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Kerala: State of decline
Aditi Phadnis
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June 04, 2005

It is now six months since Oommen Chandy took over as chief minister of Kerala. Since then the Congress Party in Kerala has split, an agricultural crisis is staring the state in the face and the Global Investors' Meet launched with so much fanfare by Chandy's predecessor, A K Antony, is nowhere near yielding the Rs 50,000 crore (Rs 500 billion) target set four years ago.

The Vallarpadam container terminal has come about 10 years after it was originally mooted. Investment has come to Kerala but mostly from public sector undertakings and all proposals are in the preliminary stage.

This is not the end of the story. Chandy has to steer the state through one panchayat election due in four months, followed by the Assembly elections in April-May 2006.

Before that, he has to put the party set-up in order, no easy task after an organisational split.  Promised land by Antony, the tribals in the state are up in arms against Chandy.

The plight of tribals in Kerala makes a mockery of the famed development model the state was identified with in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Hindus may have deserted the Congress after K Karunakaran's exit, while the Muslims and Christians are looking at each other warily, unsure of whether the Congress is pampering one more than the other. Life is not easy.

Some of these problems are of Chandy's making, some others are endemic to the state. If he hadn't been so determined to get veteran Congress leader Karunakaran out of the party along with son Muraleedharan and had instead advised president Sonia Gandhi to sort out problems through discussion, Chandy might have had one less front left open to fight.

If he had been proactive, maybe the Cabinet Commmitee on Economic Affairs would have finalised the revival package for tea and coffee a few months earlier, staving off the crisis in these commodities caused by depressed prices.

And had state government policies been changed in time, maybe his pet proposal of an electronic city in Kochi would not have become the target of an all round attack.

It is hard to feel anything but sympathy for the poor chief minister, who's having to run hard to stay in the same place. What is more, it is no 400 metres dash he has to run, but a marathon.

To understand the chief minister you have to know where he's coming from. In the beginning, when they were all very young, Vayalar Ravi was Antony's principal lieutenant.

But in the "group" politics of Kerala, when Ravi began to drift towards Karunakaran -- who beckoned him excitedly -- it was young Chandy who gradually became Antony's understudy.

Chandy was never known as a great orator, nowhere near CPI(M) rival Pinarayi Vijayan. He also showed a marked charisma deficit. What he did have, however, was an encyclopaedic knowledge of the party in Kerala.

In this, he is different from Antony, who was not really a organisation man but known more for his faith in conciliation, consideration and consensus.

Till the bitter end, Antony was not for forcing Karunakaran out of the party. The same, however, cannot be said of Chandy. He is on record as saying that throughout his life, Karunakaran did little but damage the party internally.

Lately, his son Muraleedharan had become the vehicle for the same tactics. Brave words, but they'll cost Chandy.

The war between Karunakaran and Chandy dates back to the time when P V Narasimha Rao was the prime minister. Antony was a minister in the Central cabinet but Karunakaran was at the height of his power too, not just as CM but also as the kingmaker who ensured Narasimha Rao was "elected" prime minister by MPs.

While Antony was in Delhi, Chandy campaigned ceaselessly for his leader. The ISRO spy scandal broke out and Karunakaran had to quit. But most of the groundwork had already been done by Chandy.

Antony took over as CM. Since then, Karunakaran has neither forgotten, nor forgiven.

Antony got one more term as CM in 2001 when the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) swept the Kerala Assembly elections. This time, Chandy -- who has been home and finance minister in previous UDF governments -- stayed out of government and became UDF convenor. It didn't help.

Due to a variety of factors -- including sabotage by Karunakaran -- the Congress was unable to win even one seat in the Lok Sabha elections.

Antony resigned and Chandy became CM. He tried to manage the leaky Congress boat (made leakier by Karunakaran who went on taking swipes at Chandy) until Karunakaran formed the so-called "I" group and parted ways. Chandy's ambition was at last realised.

With all this, it is hardly surprising that Chandy hasn't had much time to run the government. He knows the problems and has even tried to tackle some of them.

The Kerala State Electricity Board is setting up six mini-hydel power plants. A budget airline is coming up and the Thiruvananthapuram airport is to be expanded. But much more needs to be done.

The absence of an investment climate in the state has traditionally made PSUs the biggest employers in Kerala. Chandy passionately wants to change this, going as far as Dubai and Qatar to seek investment.

But archaic land policies and a CPI(M) that can smell power, has driven investment to more attractive locations like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. For some reason, the Kerala chief minister does not have the power to allot land free of cost to investors.

Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have no such difficulties. So the "Smart City" project to be set up by Dubai in Kerala is on the verge of going to one of the neighbouring states. The legal dispute over the Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada is stale news now.

Having been finance minister, Chandy knows that Kerala cannot generate enough revenue to finance and maintain its social development obligations.

The state's tax base is stagnant and though foreign remittances by Malayalis are high, the state government obviously has no leverage over this.

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