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It is a Sunday morning and the Secretariat building in Thiruvananthapuram still wears a sleepy look. But a few officers have turned up for work as they know the one man who really matters would soon turn up. And he does, right on dot, at 10 am, as he does on most other days. True to form, as a person who likes to get on with things, he hardly takes more than a couple of minutes to settle in before signalling a readiness to start the meeting. Ahead of the second anniversary of a government that rode to power on a thumping majority, the Kerala CM is equanimous, striking a balance between highlighting the achievements and fielding criticism.
Two years: May 2016 to May 2018. Then look back on May 2011 to May 2013. How would you compare the first two years of your government with the first two years of the UDF Government?
We came to power at a time when people were totally fed up. We had to transform pessimism to optimism. I believe we have managed to deliver on some of the basic issues and that is the fundamental difference between the first two years of the LDF and UDF Governments. While they stalled projects on some pretext or the other, we got moving. Look at education, where, in a short period, we have managed to get the rating of the government schools high enough to be more sought after than private schools. We are going to better last year’s 1.45 lakh extra admissions in government schools this June. Agreed, we should do more in advanced education, where universities have to get going with topics that have present-day relevance. In housing, we are not satisfied with merely providing a house for the poorest but also livelihood means. We have also begun rejuvenation of natural water bodies with public participation. We’ve made considerable progress in putting poison-free food on the table by encouraging household vegetable gardens. Now, we are moving in the general direction of having family physicians cater to the basic health needs and then get the medical college hospitals and general hospitals to ramp up on the niche areas. Tourism would be a thrust area with new connectivity–both air and water.
During the first two years, both governments faced a barrage of issues that were not intrinsic to governance. How different was your approach to tackling these non-governance issues?
In my viewpoint, we have not been intolerant of constructive criticism but have refused to compromise when the opposition to development has been on frivolous grounds. We’ve kept an open mind but remain unfazed by blind criticism. Neither have we been unduly worried about tough decisions denting our image. This was not how the UDF Government saw things. All political parties in the state agree the national highway width should be 45 metres. The UDF Government that should have acted on it retracted in the face of resistance. We decided to do it regardless of hurdles. The story is no different with regard to many other development projects. But, when the local residents raised their concerns about setting up IOC’s LPG terminal at Puthuvype, we factored those in. We hope to resolve most outstanding issues soon. But we will not succumb to negative tactics and play safe as people come first.
No other ministry in Kerala would have seen three ministers exit in the first 18 months. Would you say the difference between the LDF and UDF has been in the way you handled things firmly?
When such issues come up, it is not morally right to take a stand that we will wait till the matter is investigated and the allegation is proved right or wrong. It is more about what is the right thing to do. When issues like this come up, we take a collective decision. It is not what I as CM wish to do. Whatever was done in the cited cases was in line with the Left culture where the ministers themselves deemed it fit to step down till their names got cleared. And their names were subsequently cleared. It was only in one instance that I had to make a decision that it was not proper for the minister to continue following adverse remarks from the judiciary.
There is a perception that within the LDF Government, the CPI is more active in taking on the CPM than the Opposition. I refer to land-related issues—Munnar, Vembanad, Athirapally, Nilambur, Kurinjimala etc. Comment.
I don’t think that is correct as the Opposition parties have been quite vigorously doing their job. In the LDF, all constituents have their own stance on most issues. And it is through mutual dialogue and consultation that one reaches a consensus. Our government has a clear position on land-related issues where the overriding principle is to ensure the next generation is in no way shortchanged. At the same time, when we confront situations where development will take a backseat, sometimes we have no option but to be flexible. Whenever divergent views have emerged within the front, we have sat across the table and sorted things out. So, it’s not quite right to say the CPI has acted like the Opposition. How can they? (laughs)
Trade union activism keeps rearing its head even today. How can you get the message across to industry/potential investors that Kerala offers a different business ecosystem now?
For long we have been called, I think unjustly, an investment-unfriendly state. This is far from the truth. There has been no recent case of shutting shop on account of trade union intervention. We have banned, with effect from May 1, Nokkukooli, for long the bane of the state. Some trade organisations used to demand work for their members whenever a new project came up. We discussed this matter and the trade unions agreed it’s not their business to supply workers. That too has stopped from May 1. The government will crack the whip on miscreants. Recently, we faced a situation at Beypore port. After sorting out the issue, ships now unload cargo without any problem. We are also ramping up our ease of doing business parameters. We are determined to rise from 20th position in the ease of doing business ladder to single digits soon.
Kerala became the rallying point for southern states in the case of the 15th Finance Commission’s Terms of Reference (ToR), which link the fund allocation to the 2011 census. Is India’s federal structure under attack?
Kerala cannot be punished for successfully carrying out the Central Government’s policy of curbing population growth. We led the first conclave of southern state finance ministers to discuss these concerns. Many of the recent decisions by the NDA Government at the Centre can only be viewed as efforts to undermine India’s federal structure, where it is necessary to have a strong Centre and contented states. The last part is being ignored by the NDA Government. GST has dealt a killer blow to the resource mobilisation powers of the states. This has to be countered.
The recent CPM party congress in Hyderabad saw some confusion about extending support to the Congress party. Won’t an anti-BJP plank that features the CPM alongside the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls create more space for the BJP in the next Assembly elections in Kerala?
There is no confusion. It was decided at the party congress that the CPM could cooperate with parties sharing the anti-BJP plank, including the Congress, in three instances. One is in the Parliament. Another is in the sphere of uprisings or issues connected with workers, farmers and so on. The third is in fighting communalism. There will be no truck with the Congress while fighting elections. However, in case there is no CPM candidate as in Karnataka now, we may decide to get the CPM cadre to vote in favour of a winnable candidate either from the Congress or the Janata Dal. In Kerala, there is no question of the CPM going easy on the Congress.
The CPM has been relatively free of dynasty politics. However, there have been instances of courting controversy elsewhere. Comment.
There has never been any special consideration for children of politicians in our party. If someone comes up, it will be solely based on merit. Regarding the controversies you mentioned, one cannot say for sure if they were really involved or were framed.
According to you, will the Chengannur bypoll be a referendum on the LDF Government’s performance? Is it a life-and-death situation for the party? Hypothetically, if it is a loss, will it be a huge setback for CPM?
It is only natural a bypoll is seen as a referendum on the performance of the ruling government. We do not expect the narrative to be any different in Chengannur. But it is not a life-and-death scenario for the CPM. Hypothetically, (laughs) we are surely going to win it. Why do you visualise the worst-case scenario? You know Saji Cherian is going to win.
The recent WhatsApp hartal has set alarm bells ringing both about rising polarisation and the ability to use social media to incite violence. Is Kerala ready for this battle?
It was a learning curve for us. We were able to unearth the diabolical plot hatched by some communal organisations and how the gullible fell for it. The root cause was the deep division in our society’s response to the heinous rape and murder of the eight-year-old girl at Kathua. Those who tried to justify the rape set the ball rolling on the WhatsApp hartal. Many who saw red on the incident fell into the trap. It was an explosive situation that got defused at the last moment by the timely intervention of the state police. The public learnt a lesson about the folly of following a hartal call by an invisible group of people using the social media. Most Keralites are affiliated to some party or organisation and they should not pay heed to anyone else’s hartal call.
Whenever the Kerala Police are embroiled in an incident, fingers are pointed at you. Have you come to terms with this inevitable weight borne by any CM who also handles the Home portfolio?
I’ve never felt the acts of the police always land me in trouble. In fact, the Kerala Police have done some sterling work. They have solved many complicated cases and can be easily rated among the top forces in the country. We tend to forget this whenever some condemnable incidents like the Varapuzha custody death happen. Nobody supports third-degree torture. There have been many lock-up deaths in Kerala. See the speed with which the guilty officers have been brought to book in the Varapuzha case. The message is clear. The force has been given total freedom now to act without fear or favour. Ultimately, the state deserves a people-friendly police force.