A retired bureaucrat was waiting at Thiruvananthapuram airports departure lounge when a man introduced himself and said he was going with his son for an interview at the US consulate in Chennai. The bureaucrat asked him whether his son had got admission to a US university or whether he was heading there for a job. The man then pulled out a letter. The letter had been written by Oommen Chandy to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton saying, this man is from my constituency and I hope you will be helpful, chuckles the former bureaucrat. The letter was in Malayalam.
That story is apocryphal, but it says a lot about Chandy, who became Keralas chief minister for the second time on Wednesday (he had a 20-month stint in the job from August 2004). Chandy, 67, finds it difficult to say no. Ask the former labour, finance and home minister which of his portfolios was his toughest and he replies, finance. It is difficult for me to say no to anybody. The word no does not exist in my dictionary. As finance minister I had to say no to many people, he says. Not surprisingly, hordes of people rush to him for favours all the time.
That late April evening, however, is a rare exception he has only a handful of visitors, among them a woman who wants to invite him to a wedding. Chandy uses Cantonment House, the sprawling bungalow assigned to Keralas leader of the Opposition, as his office. He lives in his own house and did so even during his last stint as chief minister.
Like most government residences in Thiruvananthapuram, Cantonment House is not exactly marked by spit and polish. A verandah opens into a room, followed by a bigger room with clunky furniture a large desk and six or seven chairs on each side of the table. Chandy sits at the head of the table, with files piled up in front of him, aides within call.
Chandy is tall, with a shock of thick white hair and the Malayalee mans obligatory moustache. He has a reputation for looking dishevelled sartorial elegance has not been his strong point. Today, though, hes wearing a spotless white bush shirt and a white mundu, Keralas dhoti. And like most of the states politicians, he opts to speak in Malayalam.
So what issues does Kerala confront? Its infrastructure is poor, its higher education shoddy and unemployment high. We should try for maximum investment in Kerala, to create more jobs. By developing infrastructure, by attracting investments, we can aim for further development, says Chandy. At the same time, we should give a portion to the poor. So development and welfare are the issues.
The Congress-led coalition likes to think that it is pro-development and that the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) is not. But tell Chandy that the LDF did well on social security measures and he retorts, This is only propaganda. He points out that the last United Democratic Front (UDF) government launched a scheme to provide rice to people below the poverty line for Rs 3 a kg, with a ceiling of 25 kg per family. So a household paid Rs 75 for 25 kg of rice. When the LDF came to power, it offered rice for Rs 2, but put a cap of 17 kg per family; the rest had to be bought on the open market. The states political parties compete in providing benefits for the poor.
They compete too in trading corruption charges. When the LDF was in power in the late 1990s, it filed a case against IAS officers and UDF politicians, including former chief minister K. Karunakaran, accusing them of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to import palmolein in early 1992, and of causing a loss to the exchequer. Chandy, who was finance minister then, had signed the file proposing palmolein imports without any comment and placed it before the Kerala Cabinet. He was not accused in the case, but the LDF reopened the investigations this year and sought to include him. On May 13, he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Similarly, the UDF has accused the LDF of corruption in the SNC-Lavalin case. The Canadian company had been hired when the CPMs Pinarayi Vijayan was power minister to renovate hydro-electric projects.
What sort of chief minister will Chandy be? A workaholic, certainly. He used to put in 18-hour days during his last tenure, sitting till 2 am in office to clear files. That evidently did not go down well with his wife, a retired Canara Bank employee, and his children two daughters, both married, and a son, whos studying at St Stephens College in New Delhi. Theyre none too excited about him becoming chief minister again. Naturally there are issues and difficulties in the family, he concedes a trifle sheepishly.
Chandy has no hobbies other than meeting people. He says he doesnt have the time to read books and only scans the newspapers briefly. My hobby is interacting with people. I fear solitude the most. If you send me to a lonely place for a month where I cannot have any contact with the masses, I will become a big zero. My knowledge is what I gather from the people I contact. I do read all the letters sent by people, he says.
Bureaucrats whove worked with him say that Chandy is a multi-tasker. He gives the impression of being in a hurry and not listening to people he meets, but actually listens to more than one person simultaneously.
Hell also undoubtedly install a web camera in his room so that whatever transpires there is visible to anyone who logs into his website, as he did during his previous tenure as chief minister.
Still, some Kerala bureaucrats privately say that Chandy is no Nitish Kumar wholl chart a revolutionary course in the state. He has also been accused of being too soft to take hard administrative decisions. Generally I dont take decisions that cause pain to others, Chandy concedes. There I am a bit soft. But in certain situations we will be forced to take hard decisions. He laughs when asked if he was responsible for expelling Karunakaran from the Congress party Chandy was on defence minister A.K. Antonys side in their fight against Karunakaran, who quit the Congress and floated his own party in 2005. I had to reject some of his undue demands. I didnt budge when he tried to frighten me. I agree that I did not beg him not to go when he left the party. Had I done so, maybe he would not have gone.
Yet other observers think that Chandy is underestimated. He was able to take very crucial decisions when he was finance minister, says a former bureaucrat. In the face of trade union opposition, he shut the states evening colleges after an open university made them redundant and because they were a drain on the exchequer.
Inevitably, hes compared with Antony, his mentor and friend. Antony has excellent public relation skills (on a flight from Delhi, he once went down the aisle shaking every passengers hand). Chandy is none too bothered about his image. So hes not very well known outside Kerala, unlike his more flamboyant predecessor, V.S. Achuthanandan.
Both Chandy and Antony are widely regarded as being honest. Antony bends over backwards to maintain his image of probity. Antony is a man who preaches some extreme things but practises them in his life too. I am a bit more practical, says Chandy.
Yet Chandy is regarded as being more of a go-getter than Antony. A former senior minister in Keralas LDF government privately says Chandy is a doer who was very active in his last stint as chief minister high praise given the fierce political party rivalries in the state.
Antony, civil aviation minister Vayalar Ravi and Chandy go a long way back. All three started in student politics Ravi was president of the Congresss Kerala Students Union (KSU), followed by Antony and then Chandy. But Chandy traces his introduction to politics even earlier, when he joined the Malayala Manoramas Balajana Sakhyam, an organisation that trains young men and women in social commitment and personality development. He became its president and came into contact with political leaders.
Politics runs in his veins. His father ran the familys school at Puthupally near Kottayam, but his grandfather had been a member of the first legislative council in British India. Make no mistake Chandy is a veteran of state politics who slept on newspaper bundles in the corridors of buses and trains, was beaten up when he was a KSU organiser, and was a trade unionist.
A Syrian Orthodox church member, Chandy has represented Puthupally for 41 years. He won from there for the tenth time in the latest Assembly elections inching close to the record held by K.R. Gauri Amma, 92, who won elections to the Assembly 11 times and to that of K.M. Mani, whos won for the twelfth time. Little wonder, then, that his house in Thiruvananthapuram is named Puthupally House.
Chandy will have to use his soft touch and political skills, thanks to the UDFs wafer thin majority. Expect him, then, to put in even longer hours on the job and for wife Mariamma to stay unhappy.