By Sanu George
Is Oommen Chandy’s tenure as the most popular leader of the Congress in Kerala coming to an end?
The question has begun doing the rounds after it became known that only three of his close aides managed to be named district Congress presidents — out of the state’s 14 districts.
For the 73-year-old, this is a huge political setback, if not humiliation. The district presidents were picked by the “high command” — a Congress euphemism for Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
Over the years, posts are filled up in the party based on the affinity to various groups or factions within.
Till the early 2000s, the Congress in Kerala was firmly under the control of its two top veterans — K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony, although the former had the upper hand vis-a-vis party posts and cabinet berths.
But with Karunakaran slowing down on account of his age, the Antony faction was effectively run by Chandy, from about 2000. And in just a few years Chandy formally took over the mantle from Antony.
After he became Chief Minister midway in 2004, Chandy became even stronger, forcing a regrouping of the erstwhile Karunakaran faction under the present Leader of the Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala.
Though he lost the 2006 assembly polls, Chandy led the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) effectively as Leader of the Opposition. He returned as Chief Minister for a second term in 2011.
Chandy’s political acumen is often compared to that of his arch rival Karunakaran. His affable nature and easy approachability made him the darling of most Congress workers and he is respected by even his political adversaries.
Even while Chandy ran the government with a majority of just two seats in the 140-member assembly, his stock took a nosedive when three of his office staff got involved with a woman trickster who collected huge sums of money from people in what came to be called the “solar scam”.
Chandy got another shock when one of his close former associates and faction leader V.M. Sudheeran was named the state Congress president in 2014, much to the dislike of a huge section of the party leadership.
Then came the bar scam which saw the resignation of the country’s longest-serving legislator K.M. Mani as Finance Minister following allegations of corruption from a bar owner.
Adding to the misery came a virtual face-off between Chandy and Sudheeran over the candidate selection this year. Just when he expected to create history by retaining power, his coalition suffered a rout at the hands of the CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).
Since the results in May, Chandy has refused to be the Leader of the Opposition or the Chairman of UDF on the ground that his conscience does not allow this following the election rout.
With Chandy refusing to take the leadership, Chennithala, who in 2011 wished to contest against Chandy for the Chief Minister’s post, is touted now as one who can replace him.
But sources close to Chandy say he is playing the waiting game and plans to approach the “high command” with his close aides to express their displeasure in the manner the district presidents were announced.
According to Chandy, the next President of the Congress in Kerala should be an elected one.
The last elected President of the Congress in Kerala was Vayalar Ravi, who beat Antony in the 1980s. Since then the President has always been nominated.
Chandy’s supporters, however, are not willing to go down without a fight.
They insist Chandy still commands the respect of a majority of party workers and that his last hurrah could well be when he decides to contest for state President’s post. But others ask: Will he?