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‘A huge population is starving. Who will look after them?’
Tête à tête

You would expect someone who loves Malayalam drama music to have a bit more, well, drama in his persona. But there’s nothing spectacular about Karupassery Varkey Thomas, central minister of state for food, civil supplies and consumer affairs. Yes, he has a black, semi-circular desk bearing a statuette of Mary and Jesus in his wood-panelled room at New Delhi’s Krishi Bhavan. And his passion for aquatic life he loves angling in Kerala’s backwaters is on display. A huge aquarium marks his room. There’s one at home as well. He even offered to install one at Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s house. “She said, no let the fish be in the sea,” he laughs.

Thomas has come to his office straight from the airport. “I’m just back from my constituency (Ernakulam),” he explains.

Clearly, the 65-year-old chemistry professor-turned-politician loves connecting with his voters. While he was a minister in Kerala, he would make it a point to visit homes during marriages and deaths. Now that he is at the Centre, he has to be content with sending a message. His staff back home makes sure Thomas Maash (short for master) is kept updated on every leaf that stirs in Ernakulam. “I know every ward in my constituency,” he says.

That is why he usually busies himself flipping through children’s magazines he has an enviable collection of Tinkle at home on counting day. “My wife says how can you be so relaxed? I say I am confident of winning.”

Thomas is accessible, amiable and garrulous. Rising food prices may be getting everyone worked up, but the minister is a picture of calm. With Diwali over, is he going to ease his clamp on sugar exports, which he had promised to review after the festival season? Sugar production was robust this year and Thomas has been under pressure to ease export curbs. “I am not against exports,” he says. “But is it good for the country to export and then re-import sugar?” Sugar mill owners and exporters were also not in favour of opening the floodgates, he points out. “They too favour some control.”

Sugar exports is just one of the issues on which Thomas is said to have clashed with his former boss, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, who had the additional responsibility of Thomas’s current portfolio. After Pawar requested that his burden be reduced, Thomas, who was minister of state under him, became minister of state with independent charge in January this year.

Since then the two have had differences on the exports of sugar, foodgrains and onions (with Pawar pushing for it and Thomas favouring a more cautious approach) and on the minimum support price (MSP) the government sets for farm products. The media went to town that a meeting of the empowered Group of Ministers on food headed by Pranab Mukherjee convened to discuss sugar exports was called off at the last minute because Thomas did not circulate the agenda note.

“That is not correct,” Thomas counters. “I drafted the agenda note. As the chairman was not there, I was not asked to present it. It is just a story. The media have the right to do stories.”

Like those about clashes between him and Pawar? “We don’t clash. I always consult him. All decisions are taken after discussions with Pranabji and Pawarji.” But is it possible for them to see eye to eye since Pawar has to bat for the producers of food and Thomas for consumers? It isn’t one over the other, he says. Farmers’ interest and consumers’ interest are linked. “If the farmers don’t produce, where will consumers go? And if consumers don’t have purchasing power, what will farmers do?”

Isn’t his proposal that separate ministries of fisheries and animal husbandry be carved out of the agriculture ministry an attempt to cut Pawar’s clout? “There’s nothing political about it,” he says. He has been saying this since 1984 when he first became a member of Parliament. When he was a minister in A.K. Anthony’s Cabinet in Kerala in 2001, he asked for the department of fisheries along with excise and tourism. “I am from the fishing community. I know its problems. Pawar used to send all files on fisheries and animal husbandry to me.”

Thomas being given charge of the food ministry at a time it has to pilot the Food Security Bill has been interpreted as a sign of Sonia Gandhi’s trust in him. He was one of the first visitors to meet her soon after her return from her surgery in the United States.

“The bill is mainly a product of Madam’s thinking,” he says and admits he leans more towards the National Advisory Council’s stand of a more expansive Food Security Bill than that of C. Rangarajan, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, who worries about its financial implications. “Please understand. There is a huge population that is starving. Who will look after them?”

Where will the money come from? “You have to find the money. Expenditure has to be controlled. So much is spent on other things.” Such as, I ask. He dodges that one. “I don’t want to start a controversy. Let us look at what and how we spend,” he replies.

So are the stories that he got into Sonia Gandhi’s good books by sending over thirutha (a variety of fish) curry true? “These are all tamashas,” he laughs. “Whenever I get fish I distribute it among friends. I also have a good kitchen garden and distribute what is grown there.”

“Madam” has always had regard for him, he says, because he was among those who remained loyal to her after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. And when his mentor, former chief minister K. Karunakaran, raised the banner of revolt in Kerala, Thomas split with him and openly announced that he was with “Madam”.

That was not an easy decision. “He used to say Thomas is part of the family.” It was Karunakaran who was responsible for Thomas becoming a minister under Antony, despite opposition from other party factions. Karunakaran took Thomas under his wing a little before the man who initiated him into politics Congress stalwart C.M. Stephen died in 1984. Thomas came in touch with Stephen when he joined the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the workers’ wing of the Congress, while studying at the Sacred Heart College in Kochi where he later taught as well.

Thomas got drawn into the trade union movement because a large number of people in his village Kumbalanghi were employed at the Kochi port. He also wrote articles in a bi-monthly journal called Socialist Labour. His family had interest in politics too his father and elder brother used to campaign for Alexander Parambithara, a former Speaker of the Kerala Assembly, who was the village school headmaster.

But he became politically more active in 1970, when he married Shirley, the niece of former state finance minister K.T. George. He, however, continued to teach, eventually retiring as the head of the chemistry department.

But his wife and children two sons and a daughter want him to quit politics, mainly because of attacks on his reputation which range from harmless charges such as the thirutha curry story to far more serious ones.

In 1996, a chargesheet was filed against him in the now-forgotten French espionage case. A French vessel supposedly on an aquaculture exploring mission was intercepted off the Kochi coast. Thomas was charged with criminal conspiracy for allegedly asking the port authorities to help the crew. The court acquitted him, saying the charge was without basis. “It was all political,” he shrugs.

Then there was the controversy over his tulabaram (where a devotee is weighed against an offering) at the Guruvayur temple in 1984, after he won a Lok Sabha election with a thumping majority. “I have a lot of faith in Guruvayurappan as well as Mother Mary in Vellankani (a church in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu),” he says. That gesture rebounded on him during the 2001 Assembly elections, when posters with pictures of him at Guruvayur surfaced outside every church on the Sunday before election and after campaigning had ended.

“Bible says only one God. K.V. Thomas says Guruvayurappan help me. Is he a true Catholic?” the posters asked. By evening Thomas heard that nuns and priests were asking people not to vote for him. The next day, the posters disappeared from outside churches and came up outside temples. “I lost some Christian votes, but gained many more Hindu votes,” he chuckles.

The incident, though, hasn’t stopped him from patronising the Shivakshetra temple in Ernakulam. He offers a can of coconut oil on the opening day of its annual festival and has lunch at the temple, where he probably doesn’t waste a morsel.

Wastage of food at feasts is something that bothers Thomas, who is believed to be in favour of bringing back old guest control laws which limited the number of guests that people could invite as well as the number and kinds of dishes they could serve. But Thomas refutes this.

“I was never in favour of a law,” says. He says he prefers an awareness campaign instead and has written to education and state departments across the country asking them to make it part of the curriculum.

Now that’s what is called a combination of a Maash and a minister. And once a master, always a master.

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