophony of allegations. People cannot be duped for ever. Kerala needs a Deng, not a Mao. We need a cat that can catch mice, whatever its colour.
(The author is a former civil aviation secretary and former member, Union Public Service Commission. The views expressed are personal.)