New turn in Congress rivalry

The pretense has been shed, and the knives are out. The real battle – for the chief minister’s post –  has begun  between the A group led by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and the Vishala I group headed by Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president Ramesh Chennithala.

The proximate cause for the sudden escalation in tension has, however, been the aggressive demand  for the deputy chief minister’s post with the Home portfolio for Chennithala and its swift rejection by the A group.  Ramesh can have the deputy chief minister’s post with any other portfolio. But Home, presently with Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, a staunch supporter of the chief minister, is non-negotiable, asserts Oommen Chandy. But Chennitha still insists on becoming the deputy chief minister with the plum post of Home. The resultant tension has forced the high command to intervene and impose a ban on the war of words which has vitiated the atmosphere.

The I group has squarely blamed the A group for the crisis; but the former must bear an equal share of the blame for precipitating  matters. The Vishala I group made a few tactical mistakes. It pitched its demands too high by insisting on the deputy chief minister’s post with home portfolio. Secondly, on being  rebuffed, a peeved  Chennithala, who  felt humiliated, upped the ante. In an  interview to an English daily, he said things can never be the same between the party and the government in the wake of the confrontation and the chief minister can go his way. Of course, Chennithala later denied giving any ‘official interview’ but significantly, he did not disown its content.

Now, in fairness to Chandy, it must be said no chief minister worth his salt can hand over the most sensitive Home portfolio to the leader of the rival group, whose not-so-hidden agenda is to replace him. Both the late K Karunakaran and A K Antony kept the Home portfolio with them while they were the chief minister. Also, there is no valid reason to take away the Home portfolio from Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan who was doing a fine job as the home minister. The present crisis would have blown over had Ramesh accepted deputy chief minister’s post with any other portfolio – a fair offer from the chief minister under the strained circumstances. But that was not to be.

What deepened the A group’s suspicions was the I group’s insistence on getting the Home portfolio. Conceding that demand would have opened a Pandora’s box. The result would be the emergence of a parallel power centre within the state cabinet – a proposition Oommen Chandy could not have viewed with equanimity, argue A group leaders. They also say that a deputy chief minister with any other portfolio would in any case be the number two in the cabinet. But the Vishala I group would not buy the argument.

But then, there is a method to the I group’s insistence on the Home portfolio. It is well known that the I group has all along been unhappy about the handling of the Home department by the Chandy government. The group leaders allege that the police obeyed only the orders and directives of the A group leaders, ignoring the pleas from the Vishala I group leaders. The issue had embittered relations between the two groups. This being the backdrop, to hand over the Home portfolio to Chennithala group is to invite trouble, contend the A group leaders. Hence their stubborn resistance to the idea of parting with the Home portfolio. Now that the high command has clamped a ban on the war of words, the I group may keep a low profile until the Lok Sabha elections, less than a year away. But one thing is for sure. The demand for the chief minister’s post for Chennithala will gather momentum post Lok Sabha polls.

The run-up to the Lok Sabha polls itself would witness hard bargaining for seats. Given the present hostility, the I group can be expected to make life extremely difficult for Oommen Chandy in the matter of seat-sharing. There is another reason why the Chennithala supporters may lie low until after the Lok Sabha polls. If the performance of the Congress in the Lok Sabha elect ions is not upto the mark, then they can blame Chandy for the debacle. And that would be a powerful input in the group’s campaign against the continuance of Chandy as the Kerala chief minister.

The high command, it goes without saying, has its task cut out. It can no longer take a tolerant view of rampant groupism in the Kerala unit of the Congress. The whip must be cracked, and the domination of the Chandy-Chennithala groups  ended. The Congress in the state must be made a more broad-based entity, accommodating in the KPCC and other bodies all shades of opinion and capable  leaders who are not part of the two dominant groups. That way alone lies ‘salvation’ for the state Congress. IPA
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