Kerala’s one of the most prominent politicians and former Chief Minister, Shri Oommen Chandy, passed away on 17th July 2023. His demise was a shocker for the state and undoubtedly will shake its political landscape. Kerala Politics is typically known for its duality between the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). Unlike other states in India, Kerala has had a very stable and predictable political environment. There have been very few leaders who have had a long-lasting impact on the people, either due to their actions or charisma. Oommen Chandy was definitely an exception with a mix of both characteristics. His demise will leave a big void in both the Congress and Kerala politics. Many people believe Oommen Chandy is the polar opposite of CM Pinarayi Vijayan today, and thus, their leadership styles are different.
The Legacy of Oommen Chandy- a rare gem of Kerala
Oommen Chandy had been the tallest leader in the Congress for the past two decades in Kerala. He served as the Chief Minister of the state from 2004-06 and later for a full term from 2011-16. Before entering electoral politics, he was a well-known student leader. Most importantly, he was elected as the MLA from Puthupally constituency in Kottayam district ten times in a row, with 53 years of relentless public service. He was a people-friendly and benevolent leader whose demise brought thousands of people on the road from the 17th to the 19th just to have a last glimpse of him. He was very accessible to the people and a generous politician.
Oommen Chandy rose to the post of Chief Minister after A K Antony resigned to take up the Defence ministry in the UPA I and II. Since then, Oommen Chandy served as the CM twice and also as the opposition leader from 2006-11. During his tenure, he was well known for his simple lifestyle, dedication, and public service. In 2011, under his leadership, UDF pulled off a slim victory with 72-68. For five years, he kept the coalition strong despite massive opposition from the LDF and allegations of corruption and misgovernance. Under his tenure, several developmental projects such as Kochi Smart City, Vizhinjam Port, Kochi Metro, Medical Colleges in all districts, Kannur International Airport, and Petronet LNG terminal were initiated. Most of the development projects initiated under his tenure are not fully credited and it remains in other controversies. The voters in his constituency and the entire district adored him as their own family member and thus had an emotional connection with him. Oommen Chandy also received the UN Award for Public Service for his Mass Contact Programme.
Fall of Oomen Chandy’s popularity, the change in party and beyond
Since 2016, Oommen Chandy’s popularity started waning due to the massive loss of the UDF-led alliance in the 2016 assembly elections. Ex-Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala took charge as the Leader of the Opposition followed by V D Satheeshan in 2021. Oommen Chandy, since then, could not rise back to glory. He did not hold any significant post in the party’s leadership. In 2021, his involvement was highly restricted to a few discussions, focusing more on the contest in his own constituency. He was largely alienated within the party, except for being an MLA. His ill health and inability to pull off a victory restricted his larger role in Kerala politics.
After 2016, Congress became weak, and UDF lost several of its important alliance members like Kerala Congress (M), Socialist Janata Dal (SJD), Kerala Congress (B), etc. Except for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections’ performance, Congress and UDF had nothing to cheer for in the past seven years. Senior leaders such as P C Chacko and K V Thomas had left the party citing their alienation from the party. Unlike other Congress strongholds, Puthupally has a strong foothold for the CPI-M. In 2021, Oommen Chandy became the MLA for the 11th time with only a margin of 9,000 votes compared to a margin of 27,000 votes in 2016.
How Oommen Chandy’s Vacuum Will Shape Congress Party and Kerala Politics
Kerala’s Congress party is well known for factionalism. The fight between the Antony and Indira group is well-known nationwide. Oommen Chandy has been the tallest leader of the A group since the demise of K Karunakaran. A group is smaller and less influential compared to the I group. Hence, with a tall leader like Oommen Chandy gone, the A group is going to be weaker and insignificant. On the flip side, the I group is far more superior and filled with extremely competitive leaders waiting to rise up the ranks. More leaders will struggle to get leadership posts and might even try to jump ship if not taken into consideration. Leaders like Ramesh Chennithala, who has been his main rival and an aspirant for the post of Chief Minister, will be emboldened. He also has the support of social organizations like NSS on his side, which is essential for Congress to keep the support of the Upper-castes.
Looking into the most looked-after political event sought after Oommen Chandy’s demise, the Puthupally assembly bypoll, we can expect a massive sympathy wave benefiting the Congress. This was witnessed in past bypolls such as Aruvikara bypoll after the demise of G Karthikeyan and in Thrikkakara after the demise of P T Thomas. The party is yet to decide who will contest from Puthupally to take over Oommen Chandy’s legacy. The most prominent name hints from both the party’s patterns and popular opinion is that it will be Oommen Chandy’s son, Chandy Oomen. Unlike his father, Chandy Oomen is not a charismatic leader and has no experience in electoral politics. However, Chandy Oomen was a KSU leader, also an important face of the party locally, and even participated extensively in Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. The CPI-M might choose young leaders like Jaick C Thomas or Reji Zachariah, who have contested against Oommen Chandy before and are familiar with the local political environment.
There are multiple reasons why Chandy Oomen is their best bet. Congress may not be ready to give in on this fight, especially in a very sensitive seat, which has seen its victory margin reduced. Also, they believe they can make the best use of the anti-incumbency of the LDF government and sentiments in Favour of the Chandy family. It is yet to be seen who will be chosen to contest in the bypoll by the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), which should be held within six months. Congress cannot leave this golden chance to strengthen the party and bring it to life before crucial elections in 2024, 2025, and 2026.
Can Congress Recover Citing the Popularity of their Ex-CM Oommen Chandy?
From 2001 when UDF got 99 seats to LDF getting 99 seats in 2021, the Congress-led UDF is seeing a stagnation in its public approvals. Except for a marginal victory in 2011, getting two seats more than the majority, the electoral politics of Kerala did not provide justice to Oommen Chandy’s leadership. Despite his popularity and people-friendly image, Congress never got the electoral benefit of the same. No doubt that he was a popular and dedicated leader, Oommen Chandy’s popularity is restricted to Southern Kerala and is not influential in the Malabar region, which has always been favourable to the Left and Indian Union Muslim League. This sentiment never helped Congress in 2015, 2016, 2020, and 2021. Congress has structural problems that have hurt it in many recent elections. Even though lakhs of people see Oommen Chandy as a great leader, the same cannot be said for the Congress party as a whole. Hence, it is highly doubtful whether Oommen Chandy’s current popularity can help Congress achieve victory in the upcoming general elections. With the demise of the honourable and people’s leader, Congress is going to lose its grassroots connection, without which it cannot succeed against an alliance like LDF. The Congress party itself will have to fix various issues within the party on leadership, factionalism, distinct ideology, cadre, etc., to win the hearts of Keralites.
The author does not intend to hurt the sentiments of any leader, political party, or alliance.
Note: This Article is originally written by Mr. Jairam R Prabhu