8 days of wrangling over the selection of Congress' candidates in Kerala
Dramatis Personae: Oommen Chandy, VM Sudheeran and Ramesh Chennithala
Mediators: Ghulam Nabi Azad, AK Antony and Mukul Wasnik
Chandy had his way on most issues. Sudheeran had to swallow the bitter pill
It has become a make or break election for Chandy now
What exactly transpired?
What were the bones of contention?
How Chandy got his way
On 28 March, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala and Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief VM Sudheeran departed for Delhi. The reason for their visit was the screening committee meeting to finalise the candidates for the Assembly election due in Kerala on 16 May.
They left on the same car to the airport and the symbolism wasn't lost on anyone. However, no sooner had they begun the discussions for candidate selection had sharp differences emerged. The screening committee is mostly made of up of leaders from the state except for a couple of AICC representatives for whom it would be easier to fly down to Kerala than the other way round. But the names finalised by the screening committee had to vetted by the Central election committee & the finally, the High command.
What set the tone for the meeting in Delhi was a curious announcement by TN Prathapan, sitting MLA and KPCC President Sudheeran's close aide that he would not contest the polls this time around to make way for younger candidates. Prathapan has been a 3-time sitting MLA and he also asked his fellow Congress legislators who had been 4-time MLAs to follow his lead. Critics opined that he was possibly doing this at Sudheeran's bidding.
A couple of days into the discussions, it became amply clear to the people following the screening committee meetings that this wouldn't end any time soon. The KPCC President wanted a few sitting legislators, including a couple of ministers to not contest this time around. This included a few ministers and an MLA facing allegations and another minister who is a 7 time legislator. CM Oommen Chandy would have none of it. He reasoned that if these were the criteria for asking them to stay away, he should be the first one to do so as he not only faced multiple allegations, but also is a 10 time MLA, continuously since 1970.
Ramesh Chennithala, initially batting for aspirants of his faction, later tried to mediate between Chandy and Sudheeran. Chandy is the leader of the A (Antony) faction that has now metamorphosed to Chandy faction while Ramesh Chennithala leads the I (Karunakaran) faction. Sudheeran, once part of the A faction, had been marginalised within the party since his defeat in the 2004 parliamentary elections till he was appointed as the PCC chief with Rahul Gandhi's backing against the wishes of both factions.
What complicated matters further was that the seat sharing discussions with allies weren't fully done before the Congress leaders had embarked on their mission to Delhi. So this became a sticking point as many seats that the allies were looking to contest were being unilaterally allotted to either factions of the Congress.
Though many observers opined that Sudheeran was trying to get tickets for people close to him in the party, it became subsequently clear that he had the backing of Rahul Gandhi in his opposition to giving tickets to 5 prominent sitting MLAs including 3 ministers. What complicated matters further was the fact that two of the 3 ministers - K Babu, the excise minister belongong to the A faction and Adoor Prakash, the revenue minister from the I faction - belong to the Ezhava community.
Though Kerala is not polarised on the based of community as yet, every front/party ensures they distribute tickets on caste and community lines. And there is always the threat of the BJP and their new found allies trying to tap into any sense of alienation of any caste if their representation falls in proportion to their strength in the state, especially the Hindu community as a whole.
Even as the screening committee meetings were being held behind closed doors, Congress ticket seekers from Kerala had landed in Delhi in large numbers. Rooms in Kerala House and the hotels in the vicinity were fully booked and many aspirants thought it necessary to make a last ditch effort to put forth their case.
By the fourth day, an agreement on more than 50 candidates had been reached. The Congress, initially having announced they would be contesting 82 seats, managed to squeeze smaller allies and hold off the larger ones to finally contest 87 seats out of the 140, up 5 seats from 2011.
Small allies like the Kerala Congress (Jacob), were allotted just one seat compared to the 3 they contested in 2011. Chairman of that party, Johny Nelloor quit the party and the UDF as a result.
By the 5th day, it became clear that Chandy wouldn't sacrifice any of his ministers or confidantes. AK Antony and others like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mukul Wasnik couldn't placate Chandy who took the position that if any of the ministers were to the sidelined, he would step aside as well. Chandy's conviction in his position was extraordinary but he was also not running away from his responsibilities, analysts noted.
There were murmurs in Kerala by then that governance was taking a toll with the CM in Delhi for 6 straight days even as there was a drinking water crisis in some parts of the state. A meeting held by the Central election committee and chaired by Sonia Gandhi couldn't break the deadlock on the 6th day. Chandy left for Kerala the next day after making his position clear that if any of the ministers or MLAs facing allegations were to be sacked, he would step aside and that the Congress could go ahead with either AK Antony or VM Sudheeran (Both enjoy a clean image) leading the campaign in Kerala. He even promised to campaign in all the 140 seats in that event.
On the 7th day, Chandy was back in Kerala and his constituency Puthupally on his routine Sunday visit.
Chandy, a mass leader, still enjoys considerable popularity among the people despite all the allegations he faces in the solar scam. Sudheeran was due to address a press conference at 12 in Delhi and though he did not make any announcement regarding candidates, analysts dissected his body language and read between his lines.
Sudheeran insisted that he had no personal enmity with any candidate but it was a matter of principles and that the list of candidates would be out by evening. Chandy meanwhile refused to comment as long as the list wasn't officially out. The media speculated that Chandy had won and Sudheeran had to swallow the bitter pill.
Meanwhile, Chandy had the support of the Indian Union Muslim League, the second largest UDF constituent, that is contesting 24 seats. They contacted the Congress High Command and warned them against any decision to go ahead without Chandy.
The leaders of the A faction held a secret meeting at Aluva Palace that noon and decided that none of them would contest if the High Command decided to go ahead without Chandy. Sudheeran left for Kerala in the evening. No list came out that Sunday.
On the 8th day, 4 April, the drama did not end as news emerged that Sudheeran had a face saver in at least felling one of the close confidantes of Chandy, a sitting MLA whose name figured in the disputed candidates. To avoid any further trouble, the MLA in question, Benny Behanan, whose name figured in the solar scam, called a press conference and announced that he was not contesting again from Thrikkakkara as the PCC chief had reservations against his candidature.
Another prominent leader of the A faction, PT Thomas, from the neighbouring Idukki district got the chance on Sudheeran's intervention. Chandy had no option but to go along as most of his demands were met in toto. The list was finally out by the evening and no further surprises were in store. Chandy won at least the election before the election.
What wouldn't escape notice is that Chandy has emerged stronger in the party at least in the short term with the High Command having to bow to his might. And by sticking up for even ministers in the rival faction unlike Chennithala, Chandy could emerge as a leader beyond factions if the Congress goes on to win.
But if Chandy, 73, goes on to lose this election; there wouldn't be a comeback for him in the state. He has staked it all and hopes that despite all the allegations, the massive development the state has undergone in the last 5 years and the interventions in the social sector and his UN awarded mass contact program would be enough for him to sail through in a closely fought election.
What is also not missed is how much Rahul Gandhi is still unequipped to read the situations in state after state. This week long impasse hasn't helped the Congress as the opponents are sure to rake these issues up (especially the PCC chief's lack of confidence in certain candidates and ministers) in the run up to the polls. That was one weapon that the Congress wouldn't have wanted to hand over to the LDF.