After Oommen Chandy: His legacy, and the new political possibilities in Kerala

The Congress is attempting a ride to recovery by using the legacy of Oommen Chandy while the CPI(M) finds it tough to overcome the challenge.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jul 22, 2023 | 10:20 AM Updated Jul 22, 2023 | 10:20 AM

Sonia Gandhi paid tributes to Oommen Chandy in Bengaluru

Just a day after Kerala accorded the biggest farewell in its history to Congress heavyweight and two-time chief minister Oommen Chandy, political circles are agog with assessments of the legacy of the “man of the masses”.

Speculation is rife about how much it could favour the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which is attempting a ride to recovery after sitting in the state Assembly’s Opposition benches for a second term — and is also hoping to replicate its performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when it won 19 of the state’s 20 seats.

A sea of humanity thronged the midnight funeral venue, and spontaneous public participation was witnessed duing the 28-hour-long final journey carrying the coffin from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram to Chandy’s native Kottayam.

The turnout virtually shocked Kerala’s ruling CPI(M) as well as the BJP, which is attempting to gain a foothold in the state by somehow weakening the Congress.

It may be noted that Chandy’s last rites were conducted without state honours because, according to his family, it was one of his last wishes.

Obituary: Oommen Chandy, 79, Congress’ ‘man of the masses’ in Kerala

Attempt to tarnish legacy

A series of social media posts by the cyber wings of the CPI(M) and the BJP, which appeared on Friday, 21 July, clearly indicated how much the Congress’ rivals fear the posthumous popularity of Chandy.

Oommen Chandy funeral

Aerial view of Oommen Chandy’s body being taken into Thirunakkara Maidanam. (Supplied)

They attempted to blame the Congress state unit for deliberately prolonging the final journey and the funeral, apparently causing much discomfort to ordinary people.

In saying so, they appeared to have forgotten the fact that it was ordinary people — many of whom were from marginalised communities — who constituted the tens of thousands who gathered along the Main-Central, or MC, Road, which connects Thiruvananthapuram to Kottayam.

It was their presence — and insistence that the cortege halt often so that they could pay the leader their last respects — that turned what was expected to be a four-hour final journey into the unprecedented 28-hour-long affair that it turned out to be.

Many CPI(M) handles on social media recalled that the funeral of legendary Marxist EMS Namboodiripad — another two-time chief minister — was held within three hours of his death as the party was keen to avoid discomfort to the ordinary people.

However, they forgot the fact that the funerals of eminent CPI(M) leaders EK Nayanar and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan were conducted in the same way the Congress did in the case of Chandy — with a long final journey in which the coffin was taken by road.

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Compassion over case?

Congress leader Tharoor and Oommen Chandy

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

Meanwhile, the case registered against award-winning Malayalam actor Vinayakan by the Kerala Police for derogatory remarks against Chandy in a Facebook video also triggered large-scale discussions over the unprecedented mass participation in the funeral.

Vinayakan used harsh language to question the three-day official mourning declared to honour Chandy by saying he felt no respect for the Congress leader, who possessed no “extraordinary” talents.

Vinayakan said the long final journey carrying the coffin of Chandy was awkward.

Within an hour of the controversial statement, Congress workers pelted stones at his residence and burnt his effigy in different locations.

But on Friday, the deceased Congress leader’s son Chandy Oommen issued a statement requesting the state police to withdraw the case against Vinayakan as his late father was never intolerant of, or vindictive towards, those who criticised him.

Related: Oommen Chandy is laid to rest sans state honours, as he desired

Chandy Oommen’s statement seemed to have nipped in the bud an attempt on social media to damage the reputation of Oommen Chandy by supporting Vinayakan’s right to expression and freedom to be a contrarian.

Opposition leader VD Satheesan told South First the developments indicated that the rivals of the Congress feared Oommen Chandy even after his death.

“They now realise that the phenomenon called Oommen Chandy has not vanished with his death. His legacy remains solid. It continues to help large-scale consolidation of secular and liberal people in favour of the Congress and the UDF,” he said.

“Oommen Chandy’s politics and care for others would continue to be our leading lights,” he added.

By all indications, the funeral of Chandy proved beyond doubt that Congress in Kerala was not a spent force, as propagated by the CPI(M) and the BJP.

The final hours of Chandy reflected how much the state cared for the Congress, despite adverse campaigns.

Related: Malayalam actors remember a down-to-earth person

Allegations refuted

In the case of Chandy, he was able to leave behind a clean legacy, with those who levelled serious allegations against him repenting later and confirming that they were false and fuelled by political vengeance.

Chandy

Former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy walks along with Rahul Gandhi in Bharat Jodo Yatra. Photo: K B Jayachandran

The sexual exploitation allegation under the sensational solar scam case were shown to be a fabrication just weeks before his death as two books — one by a rival politician and another by a retired police officer — revealed the motive.

“Now the whole of Kerala realises how much injustice vested interests did to Chandy when he was alive. People feel sad over the impact of the false allegations on his health and well-being,” said senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala.

“Our political rivals now realise they must fight a stronger Chandy after his death. So it is natural that they find fault with his funeral,” he added.

“The party prepared the funeral schedule by consulting the family, the state government, the police, and Church authorities. We never tried to derive any political mileage from the sympathy wave created by his death,” said Chennithala.

In all probability, framing false charges — including that of sexual exploitation — against Chandy, who always ensured integrity and transparency in all his dealings, could haunt the CPI(M)-led LDF in the upcoming Lok Sabha election and Assembly elections, as well as in the long run.

Within hours of his death, a former consulting editor of the CPI(M)’s Malayalam-language mouthpiece Deshabhimani apologised on social media for being part of an organised bid to link Chandy to the solar scam, and to level sexual-exploitation charges against him.

N Madhavan Kutty, the journalist who has often defended Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in television discussions, almost immediately came under attack by the CPI(M)’s “cyber comrades”, who sought to portray him as a person who had little to do with the decision-making process at the Deshabhimani.

The “consulting editor” tag was just a title and he was never consulted on policy decisions by the newspaper, they claimed.

Also read: End of the AK Antony-​Oommen Chandy era in Kerala

Son-rise on the cards?

Meanwhile, the immediate challenge the political leadership in Kerala faces after the death of Oommen Chandy is the soon-to-be-held byelection to the Puthuppally Assembly constituency, which was occupied by the Congress heavyweight for 53 continuing years.

The Assembly secretariat has already informed the Election Commission of India about the vacancy.

The CPI(M) State Committee, which met in Thiruvananthapuram on Friday to evaluate political developments, is of the view that the byelection would be notified along with the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

The CPI(M)’s candidate is expected to be Jaik C Thomas, a leader of the Students Federation of India (SFI) — the party’s student arm — who lost the 2021 Assembly election to Chandy by a margin of 9,044 votes.

Chandy

Chandy Oommen with PC Vishnunath MLA close to the body of his father. Photo: Supplied

As far as the UDF is concerned, the constituency will naturally go to the former chief’s minister’s son Chandy Oommen, a national-level office-bearer of the Indian Youth Congress.

A graduate of St Stephen’s College in Delhi, Chandy Oommen was also part of the Bharat Jodo Yatra by Rahul Gandhi.

During the last journey and funeral, Chandy Oommen sat close to his father’s body for one night and two days and made an emotional speech at the end.

Chandy Oommen’s statement requesting the police to drop the charges against the actor Vinayakan also went down well with those who revere his father.

The UDF has a tradition of fielding a close relative of the departed leader in by-elections.

In the recent past, KS Sabarinathan replaced his late father G Karthikeyan in Aryanad, while Anoop Jacob became an MLA in place of his late father TM Jacob in Piravom.

Uma Thomas won the byelection in the Thrikkakara constituency last year when her husband PT Thomas died following an illness.