INTERVIEW | Pinarayi lost a friend; but I am not someone who blackmails: Sabu M Jacob

When we started direct water supply to homes, the Congress sensed danger and started obstructing all our development initiatives.
Sabu M Jacob (Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)
Sabu M Jacob (Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)

Not too long ago, Sabu M Jacob and his Twenty20 party shocked Kerala’s overtly political ecosystem by capturing four panchayats in the 2020 LSG elections. Though it failed to make its presence felt in the assembly elections, Twenty20 is now in an alliance with AAP. Once a close confidant of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the MD of Kitex Garments announced his decision to shift his base to Telangana as his relationship with CPM soured. Sabu talks to TNIE about his political and business aspirations, his decade-long relationship with Pinarayi, and also his equation with Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal

You are a businessman in politics. It’s quite a strange proposition in Kerala…
Many politicians have entered various businesses to make money. But I have entered politics for social service. My father M C Jacob always insisted that when an industry grows, the surrounding area and the people living in the area should reap its dividends. Twenty20 was formed as an initiative to fulfil his dream. We wanted to create a model panchayat in Kizhakkambalam. That was my only intention then.

How did it take a political turn?
UDF was ruling the panchayat at that time. When we started direct water supply to homes, the Congress sensed danger and started obstructing all our development initiatives. Seeing all these, the people in Kizhakkambalam requested us to form a party and contest elections. LDF, UDF and SDPI joined hands to oppose us. But we got 79% of the votes and won 18/19 seats in 2015. That’s the beginning of our political journey. When we assumed power, the panchayat had a debt of Rs 39 lakh. When we ended our 5-year rule, we deposited Rs 13.57 crore in the bank as a fixed deposit for the new regime. We got power in 4 panchayats in 2020 local body elections. Our food security project now ensures happy bellies and their lives have become easier with the household appliances that we provide at discount rates.

But you could make all this possible by using Kitex’s CSR funds…
Yes, initially. The reason why we used the CSR funds was that we neither had the power nor the backing of the government machinery. But that changed in 2015 when we won the elections. The schemes were carried out using a mix of the company’s CSR funds and the panchayat’s money. After 2020, a major portion of the funds comes in from the panchayat. Our CSR contribution is negligible. In the case of Kizhakkambalam, CSR contribution is zero as the panchayat has a surplus of Rs 18 crore in the bank.

Now Twenty20 has entered an alliance with AAP…
We are working at the ward level of every panchayat in the state to strengthen the party. It has been just 42 days since we began our membership campaign. To date, we have garnered around 7 lakh memberships in Kerala. The only party that has more than 7 lakh memberships is CPM. Even Congress has only around 5 lakh memberships.

That is quite a huge number...
The numbers show how much people desire for change. Until now, the people were forced to alternate between LDF and UDF. It is generally believed that when Twenty20 contests an election, it takes away the UDF votes. But that is not true. We are getting support from both the CPM and Congress members.

You had created quite a hype in the assembly elections. But Twenty20’s performance was quite disappointing. What happened?
If we contested the Kunnathunadu constituency alone in the last assembly polls, we could have easily won the seat. But since we spread out, we lost all seats.

One of the major allegations against Twenty20 is that it is trying to depoliticise Kerala society by doling out food coupons and other goodies. How will you respond to such an allegation?
The primary responsibility of a party ruling a state or a country is the welfare of the people. People trust us as we have the capacity to solve their problems.

Have you solved the problems of all people of Kizhakkambalam?
There are some people who have refused our help just because they are very strong in their political leanings. They have even refused our food security cards!

Isn’t that real politics? It shows there are still people who can’t be bought by giving food coupons or providing consumer goods at a cheaper price...
Well, it is up to them. We don’t discriminate between those who vote for us and others. Our politics believes in ensuring the welfare of the people.

Every political party should have an ideology or a political position on issues. What is Twenty20’s position on issues like the uniform civil code or CAA or Farmer’s Bill?
All political parties took some position on CAA. All opposed petrol price rise. Some even went to Delhi to support the farmers’ agitation. But have they been able to come up with a solution? So, I would like to say that we have political parties that take a position without coming up with solutions! But we are not like that. The present-day political parties are cheating the people.

So would it be correct to call Sabu Jacob an ‘apolitical’ person?
We need to clearly understand the meaning of the word politics. For me, politics means the development of the country and the welfare of the people. Won’t it be correct to say that I am the one who is truly political, as I have been adhering to the true meaning of the word? (chuckles).

Both Congress and CPM allege that the elected leaders of Twenty20 in panchayats are being remote-controlled by Sabu Jacob…
It’s just an allegation spread by my political opponents. I only intervene if we notice some corruption creeping in a project.

Will the Kizhakkambalam panchayat dare to take any decision that is not approved by Sabu Jacob?
It’s not about Sabu Jacob’s liking or not. Our politics is people’s politics. My politics is also people’s politics. I am 100% sure that the panchayat is being ruled in a highly transparent manner, with no corruption.

Will you contest the elections?
I am not crazy about power or money. If I wanted a position or power, I could have easily become a Rajya Sabha nominee. I have received several offers from different parties for the post of a minister. But I am not ready to accept any favours from anyone. But if a situation arises that I should contest the polls, I will.

So, are you okay with Adani or Ambani floating a political party?
A politician can never be an industrialist. But an industrialist can become a good politician. A good businessman has a long-term vision and is disciplined.

You were close to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for a long time. In fact, your relationship goes a long way back, when your father was alive…
When the LDF came to power in 2016, people expected that a staunch leader like Pinarayi Vijayan would bring in a drastic change in the state. I, too, believed that and supported him wholeheartedly as I knew his grit and willpower for quite long time. I was behind the popular schemes implemented by the state in the industrial and farm sectors during the previous government. Even Pinarayi wouldn’t deny it.

An example, please...
Hunger-free restaurant schemes and high-tech education programmes in schools were my ideas. Even the project to implement toilets and restrooms in all petrol pumps in the state was my brainchild.

Now, the equation seems to have strained. What went wrong between you two?
I supported Pinarayi not because I am a communist supporter but because I thought he would be good for the state. Once the party came into power, different departments started to raid my office and factories. He didn’t have any involvement in the raids, but he maintained silence. He could have always asked them to leave me alone.

Have you completely distanced away from the chief minister?
Before the press conference where I announced my decision to invest in Telangana, I had messaged him. I also sent a letter to him. But he did not respond. Since then, I never had any communication with him.

What’s your issue with Kunnathunadu MLA Sreenijin?
Imagine a person winning a lottery totally unexpected. Power makes people blind and excited. This is what happened to Sreenijin. He won a lottery in the form of an unexpected MLA post. Now he is making all attempts to retain the MLA seat. He wants to destroy me, Kitex and Twenty20.

But by deciding to shift Kitex to Telangana, you allowed Sreenijin to succeed, didn’t you?
Even if Kitex moves out, it will not weaken me or Twenty20 in Kizhakkambalam.

What is happening with your projects in Telangana?
We have invested Rs 3,000 crore in Telangana. In February, our unit in Warangal will start production. Our next factory is coming up in Hyderabad where the government has allotted us 250 acres. Our factories are going to be the first-of-its-kind in the world, with all the latest machinery and facilities.

So, have you decided to totally abandon Kerala?
I stick to what I said earlier. I will not invest a single penny in Kerala. Telangana has given me 470 acres of freehold land. In Kerala, the land is given to industries for a 30-year-lease period, and there are a lot of hurdles attached to it.

Isn’t it true that the majority of the workers in your units in Kizhakkambalam are from other states?
The risk factor and expense would be lesser if we employ a Malayali. But we were forced to recruit migrant labourers because of a shortage of local workforce. Still 51% of our workforce are Malayalis.

Kerala has improved its position in ease of doing business. Our ranking has gone up from 28 to 15.
Let them show a company that has come forward to invest in Kerala. Karnataka held an investors’ meet two weeks ago, and got investments to the tune of Rs 5 lakh crore. Many new industries have come forward to invest in Tamil Nadu. Can you show one firm that has shown interest in Kerala? Our unemployment rate has not improved.

Is there any chance of a patch-up with the chief minister?
Our friendship was very deep. When his party and ministers started targeting my organisation, he could have restrained them. He never contacted me or intervened to help me. Then why should I contact him? I have not suffered any loss due to the standoff. But it will be a loss to the chief minister. I have documents regarding the inputs I have provided to him, but I will never blackmail anybody.

You could have contacted him for help…
My father taught me that seeking help from a friend will strain the friendship. I am the only industrialist in Kerala who has not used friendship with politicians for benefit. During the past 18 years, I had approached Pinarayi for help only once, and that was to help a friend’s daughter who was cheated on by her husband. I urged him to direct the police to register a case. But his intervention didn’t help. Nothing happened.

You share a good relationship with Oommen Chandy, too. He had visited your home and requested to keep away from the fray during the last assembly election. But you refused to oblige.
That’s my strength. Even if the Indian President tries to influence me, I will stick to my stand.

What are the circumstances that led to a tie-up between Twenty20 and Aam Aadmi Party?
It was an MP from Telangana who suggested that I should align with Kejriwal. A common friend arranged a meeting with Kejriwal. He gave me a royal welcome in Delhi and suggested that I should be the CM candidate [in Kerala].

What was your reply?
I told him I was not interested.

Does Kejriwal keep a tab on AAP in Kerala?
He doesn’t have any links with AAP in Kerala. He didn’t even know PC Cyriac (Current Kerala head of AAP). I invited him to the Twenty20 programme, and he readily agreed without even consulting the Kerala unit of his party. I am ready to align with anybody if the alliance can bring development.

The AAP in Kerala is only a gathering and does not have proper leadership. How can the alliance work?
They have leadership issues and the party is going for a restructuring. In fact, Kejriwal wanted me to take over AAP’s leadership in Kerala. I told him that I was not ready to merge with anyone. I prefer to stand on my own.

Have heard that AAP is in touch with Shashi Tharoor, to project him as the party’s face in Kerala…
We cannot reveal everything in politics. Nobody knew about our alliance with AAP till Kejriwal attended our rally. We want to bring like-minded people to the fold. There have been discussions.

Do you think Tharoor is a good choice for AAP in Kerala?
Not just Tharoor, there are many good people in Kerala. There are many non-corrupt politicians in Kerala. We are meeting people and holding talks.

It was the support of Twenty20 that ensured the victory of Uma Thomas in the Thrikkakara by-election…
Though my relationship with P T Thomas was not cordial, I decided to support Uma Thomas. P T Thomas had questioned the reputation of my family; that forced me to challenge him. A political leader should not be emotional or sentimental. Even if the entire party leadership threatens to resign, I will not change my decision.

Was it your grudge towards Pinarayi Vijayan that prompted the decision to stay away from the fray?
I don’t have any grudge towards him.

Have heard that BJP approached you. Why did you not respond?
I am against garnering votes in the names of gods. I am against mixing politics with religion. Religion should only be for spirituality. So politics and religion should be kept separate.

But Kejriwal recently appealed to the Centre to print images of Goddess Lakshmi on new currency notes...
There will be differences of opinion in any alliance. My stand on Arvind Kejriwal’s currency note statement is not the same. But one must understand that when an enemy fights a war with a weapon, we should take a similar or more powerful weapon. This is the politics adopted by Kejriwal there.

You have invested in Kerala and Telangana. Which state is more corrupt?
There is corruption in all states of India. But there are differences between the thieves in Kerala and the ones in other states. The thieves here only know to steal and give nothing to others. The thieves in other states are like Kayamkulam Kochunni. They steal but give a portion to the public.

Why should Kerala vote for Twenty20?
If Kerala wants to recover from hell, Twenty20 should be given a chance. Our elected representatives are educated. I don’t have to grab power and loot the public for money. If a party like Twenty20 is elected to power, the state’s economy will recover within 10 years.

So, can we see Sabu M Jacob as the chief minister of Kerala?
First of all, I have no interest in becoming the chief minister of the state. If I become the chief minister due to circumstances demanded, I will use my personal car. The car will run on petrol bought by me and will be driven by my driver. I will go abroad with my family, at my expense, but not at the government’s expense.

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