Kochi over Thiruvananthapuram: How Hibi Eden landed Congress in a tight spot in Kerala

Thiruvananthapuram was made capital of erstwhile Travancore in 1745, when king Marthanda Varma shifted it from Padmanabhapuram.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jul 03, 2023 | 7:13 AM Updated Jul 03, 2023 | 7:16 AM

Eden

When Congress leader Hibi Eden moved a private member’s Bill in the Lok Sabha in March this year seeking the shifting of Kerala’s capital from Thiruvananthapuram, in the far south of the state, to the centrally-located Kochi, he may have thought it was a smart move.

The plan to shift the capital to the largest city and commercial capital of Kerala was apparently aimed at pleasing his electorate ahead of the fast-approaching Lok Sabha elections.

That demand has now snowballed into a major controversy, almost isolating the young leader — who represents Ernakulam Lok Sabha constituency that houses Kochi — in his party.

It has also opened up a pandora’s box for the Kerala unit of the Congress, which is hoping for a smart recovery in the upcoming election by riding on regionalist sentiments.

Union government seeks opinion

Night view padmanabha temple

A night view of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvanathapuram. (Supplied)

While most of the private bills moved in the Lok Sabha and different state Assemblies go unnoticed, Eden’s Bill — with the limited intention of pleasing his electorate in Kochi — boomeranged when the Union Home Ministry forwarded it to the LDF government in Kerala, seeking “its immediate decision to proceed with further measures”.

By doing so, the BJP-led Union government flagged the subject for a discussion. The party perhaps anticipated an anti-Congress backlash in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency, where the Congress normally emerges first by pushing the BJP to the second position, and the CPI(M) to third slot.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, ever on the lookout for an occasion to weaken the Congress’s clout in Thiruvananthapuram and the adjacent Attingal constituencies, saw it as a potential weapon to whip up sentiments against the grand old party.

His office soon made public the government’s reply to the Union ministry, rejecting outright the demand from Hibi Eden. Vijayan termed the move impractical and noted so in the file.

An emotional issue

Once in the public domain, the demand soon became an emotional issue, with netizens in the Thiruvananthapuram and adjacent Kollam districts turning against the Congress and Hibi Eden.

They declared that Thiruvananthapuram had remained Kerala’s capital even after the reorganisation of states in 1956 for historical and practical reasons.

It also sparked name-calling, with some describing Kochi as a crowded city with poor infrastructure, and very little means of sustainability.

Satheesan

V D Satheesan, opposition leader. (South First)

Others cited studies to point out that Kochi was unsafe because of the large-scale reclamation of the backwaters, lakes, and other water bodies, and that the coastal town would sink into sea waters in another 50 years.

The BJP and its Yuva Morcha workers in Thiruvananthapuram organised protest marches condemning Hibi and the Congress.

At the same time, CPI(M) and DYFI leaders in the state capital demanded legal action against Hibi for invoking regionalist feelings to disrupt harmony in the state.

It was then the turn of Congress leaders — mainly local MP Shashi Tharoor, Attingal MP Adoor Prakash, and Thiruvananthapuram District Congress Committee president Palode Ravi — to denounce Hibi Eden and declare that nobody could shift the capital from Thiruvananthapuram.

With the erstwhile Travancore Royal Family members joining the debate, the Congress state leadership started feeling the heat.

Despite being an MLA from the Kochi region, Leader of Opposition VD Satheesan rejected outright Hibi’s claim and said the Bill was moved without the party’s consent.

He also described the demand as immature, and said the Congress would not allow the shifting of the capital from Thiruvananthapuram, the seat of the erstwhile Travancore dynasty.

Even the RSP, which is the Congress’ alliance partner and has influential pockets in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam, told the party to hold Hibi responsible and accountable for playing with regionalist feelings.

Pros and cons debate

Meanwhile, social media users from other parts of Kerala took the controversy to another level, Taking Hibi Eden’s side, they cited the problems people in north Kerala have in accessing Thiruvananthapuram.

In his Bill, Hibi said that people from the northern districts of Kerala found it difficult to travel to Thiruvananthapuram for various purposes as the city was situated at the southern tip of the state.

Thiruvananthapuram residents replied by citing the example of Tamil Nadu, where the capital Chennai is located on the northeastern edge. They also cited the magnanimity their forefathers showed by allowing the state’s high court to function in Kochi.

Kerala is one of the few states where the high court does not functioning in the capital, which even lacks a bench.

Pinarayi Modi

Pinarayi Vijayan receiving Modi at the Trivandrum airport. (Supplied)

According to Vijayan, a shift of the capital from Thiruvananthapuram was unnecessary as the city enjoyed the status since the formation of Kerala.

Moreover, the entire basic infrastructure needed to function as a capital city already existed in Thiruvananthapuram, he noted.

On the other hand, Kochi was a metro city facing a lack of space for further expansion and development, according to him.

“In such a situation, shifting the capital for no reason will cause a huge financial burden for the state government,” said the government in its reply to the Union ministry.

Damage control

Attingal MP Adoor Prakash told South First that the Congress had held no discussions on shifting the state capital.

“It isn’t easy to change the capital. Thiruvananthapuram has always been the capital of Kerala. Shifting of the capital is a matter that doesn’t need an urgent discussion,” he added.

“No one in their right mind would make such a suggestion, given all the government departments and facilities available in Thiruvananthapuram,” said AA Rahim, the CPI(M)’s Rajya Sabha member who hails from Thiruvananthapuram.

Congress MP and son of late party leader and former Chief Minister K Karunakaran, K Muraleedharan shared similar views when he said Eden’s move without consulting the party was “unacceptable”.

Thiruvananthapuram, as state capital since Kerala existed, had a lot of facilities, like an international airport and places of worship of all faiths, within the city, and therefore, there was no question of moving the capital to Kochi.

“I do not know what prompted Eden to propose the move, but the state capital cannot be shifted on someone’s wish. He should have consulted the party before such a move,” he said.

Satheesan said that while Eden was like a younger brother to him, he immediately conveyed his “strong dissatisfaction” to the Ernakulam MP when he learned about the proposal.

Speaking to reporters in Kochi, Satheesan said that Eden had been asked not to press the Bill in the Lok Sabha and to withdraw it.

Satheesan said it was a private member’s Bill and did not indicate the stand of the party, which did not approve the proposal.

“The Congress does not want to shift the capital to Kochi, which is pressed for space as it is. Thiruvananthapuram is the best place for it,” he added.

Tharoor enters the fray

Tharoor Pongala

Thiruvananthapuram Mp and Congress leader Sashi Tharoor with devotees on the eve of Pongala. Photo: Supplied.

Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor said he completely rejected the proposal by Eden as it was “illogical”.

He also said there was some “mischief” on the part of the Centre seeking views on the Bill by Eden to shift the state capital even before he was permitted to table it in the Kerala Assembly.

“Hibi Eden has the right to move such a Bill, but it is an illogical decision. I completely reject it,” he said.

He said in another tweet: “Some light relief for the weekend! Kerala: Congress MP ?@HibiEden wants the state capital shifted to Kochi, @CMOKerala notes its impracticality, @ShashiTharoor says ‘wholly without merit’.”

CPI(M) leaders and state ministers P Rajeev and V Sivankutty also criticised Eden’s move.

Sivankutty said that the state government had already disagreed with the suggestion to the concerned authorities. “The suggestion is impractical and immature. It will not be allowed,” he told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram.

Rajeev said the proposal indicated Eden’s decision to contest the general elections from Ernakulam and nothing more. “His party leadership has criticised and rejected his move,” he said.

CPI(M) leader MM Mani said he believed that no one in their right mind would make such a suggestion.

Meanwhile, some members of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha — the youth wing of the BJP — burned Hibi Eden’s effigy in the state capital as a mark of protest.

Thiruvananthapuram: Since 1745

When contacted by South First, historian Malayinkeezhu Gopalakrishnan recalled that Thiruvananthapuram was made the capital of erstwhile Travancore in 1745, when the king Marthanda Varma shifted it from Padmanabhapuram, currently in the Kanniyakumari district of Tamil Nadu.

Varma shifted the capital to Thiruvananthapuram mainly because of its proximity to the Padmanabha Temple and different royal residences.

Tharoor

Sashi Tharoor, centre, with fellow Congress MPs from Kerala at a reception to Bharat Jodo Yatra in Thiruvananthapuram (KA Shaji/South First)

When the princely states of Travancore and Kochi were integrated into the Indian Union in 1949, Thiruvananthapuram was chosen as the combined capital by leaders from both princely states.

When Kerala was formed on 1 November, 1956, the governments at the Centre and state decided to retain Thiruvananthapuram as the capital. As compensation, the high court was awarded to Kochi.

The clout of the then-Travancore kings on the national leadership of the Congress was cited as one reason for Thiruvananthapuram being chosen as the capital of Kerala.

However, historians say Kochi showed no indication that it would become a big metropolis in the future.

“Back then, Thiruvananthapuram was the second city across South India to be completely electrified, after Chennai,” noted Gopalakrishnan.

“In 1956, Thiruvananthapuram was the first city in South India to have a full-fledged sewage draining system for its residents. It was the first city in the South to implement the concept of drinking water through pipelines,” he added.

“Above all, the city had many buildings to house the government departments of Kerala. At that time, Thiruvananthapuram airport was the only airport down south,” recalled Gopalakrishnan.

(With PTI inputs)