One year with Oommen Chandy

This post was originally written before LDF’s sound drubbing in Neyyantinkara. Oommen Chandy’s season two opens nicely with a clear verdict on whose side Neyyatinkara MLA is on, and a not so clear verdict on whose side Malampuzha MLA is on. At the time of posting honorable general secretary G.Sukumaran Nair has not yet claimed responsibility for UDF win in the polls, this is expected in the next few days. He did mention nuances of NSS’s “right distance” and “equal distance” stance in the recently concluded Greek elections.

Oommen Chandy led UDF government is running with a dead body for the past one month, and Kerala's main opposition party is running away from it. This pretty much sums up political Kerala's mood as UDF government completes a year with a slightly improved wafer thin majority. Fourth estate vultures who seemed to have made a soft landing on CPM's shoulder just a month back as Muslim League's fifth minister controversy raged on, have hard landed on Oommen Chandy's lap relishing and savoring the well cut body of a CPM rebel. Most of the over fifty cuts on the corpse have undoubtedly wounded CPIM, as Kerala's main opposition party, famous for its ability to determine the state's political agenda whether in power or not, now seeks cover, and one can be sure wishes to hell this ordeal gets over sooner than later. That wish may not happen, because Oommen Chandy's government, as honorable NSS general secretary often points out, has total disregard for Hindus, and may not respect the classical Hindu tradition of mourning period ending on the 41st day. Oommen Chandy will continue to run with this corpse whichever way Neyyatinkara bye-election results go, because at the end of one year, his sad government has little else to run with.

What is this government about?

A government's first one year in power is a very important phase in politics, and the leitmotiv of the first one year usually has a compounding impact on the polity, and on development. In Oommen Chandy's case "wasted" is a misstatement, "deliberately wasted" would be polite. Then this is a sad government, in its birth itself the people's mandate was quite lukewarm, with UDF carrying just 5 of the 14 districts, almost like an unintended pregnancy. The sadness exacerbated itself when UDF decided early on that the only reason for remaining in power was to remain in power. Now whatever you throw at UDF, call it the result of 1959, call it a holy alliance of landed church and landed caste, call it the political formation which appeals consistently to the worst within us, call it the leadership institute which produces the scum of Kerala's politics, you can't deny the fact that like the LDF, every previous UDF government have tried big things in the first year. Chandy-Mani-Kunhali triad decided early on that they wouldn't even try. Our sadness should know no bounds because UDF being UDF, Congress party being Congress party, and history being our sole indicator, it goes godspeed downhill after the first year.

A government's first one year in power is a very important phase in politics, and the leitmotiv of the first one year usually has a compounding impact on the polity, and on development. In Oommen Chandy's case "wasted" is a misstatement, "deliberately wasted" would be polite.

Consider the last three governments in Kerala. E.K.Nayanar ministry came into power in 1996, and in the first one year decided to send 33% of the state's revenue to local bodies. People's plan campaign changed the way power and resources are wielded in the state, and the developmental gains from the policy is still felt across the state. One might disagree with People's plan or Manaveeyam, but the former was nothing short of revolutionary, and still sets the agenda in development debates across the country. A.K.Antony led ministry came into power in 2001 with a single point agenda of rescuing the state from a fiscal cliff (remember the messy last year of Nayanar government with treasury shut downs and signs of imminent collapse). In the first one year Antony announced policy initiatives which were clear detours from the general mosaic of developmental policy in the state. Firstly he went after a holy cow, by announcing cut in benefits to government employees, one could disagree, but a bold move nonetheless resulting in a one month strike by state employees. Secondly he announced a deeper liberalization and privatization policy, a suave move, though it came crashing few months later with the failure of much touted Global Investors Meet. V.S led government that came to power in 2006, is a classic case of first year boldness.

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What is this government about? Other than the bullet train from Trivandrum to Kasargode which flies above the potholed two lane national highway in Oommen Chandy's dreams along with butterflies and spaceships? Image Credit: Kerala CM Website

The government went all out to prevent farmer suicides by aggressively supporting rice and non-rice cultivation, leakages in taxation saw a groundbreaking change as Thomas Issac intervened in check post collections to jewelry purchases, horrid anomalies in the Smart City agreement were rectified, brought environmental conservation back to center stage as real estate prices shot up across the state, Kareem came up with the ridiculous idea of turning around PSU's than selling them off (turned out to be successful), IT policy focus changed to decentralization and free software, and then M.A.Baby went after a holy cow and got thoroughly battered. Quite remarkable for a first year: All of the above. And then came Oommen Chandy in 2011. All the raging controversies aside, does anyone have any idea what this government is about? Other than dividing ministerial berths exactly among caste and religious lines? Other than "transparency" and "charity"? Other than the bullet train from Trivandrum to Kasargode which flies above the potholed two lane national highway in Oommen Chandy's dreams along with butterflies and spaceships? No seriously, what is this government about? Why are they in power?

Most American historians wonder how George Bush could ruin so many things in the US in so little time. At least in the last twelve months Malayalis could see that live using a webcam installed in the Chief Ministers office. This webcam showed you among a hundred other things how Mr.Chandy and company destroyed the only working public distribution system in the country, destroyed any chance of Vizhinjam taking flight, and any semblance of regional balance in budgetary allocation. Installed for transparency, this webcam is a glowing example of Chandy and company's style of governance, since as we all know, modus operandi of corruption is bringing sacks of Indian rupee to the Chief Minister's office and then shaking hands singing praises to R.Balakrishna Pilla.

Chandy's second year motto is "Charity", since this was lacking in the first year except in the case of a certain Kerala Congress leader who had 8 diseases. Chandy may have developed his unique love for "Charity" in his Sunday school classes, but he seems to have skipped his civics lessons. Collecting my tax money and then spending it for me is not "charity", and all that money in the treasury which your finance minister Mr.Mani gleefully told you about is not an inheritance. "Charity"? Seriously? Jokes apart, in a fast changing, globalized socio-economic situation, a government (like the previous LDF administration during the financial crisis in the Gulf, and food price inflation) is supposed to come up with rapid policy responses which will mitigate the impact of these macro headwinds on the people of the state. If Ramesh Chennithala reads this, he will be like "WHAT?" "Seriously?”.

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While announcing his first year's focus on

If one doesn't wince at the superficiality of these gimmicks, there was the unique extravaganza where Chandy went to every district collecting petitions himself, an inefficient Tuglaqian gimmick discontinued since the days of King Vikramaditya who used to roam around the country side with a 'vetalam' around his neck (Chandy though has two - Kunhalikutty and Mani). While announcing his first year's focus on "transparency" through the use of webcam, he had Kunhalikutty on one side and Mani on the other, and the rest of us didn't necessarily need a webcam to see what was wrong with this UDF gang, it was a little too transparent.

Many of my 'development fetish' friends often tout jeopardizing Vizhinjam port project as single biggest failure of this government, as the government tries to scare off the last remaining consortium. But they are missing the fine print of this government's larger failures, primarily because when there is a power cut, you most often miss the fine print. Power cut is not a crime, but one brought about by deliberate incompetence is. Almost six months back, while fourth estate was devouring Balakrishna Pillai's phone call from jail, there was a more wholesome debate happening on the power situation in the state, of course Mathrubhumi did not report it. A.K.Balan, CPM government's power minister, who painstakingly proved that efficiency in distribution and power consumption can solve supply side inadequacies, was issuing dire warnings to Aryadan Muhammad about the way he was using the water in our dams. Balan's tone was desperate as he warned that the state will go into power cuts if the cuckoo inside Aryadan's head drives electricty board like this, and Balan invited ridicule from the government chief whip who called him a scheduled class MLA. By the time cuckoo inside Aryadan's head settled down, the state went into darkness, but Aryadan was riding the crest of a political wave in the state as the one true Congressman in the state standing up against Muslim League's demand for a fifth minister.

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Power cut is not a crime, but one brought about by deliberate incompetence is. Image Credit: Fotokannan @ MLWiki

If ministerial performance was anywhere in Chandy's mind, he should have given ten more berths to Muslim League (doesn't even matter if all ten of them refuse to light lamps, or refuse to stay in houses named 'Ganga') and removed Aryadan from managing the power ministry. Instead Chandy placated Aryadan with one more critical ministry - transport. Chandy also placated honorable NSS general secretary Mr.Nair by giving up home ministry to a nair. On hearing this, the real emperor of the nair hearts, Ramesh Chennithala went "WHAT?" "seriously?". Sonia Gandhi then placated both Ramesh & Chandy. I am not being funny, these things actually happened.

Four more years - What to expect

Antonyfication of Mr.Chandy: This trend will continue. A.K.Antony has a near angel status in congress politics. Even at the height of group wars in congress party, Antony never uttered a syllable against the raging Karunakaran faction. He used the time tested tactic of surrogates or in vernacular 'benami'. Oommen Chandy was his first lieutenant, and did most of the dirty work, including fighting Karunakaran within the ministry, resigning in protest over a paltry Rajya Sabha seat, and finally bringing 'leader' down. Mr.Chandy primarily works through two 'benamis' - chief whip P.C.George and Idukki M.P. P.T.Thomas. Do the item numbers that come out of chief whip's mouth originate in Chandy's head? - that's a safe assumption to make if last year is any indicator. Advantage for Chandy here is the fact that unlike Antony, Chandy has the solid personal backing of one powerful malayalam newspaper - Malayala Manorama. No other politician in Kerala has such an advantage. Disadvantage for Chandy here is the fact that Oommen Chandy is not A.K.Antony. And everybody knows that.

Butterflies and Spaceships: Mega projects will be the key word. Because Kochi Metro, Vizhinjam, Smart City, and Techno City are inherited from the previous LDF government, this government will come up with bullet train ideas like building cities in the sea in Kochi, issuing ration cards in less than three seconds (who cares if PDS is ruined), emerging Kerala road shows, and of course the 50,000 crore bullet train that runs in Chandy's dreams. All the while this government will refuse to fund the 450 crores needed for first phase in Vizhinjam. Will not take a stand: Especially against the worst religious and caste forces in our society. One good example is the "Thirukesam" controversy. A sunni sect in Malabar is raising crores of rupees to house a strand of hair supposedly belonging to the prophet. CPIM state secretary brought this issue to the mainstream by publicly condemning the sect's attempt at misleading people. When Mr.Chandy was asked about this, he said he was incompetent to opine on religious matters. UDF's market leader position in supporting the worst within Kerala society will continue, especially in pockets in Malabar and most of central Kerala.

Will Sell: Chandy-Mani-Kunjali triad is a buyer’s delight. The Smart City deal they signed in 2006 is an example of how close we came to disaster. It took a year of negotiation by the LDF government to get rid of the draconian provisions in the agreement including giving InfoPark for free, and needing Tecom's approval for starting any IT park in central Kerala. While they are at it, this triad will sell. Be very careful.

Will not care: Kerosene shortage pushing fisher folk across the coastal belt into poverty, central government screwing us over in railway budget and rice allocation and power from central pool, profit making state PSUs going into losses on UDF government's watch, Kochi and Trivandrum reeling under piles of garbage, and the state's hard won gains in healthcare and education at risk. There will be no policy response. As consumer inflation was going through the roof, this government allocated 50 crores for market intervention. Yes 50 crores. We will see policy responses similar to this.

Jokes apart, in a fast changing, globalized socio-economic situation, a government (like the previous LDF administration during the financial crisis in the Gulf, and food price inflation) is supposed to come up with rapid policy responses which will mitigate the impact of these macro headwinds on the people of the state. If Ramesh Chennithala reads this, he will be like "WHAT?" "Seriously?".