For students of international development, Kerala has been an exceptional case study for human development: unparalleled social and land reforms, human development indicators comparable to western nations, the first democratically elected communist government and spontaneous community movements.
Plus the verdant nature, high-brow literature, art-house cinema and performing arts that brought laurels from all over the world.
But, under Oomen Chandy, the present Congress chief minister leading a United Democratic Front (UDF), the state adds one more to the list of its exceptions: outrageous communal appeasement for political expediency.
The source of outrage is the recent cabinet reshuffle in which Oomen Chandy had to yield to the blackmail and threats of pullout by the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) for a fifth cabinet post. Chandy and the Congress have been resisting it for almost a year, ever since the UDF came to power, but finally gave up to save his government.
Traditionally, the Muslim League, a formidable Congress ally in north Kerala, gets four ministers; but this time, the helplessness of the Congress in running a government with a thin majority has emboldened them to ask for more, even if it meant blatantly open brinkmanship.
In fact, they not only have asked for five ministers, but also went ahead and announced their names and portfolios, a prerogative of the chief minister.
The Congress was outraged and spoke in discordant voices, either to a plan or inadvertently. The President of the state unit of the Congress, the chief minister, the chief whip of the UDF in the assembly, the convener of the UDF and the local unit leaders of the Congress kept discussing the issue publicly and on TV channels without offering clarity - some seemed to support, some seemed to oppose while some seemed to complete appease.
The Muslim League appeared confident and kept persisting that they will have a fifth minister. Overzealous party workers took out “green” processions proclaiming that the power centre of Kerala is Malappuram, the headquarters of the Muslim League.
The fifth minister for the Muslim League and the manner in which Oomen Chandy has cowed down to their pressure has led to an instant uproar among Hindu community leaders and a polarisation of public opinion, with the Left, and the BJP, slamming him for communal appeasement.
However, what made things worse was Chandy’s gesture of giving up two of his own plum portfolios, including home, for the Congress ministers belonging to two powerful Hindu communities, the Nairs and the Ezhavas, to offset the criticism that he gave away too much to the minorities or more precisely, the Muslims.
At present, the cabinet has seven Christians, five Muslims, and nine Hindus. Or 12 ministers from the minority communities and nine from the majority community. While the secular observers see this as outright communal politics; the CPM, the Nair and Ezhava leaders; and the BJP see it as pure minority appeasement. Not surprisingly, the CPM leader VS Achuthanandan has slammed Chandy while the BJP has called for a public protest.
In summary, Chandy’s ministry is all about shameless communal division. How many Muslims, how many Christians (mostly the powerful Syrian Christians, that too represented by different congregations such as Jacobite, Orthodox and Catholic, and one Latin Catholic) and how many Nairs, Ezhavas, SC and ST.
One community is still left out - the Nadars, who are influential only in some parts of Thiruvananthapuram. Nadars are likely to ask for a seat in the next bye-election in Neyyattinkara constituency in Thiruvananthapuram, that went vacant recently when the sitting CPM MLA resigned. Nadars had asked for a cabinet berth in May, but given their comparatively low threat-potential, it was overlooked. Their protest is still simmering.
The communal appeasement has been all too visible in the Congress leaders’ public behaviour as well. They constantly rush to Bishops of various Christian congregations; the house of Panakkadu Hyderali Shihab Thangal, the spiritual and political head of the IUML in Malappuram; and the headquarters of the Nairs (NSS) and Ezhavas (SNDP). They even have regular pointsmen to handle these communal power centres.
The factions of Kerala Congress, which represent the Christians, and the IUML together account for 29 MLAs in the UDF’s bench strength of 72. Congress has only 38 seats. Of this, the IUML alone has 20 seats. In terms of extracting the last ounce of flesh from the Congress, the IUML and the Kerala Congress are together, sometimes leading to charges that they act as a block within the UDF.
Chandy’s appeasement of the Muslim and Christian parties have led to criticism from within the Congress as well, with some leaders accusing him of succumbing to communal pressure. Justifiably, the Muslim leaders within the Congress complain that they do not get their due because the Muslim League usurp all cabinet berths that the community can get.
There are also charges that Chandy didn’t take the state unit of the Congress, including its president, into confidence before capitulating to the Muslim League demand.
Interestingly, the biggest beneficiary of the communal polarisation of the state will be the CPM and not the insignificant BJP. The CPM, in the past, had played the majoritarian electoral card, but of late they have also been making continuous overtures to the Christian and community power centres because that their blocks continue to be invincible bastions for electoral politics.
Perhaps this is an opportunity for the CPM to change track and stick to the old “secular” stand of no truck with communal parties. They can, in fact, boast that in their ministry, it was not the caste or religion that mattered, but politics and competence, when it came to allotting ministries. It had just two Muslims and three Christians.
Observers warn against any discussion on why five Muslim ministers (for 25 percent of the population) or seven Christian ministers (for 19 percent of the population) given its proclivity to lead to communal polarisation. Instead, the polemic should be on the communal appeasement of the Congress that vitiates Kerala’s political culture.