VD Satheesan, Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala assembly, has been holding the fort for the Congress in the state after the party’s debilitating loss in the 2021 assembly election. He led the party’s campaign from the front in the Thrikkakara bypoll and was credited as one of the architects of the splendid victory. He says the party is learning from its mistakes and has a clear vision of how to revive itself and emerge stronger. He talks about the plans and ideas during a freewheeling interaction with the TNIE team as part of the ‘Express Dialogues’ series.
You must be jubilant after the huge victory in Thrikkakara. What are the factors that helped the UDF in the bypoll?
Many factors are there. One is P T Thomas’ memories among the people. We selected a very good candidate. She had good acceptance among the people. Another one is anti-incumbency against the state government. Then our election engineering, dedicated work from our leaders and party workers.
In Thrikkakara, you had several inherent advantages. The seat is a Congress fortress and Ernakulam is a district where the party has well-oiled machinery. Do you think the result will be the same in other districts too if an election is held now?
This is a fresh argument that emerged after the bypoll results to damage the glory of our victory. For example, Vattiyoorkavu and Konni were our strongholds. But we lost when bypolls were held there. It is not easy for an opposition party to win a bypoll in India. In Thrikkakara, the chief minister, 20 ministers and 60 MLAs camped for about one month. We countered all these and secured a bigger majority than before.
There were attempts to portray you as the ‘Leader’ and ‘Captain’ after the victory. But you say you believe in collective leadership. Don’t you think strong leadership will help the UDF when you have a strong leader like Pinarayi Vijayan on the other side?
I have not claimed the credit for the Thrikkakara win. There was the involvement of several persons, the guidance of several people and hard work of many. Yes, I believe in collective leadership as it is more effective than strong single-person leadership. It is correct that in the post-truth era, the entire world is revolving around the concept of a single powerful leader. The danger of this trend is that this leadership turns to dictatorship in the second stage. Such leaders do not discuss priorities. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is an example of this kind of leadership. If I become ‘Leader’ or Captain, I will end up as such a leader. I don’t want that.
The legacy of P T Thomas helped Congress in Thrikkakara. He was hailed as ‘Nilapadukalude Rajakumaran’ by Congress during the campaign. He had taken a strong stand in favour of protecting the Western Ghats and forests. Now the Supreme Court has directed the implementation of one-km mandatory Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. What’s Congress’ stand?
I and P T Thomas had the same stand that the Gadgil Committee report should be implemented. We, six UDF MLAs, who were hailed as Green MLAs, took this stand before Thomas did. The reason for the natural calamities in Kerala is the rejection of the Gadgil report.
Is that the Congress party’s stand on the Gadgil Committee report?
The Gadgil Committee report has no relevance now. If we raise the issue, it would only trigger a row and will not serve the purpose.
So what exactly is your stand on the Ecologically Sensitive Zone?
We are not against ESZ. However, there is a lack of practicality in that. An additional 2.5 lakh acres of land will come under this. Farmers are more in this area. Their livelihood will be affected. Construction of multi-storey buildings, quarrying, and setting up of sawmills should not be allowed. What is required and what is not needed should be decided. Eviction is happening in the name of rehabilitation. Our stand is that a safe rehabilitation is required for the development.
Does that mean if safe rehabilitation happens, you will support the Silverline project?
The Silverline issue is not just about those who will lose their lands. They are not the only victims. The entire state is a victim of the project. We cited the NASA analysis in the assembly which said Kerala was highly vulnerable. In such a vulnerable place, an embankment of a height of 35 to 40 feet would be constructed for a distance of 240km. In the rest of the stretch, a wall 10-feet-high would be constructed. This will aid flooding. Secondly, from where are we getting the natural resources required for the project? The government said central Kerala has adequate natural resources for this. If so, please say where it is?
If we look into the past three decades of Kerala politics, the Left was seen as anti-development and UDF as pro-development. However, for the last few years, UDF is increasingly seen as anti-development.
The CPM has started talking about development after announcing K-Rail. They are the ones who have opposed all development projects so far. We have a development perspective. When the K-Rail issue was raised in the assembly, the chief minister portrayed UDF as “anti-development”. However, I told him we are not against development and it’s you, the anti-development campaigners, who have an outdated development perspective. UDF’s development perspective is based on climate change. Kerala requires sustainable development that would not endanger nature in any way.
But will it be wrong to say Congress is increasingly speaking the language of the Left…
The Left parties in Kerala are not Left…. they are right extreme. We call the Sangh Parivar ruling the Centre right extreme. All their legislations are intended to help the corporates and the trading community. However, in Kerala, the Left parties are doing the same. The focus has shifted to project from planning. We are the real Left now.
You mean the Congress is now Left of the Centre?
Not just Left of the Centre... I say we are the real Left, the Nehruvian Left. We are Left in the sense of protecting the marginalised sections. We have raised voices for the people of coastal areas. We are intervening on the issues of tribals, dalits and women. We are worried about the human and natural costs of development. We did not oppose any developments except K-Rail.
Not really... You had opposed NH development and GAIL pipeline projects.
We did not oppose these projects. Our opposition was only about poor compensation. The Congress was revolutionary in bringing the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, which enabled the smooth acquisition of land for highway development. They (left) opposed the airport and international stadium. They were also against GAIL project at one point of time.
The Silverline has not received the Union government’s approval and there is this issue of lack of natural resources for the construction. However, the state government is saying they will implement the project. What is their intention?
We do not understand their intention. The government has not conducted a social impact assessment study, environmental impact assessment study, alignment laying, proper survey or soil study. The previous UDF government had conducted a study on a similar project and dropped the plan after finding that it was impractical. When the state government approached JICA seeking loan for the project, they proposed a standard gauge line, saying they will provide the technology. Those who provide loans should not decide on the technology. The government is eyeing only commission from this project. It is impractical and would never materialize.
It’s been one year since you and KPCC president K Sudhakaran assumed charge. What are the five changes that have happened in the organisation during this period?
The first point is that we now have clarity on our weaknesses and strengths along with that of the rivals. And this helped us win the Thrikkakara bypoll. Secondly, it has been a long-standing criticism that Congress isn’t strong at the grassroots level. We are in the process of addressing that. Thirdly, the party has a clear policy on various issues. Fourthly, groupism has become irrelevant in the party. Lastly, we now face elections with better preparedness.
You said that Congress had not prepared well in the last assembly elections. Does it mean the leaders who held top posts then did not do their job?
No. I did not mean that. I too was a part of the team at that time. We were a bit complacent as Kerala was used to two rival fronts winning alternately. And, we became complacent following the thumping victory in the Lok Sabha elections in which we bagged 19 of 20 seats. We got misled. Had we studied the factors that led to our Lok Sabha election performance, we wouldn’t have been overconfident. The LDF was precise in that and they won.
Many parties and leaders have left UDF in the last one year. .. Are you planning to bring them back?
At first, what we need to do is develop UDF’s base. We are working on it and once that happens, we will welcome former allies. In the case of persons, the decision will be taken by the party. However, I as the UDF chairman can say that the allies who had left us are welcome back. Besides, we are also targeting the group called the ‘fellow travellers of the Left’ or Left thinkers. They will come to us once we become stronger. For that, we will be working towards proving that we are the real Left.
Did these ‘fellow travellers of the Left’ play a role in the Thrikkakara win?
Of course! We had specifically targeted those votes. That is why I confidently said that we will be able to gain the votes of the ‘Left thinkers’.
Four more years to go for the next assembly election. What will Congress be doing so that it emerges as a strong contender to LDF?
We will be going ahead by correcting our defects. Also, we are monitoring the government closely. As a part of this, we have set up shadow committees in education, health, finance and planning and agriculture. These committees will be monitoring the concerned departments and holding discussions with experts in those fields.
There’s a talk about grooming young leaders. How far has this process reached?
After the new leadership in the party under me and K Sudhakaran came into existence, we decided to give more consideration to young leaders and women. We decided to bring 100 new women leaders as DCC functionaries in the party revamp.Those who emerge as potential leaders from among these would be fielded as candidates in the next Lok Sabha and assembly polls. This would be done in the case of young leaders as well. We are preparing not only the second generation of leaders, but a third and fourth as well.
The ED has summoned Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi for interrogation. The same ED is investigating the gold smuggling case that has embarrassed the Kerala government. Do you trust central investigative agencies?
We do not trust central agencies. Our stand is that the central government is misusing these agencies. However, in Kerala, it was the chief minister who wrote to the prime minister and brought the central agencies to investigate the matter. As we do not trust either the central or the state agencies, we demand that a judicial commission must look into the matter.
The condition of the Congress party at the national level is pretty bad. It is increasingly disappearing from the political map of the country. How does this scenario affect the fortunes of the party in the state?
I admit that there is organisational weakness at the national level. This was discussed at the ‘Chitan Shivir’. It was decided to bring clarity on the ideological position, increase organizational strength by electing a new team, develop coalitions and have tie-ups with regional parties. We also assessed the strengths and weaknesses. A similar meeting is being planned in the state.
Rahul Gandhi is yet to emerge as a serious adversary to PM Narendra Modi. What according to you are the changes that he needs to make in his style?
He has been fighting the Sangh Parivar for a long time without diluting his position. But after the 2019 election, he resigned as president. As a result, a vacuum was created. Madam is holding the position temporarily. But all the party leaders and workers are hoping that Rahul Gandhi will take up the mantle soon. Only when that happens will the party get a strong leadership, which in turn will lead to the formation of a strong opposition platform.
But Congress has been experimenting with Rahul Gandhi for so long…
Rahul Gandhi was a part of the Lok Sabha election victory in 2009. The party then won 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh after a long gap. The situation is different now. Just like in the case of an individual, political parties too face ups and downs.
Congress has been accused of taking the soft Hindutva path. How do you respond to that?
That is a false accusation. Congress is the only party that has been opposing the BJP strongly in the country. Soft Hindutva is a term coined by the LDF to tease Congress. What relevance does soft Hindutva have when BJP is practising hardcore Hindutva? Won’t practising it be suicidal for Congress? Neither will it get the Hindu votes nor those of the minorities. However, we will have friendly relations with various communities irrespective of religion.
You are one of the few Congress leaders who take reading seriously. With your schedule getting tighter, are you finding time to read? What are you reading now?
Actually, there are many Congress leaders who are serious readers. Of course, after becoming the Leader of Opposition, there’s not much free time. I love reading and I believe that well-read people are the ones who are the busiest. So other than the days when I was involved in the bypoll, I have been finding time to read. Right now, I am reading ‘The Comrades and the Mullahs”.
(Transcribed by Arun M and Anu Kuruvilla)