Thiruvananthapuram: A homegrown politician, Oommen Chandy’s six-decade long political career has been inextricably linked to the ups and downs of the Congress party in Kerala’s bipolar political ecosystem.
Kerala assembly’s longest-serving MLA and a true-blue Congress worker, the former Chief Minister passed away in Bengaluru on a day his party’s entire top brass had gathered in the city for an opposition unity session.
The 79-year-old leader who always stood out in his trademark white cotton shirt and dhoti worn usually with a cordial smile, breathed his last in a private hospital in Bengaluru early this morning. Chandy was undergoing treatment in Bengaluru for the past few months.
Ever since he cut his political teeth as an activist of the Congress’ campus outfit, Kerala Students Union (KSU), Chandy had remained a key player in state politics.
Chandy had played a decisive role in building Congress as a mass movement in Kerala, along with senior colleagues A K Antony and Vayalar Ravi.
Born and brought up in a traditional Christian heartland, Puthuppally, near Kottayam, Chandy gained popularity in the state after he became the state president of the KSU with the blessings of Antony and Ravi.
A thrust imparted by the young leadership of the resurgent Congress since the early 1960s immensely contributed to the party’s emergence as a counter-weighing force to challenge the political dominance of the Marxists in the state.
Young leaders like Chandy eventually emerged as an alternative power centre in the Congress in Kerala, dominated by traditional leadership.
This marked the point of origin of sharp factionalism, with one of the poles led by late party stalwart K Karunakaran.
During the period of strong infighting in the Congress state unit, Chandy was seen as a trusted lieutenant of Antony who was the undisputed leader of the anti-Karunakaran faction in the state.
Chandy had a critical role in unseating Karunakaran as Chief Minister in 1995, which paved the way for Antony’s return to the post for the second time.
Chandy was part of the faction that broke away from the Indian National Congress (INC), raising objections to the nomination of Indira Gandhi as the party candidate for the Chikmagluru byelection when the Janata Party was in power post-emergency.
However, Chandy, along with Antony, returned to the parent organisation after a brief association with the CPI (M)-led LDF in the early 1980s.
Once back in Congress, it did not take much time for Chandy to re-assert his prominent role in party affairs as a sharp strategist of the anti-Karunakaran pole in the party in the state.
The anti-Karunakaran faction skillfully handled the ISRO spy scandal against Karunakaran by piling up pressure on the then Congress chief and Prime Minister, the late PV Narasimha Rao.
Chandy then successfully won over the coalition partners of the Congress in the state, including the IUML and Kerala Congress (M), to denounce Karunakaran.
Despite his popularity among the party rank and file, Chandy never had any aspiration to become part of the central leadership of the Congress.
Chandy was at the forefront of countering CPI(M)-led LDF, especially in central Travancore.
In 2011, when Chandy became Chief Minister, the Congress-led UDF had only a wafer-thin majority.
However, an astute politician with exceptional execution abilities, Chandy carried on with all the constituents of the UDF and his government completed the tenure.
During an interview, soon after assuming power, Chandy spoke about this, saying it is not the majority alone that counts but the policies of the government and the relationship among constituents.
He, then, had asserted that his government would complete the full term.
An easily accessible politician, Chandy appeared to have drawn his energy from being surrounded by people, often cutting across political affiliations.
With his simple appearance and pleasant persona with luxuriant hair done carelessly, Chandy had an exceptional record of never betraying ire, even in the face of the most provocative situations.
Chandy faced his severest challenge towards the end of his tenure as CM when the solar scam broke out.
The opposition LDF made a big issue out of the scandal by launching an unsparing campaign, which paved the way for the Congress-led UDF’s defeat in the 2016 Assembly polls.
After the electoral reverse, Chandy refrained from taking the post of opposition leader, proposing Ramesh Chennithala, who was the home minister in his Cabinet, to the slot.
This was a turning point in Chandy’s long career that saw him slowly recede from centre stage.
Though there had been a clamour from a section of the party for Chandy to return and take on the CPI(M) aggressively, his failing health prevented him to live up to the wishes of his supporters.
Chandy had a sterling record in Kerala politics, returning to the state Assembly 53 years in a row from his home constituency.
He was first elected from Puthuppally on a Congress ticket in 1970.
Puthupally, under the stewardship of Chandy, was the only Constituency left untouched by the political shifts that the state witnessed for more than half a century.