|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 20, 2004|
|Hundred Days, Dashed Hopes |
As Chief Minister Chandy completes 100 days in office, his Government is faced with a series of crises. The future doesn't seem bright for the ruling United Democratic Front.
|By M.G. Radhakrishnan|
When Oommen Chandy took over as chief minister of Kerala in September, he became the first Congressman after K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony to assume that office in four decades. Chandy's nomination was aimed at salvaging the image of the Congress which was battered in the May Lok Sabha elections in which the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) won just one of the 20 seats from the state. With his clean image, he was expected to turn around the UDF's fortunes in time for the assembly elections in May 2006.
Initially, Chandy played the role of "saviour" well, promising to launch 100 new programmes in his first 100 days in power. Ironically, as that deadline approaches, the Government, far from implementing the promises, is hurtling from crisis to crisis. Much of it wouldn't have happened if Chandy did not have P.K. Kunhalikutty in his cabinet. Unfortunately, the man in question is the state industries minister who is also the general secretary of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest partner in the UDF. He simply refuses to go despite public unrest over his alleged involvement in a sex racket. The Opposition and many social and women's organisations have launched a statewide agitation seeking Kunhalikutty's ouster, sparking off clashes between the police and the protesters. At several places, enraged IUML workers unleashed violence against the opposition parties, women's groups and even journalists. By and large, the support for the minister within the UDF is thinning though the IUML and other minority groups back him, saying he is being targeted for being a Muslim.
When alarm bells rang in the Congress high command in Delhi, it first hinted at a possible intervention. But gauging the IUML's adamant stance, 24 Akbar Road did a U-turn. AICC General Secretary Ahmed Patel would only say, "This is an internal matter of the IUML."
The eight-year-old sex scandal in which Kunhalikutty is reportedly involved resurfaced recently when Regina Fathima, the prime witness in the case, called a press conference to announce that she was sexually abused by Kunhalikutty when he was a minister in the UDF government of 1991-1996. Though Fathima had made the same accusations years ago, she now claims that she had disavowed them after she was paid by people close to the minister.
Several senior Congress leaders, including Antony, are embarrassed by Chandy's mishandling of the situation. Antony is said to have told Congress chief Sonia Gandhi that the party has no option but to ask Kunhalikutty to resign. The sex scandal has made its reappearance following a series of bloopers made by the Chandy Government. Shortly after assuming the office, Chandy granted a licence to a private company for mineral sand mining on the state's coast but had to reverse the decision when environmentalists took to the streets. The Government is yet to recover from the ill-advised move to liberalise the state's liquor policy. It provoked even UDF supporters like the Christian church. The Government had to withdraw the new policy within a few days. The first 100 days also saw squabbles among allies coming to the fore like never before.
The smaller coalition partners regret that they are not consulted on crucial policy matters. The RSP(B), an ally, has split and two factions of the Kerala Congress which have been kept out of the cabinet are in no mood to forgive Chandy, who was referred to in Congress circles until a year ago as the best chief minister Kerala never had. "He has wrecked the UDF for which we will have to pay a heavy price," says T.M. Jacob of the Kerala Congress(J). Many disgruntled elements in the Congress and the UDF are now gathering around Antony to bring him back as chief minister. "Surely Antony was better on all counts," says R. Balakrishna Pillai of the Kerala Congress(B).
If this sentiment gathers momentum, it may well be time for the "saintly" Antony to be king once again in God's Own Country.