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How Thomas Chandy’s Reluctant Resignation Pits CPI Against CPI(M) in Kerala

The raging debate of the widening gap between the two communist parties has cropped up once again with the recent developments in Thiruvananthapuram.

Thomas Chandy. Credit: Facebook/MLAThomasChandy

It took almost three days for Thomas Chandy, who had been accused of land grab in the Alappuzha district of Kerala, to quit the transport minister’s office after the Left Democratic Front entrusted the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to take an appropriate decision. According to Chandy, neither the chief minister nor the CPI(M) state secretary demanded his resignation, but it was him who offered it. He expressed confidence that he would be back in the helm once the Supreme Court clears his name in the case.

It was the high court of Kerala’s extraordinary remarks that castigated Chandy – for filing a petition against his own government and for encroachment. The businessman-turned-politician approached the court challenging the Alappuzha district collector’s report against him for violating rules to construct a parking area and a road through a paddy field to his resort, Lake Palace in Alappuzha. The high court has observed that a minister approaching a court against the government – the district collector in this case – goes against the constitutional principle of collective responsibility of the cabinet.

Even after the court’s remarks, Chandy was in no mood to tender his resignation and it seemed that the chief minister was also soft-pedaling the issue, giving room for speculation and conspiracy theories. To make things worse, the CPI, the second largest constituent of the coalition, decided to revolt in public with its ministers boycotting the cabinet meeting, citing Chandy’s presence. Obviously the media, television in particular, had been going at the minister hammer and tongs for the last couple of months. With pressure mounting from all sides, Chandy reluctantly handed his resignation to the party state unit president.

The constitutional crisis may have been averted for the time being, but not without the government losing its credence after making tall claims of a ‘crusade against encroachers and land mafia’. Moreover, with the organisational conferences underway, the CPI(M) may find it very hard to convince its own cadres, let alone the polity, why the government went soft on the ‘tainted’ minister.

Chandy is the third minister to exit the Vijayan cabinet since the Left-led government came to power last year. It took not more than a week for E.P. Jayarajan, who had been the de facto number-two in the cabinet, to quit when an allegation of nepotism was raised against him by a section of the media. A.K. Saseendran from Chandy’s party was next to go after being accused of having telephone sex with a woman, who later turned out to be an undercover reporter. He tendered his resignation immediately after the conversation was aired on a local channel. Chandy had replaced him in the cabinet in April.

Many political observers, including some ardent supporters of this government, feel that the CPI(M) used a different yardstick to evaluate political morality in Chandy’s case. The party’s leadership, especially chief minister Vijayan, who was at the forefront to uphold moral values in the other two cases, has been accused of conveniently overlooking issues when it came to Chandy.

It was the CPI’s pressure tactics that proved crucial in Chandy’s exit from the cabinet. They took a stubborn position which, for a moment, literally shook the very foundation of the LDF. Revenue minister E. Chandrashekaran gave a letter to the chief minister before the cabinet meeting saying that they were not ready to attend the meeting in the presence of Chandy, a move the chief minister later termed as unprecedented and extraordinary.

Chandy, in his petition to the high court, pointed to the CPI-ruled revenue department, and said:

As the wild allegations continued, based on the intervention of the office of the Minister for Revenue, an ‘unfair’ inquiry was conducted by the 3rd respondent, fully discarding the principles of Natural Justice. An interim report was also sent on 22.09.2017 behind the back of the petitioner and other affected parties, finding in contravention with the finding of her predecessor, who had settled the very same issues.

This portion of the petition irked the court which went on to rebuke him, calling the act ‘extremely improper’, ‘amounting to violation of collective cabinet responsibility’.

Chandy and CPI leader Pannian Raveendran had an open confrontation in the LDF meeting. The CPI used the situation into its advantage – posing as the real champion of Leftist politics – and forced the resignation of the minister, to thundering applause from the gallery.

Thomas Chandy (second from right) with chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan (centre) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the launch of the Kochi metro. Credit: Facebook/MLAThomasChandy

Political analysts like T. T. Sreekumar see this as a replica of political events that unfolded during 1967-69, that resulted in the walking out of CPI from the E.M.S.-led coalition government. Sreekumar, in his Facebook post, said with a tinge of sarcasm:

It will not be a ‘tragedy’ for a mere survivalist like Vijayan, since LDF still will continue to enjoy absolute majority even if CPI is expelled. But if CPI(M) believes that it has no chance in Kerala without CPI being in the front, then it makes sense to listen to their demand and ask Chandy to quit. CPI(M) has never ruled Kerala without an alliance with CPI.

CPI has been playing the opposition with-in, ever since the LDF government assumed the office or even before that. CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran, who is known for his not-so-friendly attitude towards their Marxist big brother, does not miss any opportunity to push them to the wall.

The land encroachment row in Munnar, the proposed hydroelectric project in Athirappilly, and the native people’s strike against the LPG plant in Puthuvyppin, are some of the issues that found CPI and CPI(M) on opposite sides. In all these issues, the CPI plays the role of opposition, aligning with environment groups who are protesting against the government. In many of these cases, the CPI leadership showed political acumen and raked up the sentiments of veteran CPI(M) leader V.S. Achuthanandan, causing political embarrassment to the leading party in the government.

With Chandy resigning from the cabinet, the gap between the two communist parties – who seem to not be on the same page about aligning with the Congress in the fight against the BJP – seems to be widening. Some second-rung leaders and cadres from both parties have started a full-fledged war of words on social media platforms after the CPI kept its ministers away from the cabinet meeting. A leader of the CPI(M), on condition of anonymity, said that the CPI’s act was nothing but ‘fishing in troubled waters’.

The CPI leadership knew that Chandy had no other option but to put in his papers, yet they chose to revolt in public. What it means is simple, they want smaller parties like NCP thrown out of the front, which could give them the upper hand in the coalition.

As per the present strength of the coalition, the government will survive even if the CPI pulls the plug. The 91-MLA-strong LDF bench has 64 members from the CPI(M) including the party-backed independents, 19 from CPI and eight others.

CPI, on the other hand, clarified that the ‘extraordinary’ action it took was because of the ‘extraordinary’ situation that arose. In a special editorial on page one of their party mouthpiece Janayugam, the party state secretary reiterated that it was the duty of each and every constituent of the LDF to stand against corruption at every level. The party says that it resorted to extreme steps only when the situation was getting out of hand.

In what it reads to be a dig at the CPI, CPI(M) central committee member and senior minister A. K. Balan has gone on record stating that no party has a particular image in a coalition but the government in total that has one.

The simmering tension in the LDF is likely to transform into a public duel between the two communist parties with both deciding to go public with their stance on the incidents that resulted in Chandy’s ouster.

It is very intriguing to see that the Congress-led opposition too is showing no considerable interest in a political situation handed to them on a platter. Apart from some statements by the leaders and stray incidents of protest by the Youth Congress, no solid opposition came up against Chandy or the government. To Vijayan’s relief, even the BJP seems to be in no mood to organise a large scale protest.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.