Obituary: A career marked by compassion; Congress’ ‘man of the masses’ in Kerala Oommen Chandy, 79

The two-time Kerala CM, who helped Congress consolidate in Kerala, breathed his last at age 79 in a Bengaluru hospital.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jul 18, 2023 | 11:33 AM Updated Jul 18, 2023 | 11:33 AM

Oommen Chandy

A bank officer then, Mariamma Oommen Chandy, recently recalled the first letter she received from her prospective bridegroom half a century ago — barely two weeks before the scheduled wedding.

Mistaking it to be her first love letter, Mariamma opened it with great enthusiasm. To her astonishment, it carried just one line.

Then an emerging popular leader of the Youth Congress in central Kerala, Oommen Chandy had written: “This is election time. Keep me in your prayers.”

Mariamma recalled that the marriage had been fixed just ahead of an election Oommen Chandy was contesting from his home constituency Puthuppally in the Kottayam district.

Rival candidate PC Cheriyan was a local strongman with considerable influence, which was why Chandy sought the prayers of his bride-to-be. Mariamma said she prayed, though she knew very little about Chandy’s politics or the causes he stood for.

When the results were announced, she heaved a sigh of relief. An electoral defeat would have been seen as the future bride bringing bad luck!

Till he breathed his last at the age of 79 in a Bengaluru hospital in the early hours of Tuesday, 18 July, Mariamma remained a source of steadfast support for Chandy as he charted a political career that saw him emerge as a powerful Congress icon in Kerala who went on to twice become chief minister of the state.

Also read: Former Kerala CM Oommen Chandy passes away in Bengaluru

Career marked by compassion and care

When his son Chandy Oommen tweeted in the early hours that his Appa (father) was no more, it marked the end of an illustrious chapter in Kerala’s politics.

Oommen chandy with Ak Antony

A file picture of Oommen Chandy and AK Antony. (Facebook)

Compassion and care for others remained Chandy’s hallmarks, and he placed these values above political and family interests.

A humble, affectionate, and warm politician, Chandy was a model to be emulated in public life. He never maintained any grudge against adversaries. He forgave even those who vilified him, and those who pelted stones at him, causing injuries.

A man of the masses who never said no to anyone who approached him for a favour, Chandy was a cut above the rest of his contemporaries.

Chief minister of Kerala from 2004 to 2006 and again from 2011 to 2016, Chandy holds the record as the longest-serving MLA representing a single constituency. He won from Puthuppally in 11 consecutive elections, and it remains perhaps the lone “sure seat” of the Congress in Kerala.

As a mark of gratitude to his loyal voters, Chandy named his Thiruvananthapuram residence “Puthuppally” years ago, when Mariamma bought it with the help of a bank loan.

He was first elected to the Assembly at 27, and was honoured in August last year for completing 18,728 days as a legislator.

Of the 12 chief ministers who served Kerala, Chandy holds the fourth position for longest tenure. He was the chief minister for 2,459 days.

Since the formation of Kerala in 1956, there have been 970 legislators in the Assembly. Of the lot, only KM Mani and Chandy completed 50 years as MLAs.

In between, the Congress veteran occupied many offices, including the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly and a minister in different Cabinets.

Related: End of the AK Antony-​Oommen Chandy era, and the road ahead

Doughty fighter

Responding to son Chandy Oommen’s tweet, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president K Sudhakaran wrote: “The tale of the king who triumphed over the world with the power of love finds its poignant end.”

Oommen Chandy with Karunankaran

K Karunakaran and Oommen Chandy with Lalu Prasad Yadav. (Supplied)

That summarises the awe-inspiring life of Chandy, a doughty fighter for the Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF) it leads in Kerala.

Until he was hospitalised in 2019 following multiple illnesses, Chandy travelled across the state, mingled freely with people and carved a place for himself in the hearts of the meek and the poor.

Chandy began his career in student politics in the central Kerala region comprising the Ernakulam, Kottayam and Alappuzha districts. He became a face of the Kerala Students Union (KSU), the party’s student arm, and preceded other Congress stalwarts like Vayalar Ravi, MM Hassan and VM Sudheeran.

He was a trusted lieutenant and conscience keeper of Congress strongman AK Antony (later chief minister and Union minister), a man known for integrity in public life. And together they fought then chief minister and Machiavellian politician K Karunakaran, their arch-rival within the party.

Chandy often led the internal rebellion against Karunakaran, especially when the party strongman displayed autocratic tendencies.

Chandy was minister for labour in the first Karunakaran Cabinet (1977) and the first Antony Cabinet (1977-78).

In the second Karunakaran Cabinet (1981-82), he held the Home Department. He also served as the finance minister from 1991 to 1994 in the fourth Karunakaran Cabinet.

Related: Books by political rival put Oommen Chandy back in spotlight

Allegation and absolution

Ever a target of the rival LDF in Kerala, especially under Pinarayi Vijayan, Chandy faced a major political crisis in 2013 when the sensational multi-crore solar panel scam shook the foundations of the UDF under him.

Allegations of sexual exploitation and corruption were levelled against him.

Oommen Chandy with KM Mani, AK Antony and Ramesh Chennithala.

Oommen Chandy with KM Mani, AK Antony and Ramesh Chennithala.

After Vijayan came to power, a special session of the Assembly was convened on 9 November, 2017, to table the report of an inquiry  commission into the solar panel scam that indicted Chandy.

Barely two weeks before he breathed his last, two books by eminent personalities exposed the Justice G Sivarajan Commission, which probed the scam, as agenda-driven.

The books suggested that commission depended on unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and sexual exploitation levelled by one of the prime accused, a woman, against Chandy and his Cabinet colleagues, and made them murkier.

CPI leader C Divakaran and retired IPS officer A Hemachandran used their autobiographies to describe how Chandy was a target of false allegations and blackmail.

However, at the time, the 1,000-page report became a powerful political tool in the hands of the CPI(M) and LDF to reap electoral advantage by portraying Chandy and his party in poor light.

Yet, despite tall claims of initiating criminal proceedings against Chandy and others based on the commission’s report, Vijayan — who has been in power for seven years now — has been sitting on the recommendations, and nothing has been done.

Tales in two biographies

In his autobiography, Divakaran hinted that Sivarajan was bribed, apparently by his LDF colleagues, to damage Chandy’s reputation.

A Communist known for his integrity and probity in public life, Divakaran wrote in his Malayalam autobiography Kanalvazhikaliloode (Through the Embers) that the commission accepted some ₹4-5 crore to prepare the “kana kona” (senseless gibberish) report.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan (left) with his predecessor Oommen Chandy. (pinarayivijayan/Twitter)

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan (left) with his predecessor Oommen Chandy. (pinarayivijayan/Twitter)

Despite the observations of the commission, the CBI, which probed the sexual exploitation allegations, finally absolved Chandy and other Congress leaders.

In his service story, Neethi Evide? (Where is Justice?), former DGP Hemachandran, who led the SIT that probed the scam, also levelled allegations against the Sivarajan Commission.

The former officer said Sivarajan was more interested in unearthing lewd details about the prime accused woman and indulged in “moral policing” during the commission’s proceedings.

Hemachandran detailed his experiences while deposing before the Sivarajan Commission in the chapter, “Solar Commission: Alpayussaya Report thudarchalanangalum” (Solar Commission: A short-lived report and its repercussions).

“The Solar Commission’s terms of reference were the fraud involved and related matters. However, the panel did not investigate the fraudsters behind the scam or their victims. Instead, the commission spent all its efforts and time on unrelated matters, especially on the personal lives of the accused and their alleged sexual affairs with various people,” the former DGP wrote.

KPCC president Sudhakaran alleged that Vijayan influenced the commission to make adverse remarks against Chandy.

Whatever the future course of the controversy, the two books helped Chandy regain his lost image of a simple and popular leader just before his death.

Also read: Oommen Chandy joins Rahul Gandhi on Bharat Jodo Yatra

The ISRO case and after

Chandy’s role in the whole affair came into focus yet again earlier this year when a division bench of the Kerala High Court pulled up the CBI for lapses in the investigation of the sensational Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) espionage case almost three decades ago.

Former KErala chief minister Oommen Chandy with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra on Sunday, 18 September, 2022. (Supplied)

Former Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra on Sunday, 18 September, 2022. (Supplied)

The court came down heavily on the central agency for providing a clean chit to controversial IPS officer and the then inspector general of police Raman Srivastava, who was accused of misusing his position to help the key accused in the case.

Though then chief minister and Congress heavyweight Karunakaran’s name did not figure anywhere in the investigation or the observations by the court, the issue had snowballed into a major political controversy that resulted in the veteran leader having to put in his papers — thanks to a campaign orchestrated by Chandy.

A sizeable number of Congress leaders rallied behind Chandy, then the finance minister, as he openly contended that Srivastava dared to misuse his position to create the bogus espionage case only because of his proximity to Karunakaran, who protected and promoted the officer.

Looking back, the ISRO spy case, which rocked Kerala in the 1990s, resulted in a long-awaited churn in the politics of the Congress in the state.

It marked the eclipse of the long and chequered political career of Karunakaran, known for his totalitarian approach to government and party affairs.

A new era in the Congress

On the other hand, it signalled the emergence of the Arackaparambil Kurien (AK) Antony-Oommen Chandy combine in Congress politics, promising an approach markedly different from that of Karunakaran, who invested heavily in his cronies, and often used the police to crack down on opponents.

Congress leader Tharoor and Oommen Chandy

Sashi Tharoor with veteran Congress leader Oommen Chandy and his family in October last year. (KB Jayachandran)

As Antony prepared to take over the reins of the state as chief minister for a second time the next day, Chandy, who had actively led the charge against Karunakaran, did not stake claim to the top spot himself — perhaps because he had played second fiddle to Antony since their student politics days.

But few in the Congress could have predicted that the duo would dominate the party in Kerala for the next two decades — occupying the chief minister’s chair in the state twice each.

Antony’s departure for Delhi as Union defence minister allowed Chandy to emerge from his shadows. He took over from Antony for a short stint and was back for a full term from May 2011 to May 2016.

“Despite their political differences, Karunakaran always acknowledged Antony and Chandy’s roles in rebuilding the party in Kerala, which had become organisationally weak in the mid-1960s after a massive split,” recalled senior Congress leader Cherian Philip.

“They built a strong network of young and determined leaders, including Vayalar Ravi, VM Sudheeran, and MM Hassan, and infused a new life into the organisation, which faced severe challenges from the Left parties,” Philip, who had a two-decade dalliance with the Left and unsuccessfully contested against Chandy at Puthuppally in 2001, told South First.

“They (Antony and Chandy) began Congress politics together and retired together. Now Chandy is no more. The party will have to work hard to fill the void he left behind,” he added.

Agitation that built many careers

Antony was an active KSU worker during his school days in Cherthala. In 1958 (a year after the KSU was formed), the then Communist government under EMS Namboodiripad nationalised the Kuttanad waterways. It increased the concession boat fare for students from one anna (six paise) to 10 paise.

The KSU launched a strike against the fare hike, the Orana Samaram (one-anna strike).

Oommen Chandy airlifted

Oommen Chandy with former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. (Oommen_Chandy/Twitter)

MA John, Vayalar Ravi, PK Kuriakose, AK Antony, and Oommen Chandy were the student leaders who led the strike, which the police tried to suppress with brute force.

“The Orana Samaram organised by the KSU attracted me to the organisation. I jumped into the protest,” Chandy recalled many times.

The EMS government eventually surrendered to the students.

“The strike spread like wildfire in Kerala. The student concession became a reality. No future government dared to touch the concession issue,” Antony once noted.

The Orana Samaram was the first successful student strike in Kerala and shaped the political careers of several future leaders. It was also seen as the precursor for the Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Struggle), which led to the dismissal of the EMS government on 31 July, 1959.

Right from the beginning, Chandy remained a disciplined follower of Antony and never attempted to grow in national politics.

From 1970, he contested and won continuously from his home constituency, Puthupally, to the state Assembly.

Oommen chandy with AK Antony and Ramesh Chennithala.

Oommen Chandy with AK Antony and Ramesh Chennithala. (Supplied)

Despite being No 2 in the Karunakaran ministry of 1991-1995, he had to wait till 2004 to become the chief minister — after Antony had vacated the post following an anti-incumbency wave in the Lok Sabha election.

He got a second term in 2011, a year after Karunakaran’s death. The high command, meanwhile, took Antony to the national capital as a crisis manager.

Who will fill the leadership vacuum created by the death of Chandy, who never groomed a second line of leaders to take over?

Ramesh Chennithala, an old lieutenant of Karunakaran, is still on the scene, but few in the party think he is a replacement for the two retired veterans.

In the last Assembly election, Chennithala failed to emerge as a unifying force among rival groups in Kerala.

Opposition leader VD Satheesan is young and enthusiastic, but needs more ground support.

“Chandy has left us, leaving a deep void behind. His contributions are innumerable and will help the party face future challenges,” said Satheesan in his condolence message.