Something fishy? Learn why Kerala’s LDF government appointed Congress’ KV Thomas as its Delhi rep

Ex-Congressman KV Thomas will enjoy Cabinet rank in New Delhi as he seeks to bridge the Vijayan-Modi chasm.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jan 23, 2023 | 1:00 PM Updated Jan 23, 2023 | 1:45 PM

KV Thomas Thirutha Kerala

Some five decades ago, when the late K Karunakaran was lording over the Kerala unit of the Congress as conscience-keeper of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a rallying point for anti-Left forces in the state, he had a chance meeting with a lower-rung party leader of Kumbalangi on the outskirts of Kochi.

The leader, who hailed from the state’s powerful Latin Catholic community and was a chemistry professor at a local college, invited Karunakaran home for lunch.

Among the dishes served to Karunakaran was a fish curry with Flathead Grey Mullet, a brackish water fish known as Thirutha in Malayalam, Madavai in Tamil, and Kathiparega in Telugu.

For fish lovers among Malayalis outside Kochi, Thirutha was a rarity — an expensive fish which thrived largely in the backwaters of Kumbalangi and its surroundings.

Karunakaran fell in love with the fish.

And for Karuppassery Varkey Thomas, or KV Thomas, who arranged the Thirutha feast for Karunakaran, the lunch marked the beginning of an illustrious political career that thrived both at the state and national levels.

The fish that travelled

Flathhead Grey Mullet, or Thirutha, a brackish water fish found in the backwaters of Kerala.

Flathead Grey Mullet, a brackish water fish known as Thirutha in Malayalam. (Supplied)

In the early days of his political career, Thomas would carry the fish curry in tightly sealed containers on his visits to Thiruvananthapuram, where Karunakaran — and eventually his family — relished it.

When Karunakaran became chief minister of Kerala, a routine was set: Thomas’s family in Kochi would prepare Thirutha-based fish curries every morning and hand them over to a  waiting police team.

The team would then take the curry to the nearby military airport, where a Thiruvananthapuram-bound Air India pilot would receive it.

In Thiruvananthapuram, the chief minister’s staff would receive the containers before noon and ensure they reached the chief minister’s dining table by 1 pm for lunch.

Needless to say, the Thirutha ensured Thomas had a special relationship with Karunakaran. And it got him the ticket to fight the Lok Sabha election in 1984. He won, and, since then, has occupied many key posts, including ministerships at the Centre and state.

Ever grateful to the fish

K Karunakaran Thirutha KV Thomas

Former Kerala chief minister K Karunakaran. (Supplied)

The chemistry professor, fondly referred to as Thirutha Thoma, has never shied away from speaking of how the fish helped him.

Veteran Malayalam journalist PT Nazer recalls one of his interviews with Thomas in the early 1980s in which the ambitious leader elaborated on how Thirutha enriched his political career.

In subsequent years, Thomas spoke with pride to media persons about how he won the hearts of Congress leaders in New Delhi by taking the Thirutha by flight to the national capital and distributing it to them.

Among the major fans of the Thirutha curries was none other other than Sonia Gandhi, and the fish apparently helped Thomas establish a close association with 10 Janpath.

Years passed, and Karunakaran turned a bitter critic of Thomas in his final years for a variety reasons, including the backroom manoeuvrings of the now-retired college professor to benefit Karunakaran’s arch rival AK Antony.

And in New Delhi, Rahul Gandhi emerged as the person who mattered in the Congress and had not place for Thomas in his inner circle. Moreover, Rahul seemed least interested in Thirutha.

Disenchantment and exit

Thomas slowly grew disenchanted with the Congress. Though he gave many reasons for his displeasure with the party, the denial of a ticket in the 2019 Lok Sabha election may well have been the primary one.

KV Thomas. Thirutha

Former Congress leader KV Thomas. (KB Jayachandran/South First)

But even as he distanced himself from his party, Thomas, ever the politician, was building new bridges.

On the one hand, he began going soft on the BJP-ruled Centre, often praising the administrative abilities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And, on the other, he evolved into a close confidant of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, even defying the Congress leadership to attend a seminar during the national conference of the CPI(M) in Kannur.

Matters came to a head when a byelection was announced in 2022 in Thrikkakara — one of the Assembly segments in his erstwhile parliamentary constituency of Ernakulam — following the death of the sitting Congress MLA PT Thomas.

In the face of Congress leaders calling him a political turncoat without principles, KV Thomas actively campaigned for the CPI(M) candidate and against Uma Thomas, the wife of PT Thomas.

That the CPI(M) candidate suffered a humiliating defeat, losing by a margin of some 25,000 votes in a state known for close elections and wafer-thin margins, just went to prove that Thomas had lost popular support in a constituency he had won in 1984, 1989 and 1991, and again in 2009 and 2014.

Clearly, the Congress had taken the right decision in fielding the young Hibi Eden instead of KV Thomas in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Back in business

After almost a year in political hibernation, Thomas and his favourite fish Thirutha are back in the news, with Chief Minister Vijayan naming him Kerala’s special representative in New Delhi — in the rank of a Cabinet minister.

Thomas’s appointment in the national capital is unusual as it is in addition to that of retired IFS officer Venu Rajamony, who is an officer on special duty in Delhi, and Kerala cadre IAS officer Puneeth Kumar, who is the state’s resident commissioner.

Accepting the new responsibility, Thomas expressed the confidence that he would do well in his new position as he enjoyed a strong personal equation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as top industrialist Gautam Adani, whose group is at loggerheads with the Latin Catholic Church in Vizhinjam.

As the position comes with a monthly salary of ₹1.5 lakh, an office, personal staff, a secretary, and a car in Delhi, the Opposition Congress has termed the appointment a sheer waste of public money at a time the state is facing an acute financial crisis.

But Thomas has suggested that he could do wonders by effectively liaisoning for Vijayan’s pet but controversial infrastructural projects like the Vizhinjam international seaport and the SilverLine High-Speed Rail.

Related: Kerala’s ambitious SilverLine project comes to a halt

What the critics say

While critics say Vijayan has posted Thomas in Delhi to liaison with the BJP leadership and the central government to avert raids by the Income Tax Department and the Enforcement Directorate, they do agree that the former Congress leader is a man for all seasons and political parties, and may well be of use to the state government.

Also, on occasions when the Sangh Parivar targets the CPI(M) in its only surviving citadel, Thomas could be a mediator who works out compromises.

K V Thomas

KV Thomas. (KB Jayachandran/South First)

“Thomas knows every nook and cranny of Delhi’s power corridors. For Vijayan, he may a better tool than Rajamony or Puneeth Kumar,” opined advocate A Jayasankar, a political commentator and a friend of Thomas right from his formative years.

The appointment has also evoked resentment even within the CPI(M), with cadres asking why the Left party was promoting and rehabilitating a Congress defector in a big way.

They also recalled the not-so-distant past when CPI(M) leaders mocked Thomas as “Thirutha Thoma” and portrayed him as a symbol of all that is ugly in terms of backdoor manoeuvring in the corridors of power.

Related: Fuming church makes LDF scramble for Vizhinjam solution

Political equation

Politically, for the CPI(M), Thomas’s appointment is a good way to assuage the Latin Catholic community which has started distancing itself from the ruling dispensation in Kerala following the crackdown on the anti-Adani agitations related to the Vizhinjam international port, which were led by the powerful Latin Catholic Church.

K V Thomas

KV Thomas. (KB Jayachandran/South First)

As Thomas is equally close to Adani and the church’s bishops, the party hopes to use his clout to avoid future collisions.

Interestingly, the CPI(M) and Vijayan have chosen Thomas for such a crucial post at the age of 76, at a time the party has denied ministerships and parliamentary positions to its 75-plus leaders.

But then Thomas is known for his ability to win friends and influence people.

However, the Thirutha has been an integral part of his diplomacy all these years. That weapon in his armory will clearly not work with Modi and the top BJP who are all vegetarians.