LS polls coming, Kerala's faction-ridden Cong has task on hand

Barely hours after joining the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government in Kerala, Ramesh Chennithala – the incumbent Congress chief in the state – was in television interviews, swearing by the party’s unity with a sagely composure.

 Chennithala, all through the eight years of his tenure as Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president has displayed admirable poise even in the face of opposition from his own party which had, earlier, delayed his long-due induction into the State Cabinet.

This is the second term for Chennithala as minister, 27 years after his first. For someone widely seen as the second most powerful party leader in the state now, after Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, this could be dubbed a rather long break. Responding to pointed questions with references to ghosts from the past and faction fights that played a key role in those “humiliations”, Chennithala repeatedly said that all’s well that ends well.

Looking ahead of “closed chapters”, the new minister who has taken over the key Home portfolio, has maintained that his focus would be on bolstering the government and the UDF ahead of the Lok Sabha election. As the KPCC chief and face of the Congress-I (Indira) group in the state, Chennithala was left to deal with some serious factionalism within the party. In his new role in the State Cabinet, at the helm of an important department, the challenges will be markedly different but the task, equally daunting.

The central leadership of the Congress will see the apparent resistance, at least from some quarters of the state unit, against Chennithala’s elevation as Home Minister after a snag that has been fixed. The party has to look ahead; it’s facing a crucial general election in about four months and it could do with more time to regroup and re-energise itself. Looking at the way the Congress has courted controversies over the last year, Chennithala is its best bet to bring in confidence among the cadre and have some pep back into the UDF campaign in the state’s 20 parliamentary constituencies. The Congress high command’s priorities were clear when it entrusted Defence Minister A K Antony with the task of formalising Chennithala’s entry in the Cabinet.

For one, Chennithala’s entry as minister could work as an image overhaul – even if cosmetic – for the scandal-scarred Congress and the UDF that has some dominant, fiercely vocal allies. Formal discussions on his Cabinet induction as home minister had gathered steam after Chandy landed in the solar panel controversy that exposed links between his personal staff and fraudsters who lured potential investors into solar and wind energy projects that never took off. The discussions were repeatedly hijacked through pressure tactics, reportedly by the more dominant ‘A’ (Antony) faction of the Congress that includes the Chief Minister himself and its allies including the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).

Morale booster

Now, as Chennithala walks in with assurance from the party’s top brass in Delhi, dissent has been blunted. This assurance, in effect, could also double as a morale-booster for the common party worker whose role has been undermined by the compulsions of coalition politics. The ‘I’ faction will find it reassuring that Chennithala has taken over the reins of home department from Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, a prominent ‘A’ faction leader who has been accused of not acting “favourably” for the party in its hours of crisis.

K Sudhakaran, a powerful Congress MP from the Left bastion of Kannur and a prominent ‘I’ group leader, has been one of Radhakrishnan’s staunchest critics. With Chennithala at the helm of the home department, Sudhakaran and Congress workers in the politically volatile northern district will be looking at stronger backing from the department as they take on the CPI(M). Chennithala, however, will have to tread cautiously here because any move that gets dubbed as cadre appeasement could also dent his credentials as a minister.

The high command nod to Chennithala is also seen as part of the Congress’ agenda to reinstate the religion/caste balance in the state Cabinet. Hindu caste outfits have raised concerns on key government decisions being taken by the trio of Chandy, IUML leader P K Kunhalikutty and Kerala Congress (M) chairman K M Mani while undermining the presence of prominent Hindu leaders in the ruling front. The induction of Chennithala, a Nair, could be the Congress way of warming up to the Nair Service Society (NSS) and its belligerent chief G Sudhakaran Nair. The new minister, a day after joining the cabinet, also visited Nair in what appeared to be an attempt to ease tension and address their issues from the past.

In recent years, law and order issues have not been a major concern for home ministers in the state but with constant media scrutiny, an aggressive opposition front and adversaries within the party waiting to pounce on, Chennithala will have his task cut out. The UDF is set to commence preliminary talks on seat allocation for the election and the front will benefit from a ceasefire within the Congress ranks. But any sceptical political observer who has had a taste of feuds within the state Congress since the 1990s is more likely to wait before endorsing the truce as one for the long haul.

The CPI(M) feels that Ramesh Chennithala’s induction is the Chandy group’s ploy to find a fall guy for an impending loss in the Lok Sabha election. The obligation to prove conspiracy theories wrong will now have to be shared by the two sparring factions.

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