Oommen Chandy: Man of the masses who was made for public service

There was more to his accomplishments than sheer public popularity. He initiated, approved or pursued with vigour and commitment several development projects in Kerala.
Shashi Tharoor with Oommen Chandy during an election convention in Thiruvananthapuram. (File photo | B P Deepu, EPS)
Shashi Tharoor with Oommen Chandy during an election convention in Thiruvananthapuram. (File photo | B P Deepu, EPS)

The tragic passing of Oommen Chandy on 18 July 2023 at the age of 79, after a prolonged illness, marks the end of an era.

A tireless public servant and man of the people, Oommen Chandy served as the Chief Minister of Kerala twice and once as the Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Legislative Assembly. As a senior leader of the Indian National Congress, he held various ministerial portfolios in the state government. The last time I saw him, in Bangalore a few months ago, he seemed to be wasting away in his hospital bed. It was a painful contrast to the usual experience of witnessing him always surrounded by a throng of admirers, petitioners, party workers and voters. It is that way that I will always remember him.

Oommen Chandy was made for public service.

From his student days, he had no doubt about his calling, being elected from the Puthuppally constituency in Kottayam district in his twenties and representing it in the State Assembly for more than 51 years. In the process he not only established a record as Kerala's longest-serving legislator ever, eclipsing the earlier mark set by KM Mani, but did so faultlessly, winning 11 consecutive elections since 1970 and serving over 19,000 days as an MLA.

Though the abiding image of Oommen Chandy in the minds of most Keralites is that of a "man of masses" who stood with the people through his long career, being accessible at all hours of the day and night and famously accepting petitions from constituents in his bedroom and even in his bathroom, there was more to his accomplishments than sheer public popularity.

He initiated, approved or pursued with vigour and commitment several development projects in Kerala. Many of the State’s best-known infrastructural triumphs, from the Kochi Metro and Smart City Kochi to the Vizhinjam International Seaport in Thiruvananthapuram and even the Kannur International Airport (which is currently associated entirely with the present Chief Minister), bear the stamp of his involvement and enthusiasm.

In Kerala politics, he was the quintessential insider, always involved at the highest levels of government and legislative policy, who shared close relations with leaders across political affiliations. As a popular leader his Jana Samparkam (mass contact) programme was a remarkable innovation, under which he stood on his feet for fourteen to eighteen hours a day in each of the state's fourteen districts, meeting lakhs of voters in order to address the grievances of the people directly. He was awarded the United Nations Public Service Award in 2013 for his extraordinary efforts to solve problems in this way, short-circuiting the bureaucratic procedures that normally bedevil the handling of individual concerns and complaints. But he did not lose sight of the big picture: he was instrumental in bringing peace and harmony to the state during the communal riots of 1992, and he had a vision of public welfare from which he never deviated.


As a Congress leader, Oommen Chandy was a champion of development, democracy and secularism. Amidst all his hard work in and for Kerala, he also served as general secretary of the All India Congress Committee for Andhra Pradesh from 2018 until his death.

Oommen Chandy was widely respected and admired by people from all walks of life for his simplicity, humility, and commitment. Though political adversaries attempted to smear him once in a while, no taint ever stuck to him because no one doubted his basic decency and integrity. His quiet charisma and his irreplaceable personal touch, his unrivalled popular connect, and his infectious enthusiasm for being among the people, were his hallmarks and will be greatly missed.

Oommen Chandy inspired generations of young leaders with his dedication and energy. He leaves behind a legacy of service and leadership that will be remembered for a long time.

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The New Indian Express