Thiruvananthapuram: Affable and accessible are the two adjectives that best describe Oommen Chandy, the leader of opposition in the outgoing Kerala assembly and the most prominent of the chief ministerial candidates of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
Those qualities sharpen the contrast between him and the far more abrasive and adversarial incumbent V.S. Achuthanandan.
Chandy, 67, is a lawyer by profession and has held several leadership posts in the Congress party. He took over from A.K. Antony as chief minister in 2004, when the latter moved to Delhi. Chandy stayed in the post until 2006, when the UDF lost the polls to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Chandy is the quintessential organization man—fiercely loyal to the party, happy to be in a crowd. But he’s untested as an administrator and uncomfortable outside Kerala and in the presence of the party’s luminaries in Delhi.
Born on 31 October 1943, Chandy enjoys being a man of the people and keeping himself accessible. His move to stream live webcasts of the functioning of the chief minister’s chamber during his occupation of the post is illustrative of this.
This affinity for the public at large is Chandy’s strength and his weakness, says biographer P.T. Chacko, author of Thurannitta Vaathil (The Open Door). “He can breathe easily only when he is surrounded by people,” the book says. Members of his electorate agree.
“There is no other politician in India who can claim to be as close to voters. Anybody from his constituency has direct access to him at any time of the day,” said Balakrishnan Nair, a voter in his Puthuppally constituency in Kottayam district.
Chandy is also a natural bridge builder, seeking to co-opt rather than confront opponents. His secular credentials are regarded as being impeccable in a state where religion, class and caste are rarely mentioned, but are central to the political discourse. According to one of his close aides, Chandy “believes in maintaining cordial relation even with his rivals. He often tells people in his group that factionalism should not be at the cost of the party’s interests”. The person did not want to be identified.
John Brittas, one of the state’s most high-profile political commentators and currently managing director of Kairali TV, has been observing Chandy for the past 25 years or so. He agrees that the leader is most comfortable when he’s with the public. But he adds, “he is a leader who is never at peace with himself. He is always disturbed and it reflects in his actions, administrative methods and every move”.
Chandy’s detractors say he’s been unable to exploit popular sentiment against the LDF in the past five years. Several of his own party members feel Chandy has been unable to counter the aggressive politics followed by the Left parties in the state, although the CPM is considered to have been much diminished by the feuding between the chief minister and the state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.
But while the CPM may have suffered, the chief minister’s image as a crusader against vested interests threatens to end Kerala’s electoral record of switching between LDF and UDF every five years.
Chandy “is a failed political strategist and a bad administrator”, says C.K. Nathan, a retired government official who lives in Ernakulam district. “He could never prove his governance skills in any of the ministries he handled.”
Chandy’s chances of dethroning Achuthanandan have been further dented by Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president Ramesh Chennithala throwing his hat in the ring, confusing party workers and leaders.
Chennithala, who has been involved in politics at both the state and national level, is said to have forced candidate choices to ensure his supporters would dominate the list. This has skewed the delicate caste-religion balance that the party seeks to achieve in candidate selection. Chennithala, who also entered the poll fray himself at the last minute after being an organization man for almost a decade, does not hide his ambition for the top post in the state, where the party is infamous for factionalism.
In seeming contrast with Chennithala, Chandy is said to be insecure about his standing within the upper echelons of the party, having never sought to cultivate the high command. On his infrequent Delhi visits, Chandy confines himself to government or party business and rushes back to Kerala.
Another setback for Chandy has been a vigilance court order on the eve of the elections to allow further investigations into the import of palmolein in 1991 by the government of the time in which he was finance minister. Chandy has said this is a politically motivated case and that he was ready to face any inquiry over the allegations levelled against him.