Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has the image of an indomitable and tough politician, who often silences his political opponents with sharp retorts. Few dare to cross swords with him. But of late, Vijayan has found a persistent and pesky political foe in the Congress party’s Mathew Kuzhalnadan.
Kuzhalnadan is no political heavyweight. In fact, he is a first-time MLA from Muvattupuzha. But he has been launching scorching attacks against the chief minister, leaving him visibly flustered and angry.
The effectiveness of Kuzhalnadan’s offensives can be gauged by the heavy counter-attacks by the treasury benches, some of it degenerating to the level of character assassination.
And each time the Congress MLA succeeded in provoking Vijayan, the chief minister mostly responded with threats, trying to intimidate him. Besides disrupting his speeches, the treasury benches have often threatened to rough him up outside the House.
The Assembly witnessed a rare scene last week. The Speaker had to adjourn the House for a day after the ruling party members continuously shouted slogans against Kuzhalnadan.
Across India, treasury benches rarely disrupt the proceedings of Parliament or state Assemblies.
Who is Mathew Kuzhalnadan?
Mathew Kuzhalnadan, 46, lives at Paingottoor village near Kothamangalam in Ernakulam district with his wife and two school-going children.
Hailing from what he described to South First as a “Congress family” (his parents were staunch party supporters), Kuzhalnadan took to active politics as a member of the Kerala Students Union (KSU), the students arm of the Congress.
CPI leader Eldho Abraham was his collegemate and they still maintain a camaraderie despite Kuzhalnadan defeating the Left leader, the sitting MLA of Muvattupuzha, by a huge margin in 2021.
Kuzhalnadan graduated in law from the Kerala Law Academy in Thiruvananthapuram, before earning a doctorate in International Trade Law from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.
It was as a lawyer that Dr Mathew Kuzhalnadan first associated with Shashi Tharoor and became part of the team that formed the Professionals’ Wing of the Congress.
He was also the national secretary of the Youth Congress. He persuaded several professionals to join the Congress, and won the confidence of the party high command. He became an active worker of the Congress in 2015.
He was among the first leaders in Kerala, who supported Tharoor when the latter filed his nomination papers to contest to the post of the AICC president, which he lost to Mallikarjun Kharge.
Attacks on Mathew Kuzhalnadan
The animosity he today faces from the LDF is not limited to the House.
Desabhimani, the Malayalam mouthpiece of the ruling CPI(M), recently carried a report accusing the Congress MLA of transporting loose soil beyond the permission granted to him.
The report, quoting anonymous sources in the state Mining and Geology Department, said he ferried an additional 2,734 metric tonnes of soil for constructing his house. He was granted permission to transport 5,306 metric tonnes of soil.
The MLA refuted the allegation. He told South First that he had removed only the permitted quantity of soil. He added that he had not received any notice from the Mining and Geology Department.
CPI(M) Central Committee member and former minister AK Balan, meanwhile, convened a news conference to challenge Mathew Kuzhalnadan’s allegations against Vijayan.
Balan, known to be a trusted lieutenant of Vijayan, said no other Congress leader had dared to single out Vijayan and level charges amounting to character assassination. Kuzhalnadan, the former minister said, was doing it for cheap publicity.
Stepping up the attack against Kuzhalnadan, CPI(M) MLA V Joy used a public platform to raise doubts over the authenticity of the Congress leader’s Master’s degree in International Trade Law from JNU.
Minister for Industries P Rajeeve warned the MLA against attacking Vijayan, whose authority is seldom challenged by anybody in Kerala politics. The warning was issued in the Assembly.
But all these developments failed to silence Kuzhalnadan, who has been dabbling in politics even while pursuing his legal profession at the state high court and in the Supreme Court.
Speaking to South First, Kuzhalnadan expressed happiness over provoking Vijayan more than the black flags that are being waved at him. The protest is over new taxes and a huge surcharge on petroleum products.
From PwC to LIFE Mission
Mathew Kuzhalnadan had been maintaining a low profile till June 2022 when he grabbed headlines by launching a broadside against Vijayan.
The chief minister was furious after Kuzhalnadan raised the allegation that global consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) had recommended the gold smuggling case accused, Swapna Suresh, to the newly established Space Park of the IT Department. The PwC honchos were considered close to the chief minister’s daughter, Veena Vijayan.
Vijayan was angry that his daughter’s name was dragged into the issue. He termed the allegation outrageous and practically called Kuzhalnadan a liar.
The MLA produced documents at a news conference in support of his allegations. Vijayan did not mention the PwC issue again.
Last week, the Kerala Assembly witnessed a repeat of June last year, when an aggressive Kuzhalnadan moved the adjournment motion.
The MLA linked Vijayan to the Wadakkanchery LIFE Mission scandal and fired uncomfortable questions at the chief minister.
The Congress leader also quoted from the Enforcement Directorate’s remand report on M Sivasankar, the former principal secretary to the chief minister and an accused in the LIFE Mission scandal.
The MLA even quoted WhatsApp chats between Sivasankar, Swapna and some of the accused in the case in which the chief minister’s name was mentioned.
The treasury benches disrupted the business of the House when Kuzhalnadan asked the chief minister whether he had endorsed a letter that appointed the controversial contractor, Unitac, to construct the Wadakkanchery flat complex.
Unitac is said to have bribed politicians and officials, which led to the scandal.
Kuzhalnadan also sought to know whether Vijayan had met UAE’s consul general along with Swapna, as mentioned in the remand report. He challenged Vijayan to deny the allegations.
When the chief minister denied the allegations terming them lies and accusing Kuzhalnadan of arguing the case of central investigating agencies, the lawyer-politician dared the chief minister to approach a court against the Enforcement Directorate.
He said the Congress would stand by Vijayan if he proved that the central agency was spreading lies against the chief minister in power.
“I don’t want your advice to do whatever I intended to do,” was Vijayan’s retort.
When the ruling front challenged Kuzhalnadan to table the WhatsApp chats as evidence in the Assembly, he replied that he was ready to place not just the chats but also the whole remand report.
The government saved face by saying that documents under the court’s consideration should not be tabled in the Assembly.
Mathew Kuzhalnadan shatters Vijayan’s ironman image
According to senior journalist and social observer G Pramod Kumar, Mathew Kuzhalnadan achieved what his fellow Congress legislators could not.
“Vijayan has created an image of his own as an ironman, and no Opposition leader dared to challenge him head-on. But in the face of the successive attacks by Kuzhalnadan, the image of the chief minister has been destroyed. We saw Vijayan as a weak politician who could be easily provoked,” Kumar said.
Kuzhalnadan was a relatively unknown face in Kerala politics until he won Muvattupuzha, which used to alternate between the LDF and UDF. He was a national office bearer of the Congress wing for professionals.
He became the Congress candidate in Muvattupuzha as a loyalist of Congress heavyweight Ramesh Chennithala.
Still, Kuzhalnadan remains the conscience keeper of Shashi Tharoor, irrespective of the differences between Chennithala and the Thiruvananthapuram MP. At the organisational level, he is a general secretary of the KPCC.