In Kerala, the Congress-led UDF is facing one of the worst anti-incumbency waves it has ever seen, still the party is tying itself in knots because the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president thinks a cleansing at this stage might be its only chance of redemption.
The anti-incumbency stems from a single factor — corruption or the perception of corruption. For more than a year, both the Congress and one of its main allies, the Kerala Congress of Syrian Christians, have been mired in serious corruption charges. At least four ministers — one from the Kerala Congress and the others from the Congress, including chief minister Oomen Chandy — have been directly accused of corruption while a few other Congress functionaries are charged with political misdemeanour and cover-up efforts. Almost the entire block of the state’s media has turned against the government and the general perception is that there can’t be smoke without fire.
The charges and the body of evidence are serious indeed and Chandy and his men have not been able to dispel them. Politics is a game of perception and Chandy’s Congress and the UDF have already lost it.
Chandy still wants to go ahead and face the elections with these tainted men in the vanguard as if nothing has happened, but the KPCC president, VM Sudheeran won't agree. Chandy’s apparent defence is that the people will return the Congress and UDF to power because of the development record of his government, and sacrificing the tainted men will cost the party their respective Assembly seats because they are veterans. Sudheeran wants to drop at least five of them, but Chandy doesn’t agree. Pushed to the wall, Chandy also has the support of his rival-careerist in the party and home minister Ramesh Chennithala.
They know that an unfettered Sudheeran can hurt the interests of both.
Sudheeran’s logic is perfectly understandable because he knows that his party has no chance in the upcoming elections without doing something radical against the taint of corruption, but his solution comes with an inherent risk: If the tainted are sacrificed, it will be an admission of guilt; but if they are persisted with, it will be seen as brazen disregard for probity. In addition, these men are also minor satraps in their constituencies and hence denying them tickets would amount to the wilful sacrifice of five winnable seats. These numbers will be crucial in a close contest as the Congress had learned in the last elections.
Sudheeran’s last-ditch gamble obviously looks at the big picture — that a sacrifice in five seats might redeem or even shore up the party’s fallen image in the other 135 seats. However, his critics feel that this strategy has come too late in the day, and instead of an image-makeover, the party should now focus on winning using its available resources. According to them, winnability alone should be the criterion at this stage. In fact, that’s precisely what the Opposition, led by the CPM, is doing. Wherever possible, it’s encouraging defection and playing the community and family cards besides using the glamour quotient.
So for the last three days, Sudheeran, Chandy, Chennithala and others, as well as the “high command” are wracking their brains in Delhi to find an exit formula that will address both the image issue and winnability. Unfortunately, however hard Sudheeran tries, there’s absolutely no way of dressing up the Congress before the election, because even during the last cabinet meeting, it came up with decisions that reeked of blatant corruption. To be brazen even at the last minute when the party and the government are neck deep in corruption charges, betrays either an unshakable habit or an admission of defeat even before the polls.
Either way, it was gross.
In fact, one of Sudheeran’s reported grouses is that the man who has done the maximum damage is the revenue minister, Adoor Prakash, who is not only accused of corruption but also of collusion with a liquor baron who has irreversibly defaced Chandy government.
Reportedly, both Sudheeran and Chandy are unwilling to yield to each other’s demands. The former, for whatever reasons, wants nothing sort of a purge, but Chandy can’t agree because that will completely unsettle him. The people Sudheeran has picked on are mostly Chandy’s men except Adoor, who is from Chennithala’s camp. Losing them will denude Chandy of his armour.
It doesn’t matter if Sudheeran’s strategy works out or not, because it’s too late to recover lost ground. Despite all the much-claimed development efforts and big ticket projects, the Congress and the UDF government it led were reckless and will have to pay a price. Sudheeran’s cosmetic changes, even if he manages to get them done, are hardly a challenge to the CPM and the LDF because their stockpile of ammunition against its rivals is quite formidable.
The only question now is if it’s going to be a landslide or a close-win for the LDF.