Oommen Chandy: A mass leader who emerged from student politics

Ever since he cut his political teeth as a KSU activist, Chandy had remained active in moulding several young leaders through the party's student outfit.
Oommen Chandy having a light moment with A K Antony and K M Mani. (File | EPS)
Oommen Chandy having a light moment with A K Antony and K M Mani. (File | EPS)

KOCHI: KSU, KSU, Vayalar Ravi, A K Antony, Oommen Chandy chernu nayikkum prasthanam (KSU, KSU, Vayalar Ravi, A K Antony, Oommen Chandy will lead the movement) was the famous slogan resonated across the campuses in the state in the 1960s. Oommen Chandy, who started his political career as KSU unit secretary at St. George High School, Puthupally in Kottayam, infused a powerful and unique voice to the student outfit with his style of functioning. 

He is one of the prominent Congress leaders who grew up through KSU and has a unique stature as a mass leader in the state's political arena. While Vayalar Ravi and A K Antony shifted their political base to New Delhi, Oommen Chandy was always interested to remain rooted in Kerala, and its politics.

Ever since he cut his political teeth as a KSU activist, Chandy had remained active in moulding several young leaders through the party's student outfit. Party's new generation leaders such as P C Vishnunath, T Sidhique and Shafi Parambil, who were handpicked by Chandy during their student politics days, are now among the most vocal legislators in the present Kerala assembly.  

From a unit functionary, Oommen Chandy was later elevated to the post of state president of KSU in 1967 with the blessings of Antony and Vayalar Ravi. He took charge of the outfit from Antony and during his two-year-long tenure, he played a decisive role in building KSU as one of the biggest student organization in the state.

Oommen Chandy himself recalled many times, the 'Orana Samaram' organized by the KSU attracted him to the organization and he jumped into the protest. In 1958, a year after the formation of KSU, the then Communist government under EMS hiked the concession boat fare for students from one anna (six paise) to 10 paise in the Kuttanad waterways. The KSU launched a strike against the fare hike, the Orana Samaram (one-anna strike).

Oommen Chandy was among the student leaders like MA John, Vayalar Ravi, and AK Antony who led the strike, which the police tried to suppress it with brute force. 'Orana Samaram' remains the first successful student strike in Kerala and shaped the political careers of several future leaders -- AK Antony, Vayalar Ravi and Oommen Chandy, two of them becoming the Chief Minister of the state. It was also seen as the precursor for the Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Struggle), which led to the dismissal of the EMS government in 1959.

The KSU leaders of that time recalled that he gave a different style of functioning to the student organization apart from calling strikes, agitations and union elections. "One of his decision was to launch a programme named Onathinu oru para nellu, (one para of rice during the time of Onam. Seven para equals one sack), which aimed at infusing a culture of farming among students. It was a strange thing at that time," said former minister Ramachandran Kadannappally.

Besides the support from the student community, parents and several others extended support to the initiative which intended to attain food self-sufficiency through farming. MKK Nair, the then MD of FACT provided the fertilizers for the farming. Oommen Chandy travelled across the state for conducting successfully this project, added Kadannappally, who was then general secretary of KSU. Kadannappally, who succeeded Chandy as KSU president, later shifted to the Left camp following the split in Congress.

The period in KSU during the time of Oommen Chandy is ever memorable in life, Forest Minister A  K Saseendran, who also served as KSU secretary along with Chandy, also said.

The youth leadership comprising Oommen Chandy emerged a powerful force in the resurgence of Congress during the late 1960s against the political dominance of CPM. In order to take advantage of this youth 'power' the Congress party allocated seats to five young turks in the 1970 elections. These constituencies were considered Left bastions and the chances for Congress candidates were slim.  Oomen Chandy (Puthupally), A C Shanmughadas (Balussery), N Ramakrishnan (Edakkad), Kottara Gopalakrishnan (Kottarakara) and A K Antony (Cherthala) were young leaders who had been entrusted the tough task of wresting the seats for the party.  

Surprisingly, and much to the delight of the Congress party, these youths kept the expectations of party leadership by winning all five seats. Oommen Chandy and Puthupally later became part of history. Significantly, another leader also entered the poll fray for the first time in the 1970 polls--Pinarayi Vijayan--who won from Koothuparambu.

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