“Oommen Chandy is the new Congress high command!” a Malayalam TV channel scrolled on Sunday to hint that the top bosses of the party had `succumbed’ to the Kerala Chief Minister’s arm-twisting to have his way in the selection of candidates for the Assembly election.
For six successive dramtic days before, Chandy had fought with the Congress candidate screening committee in Delhi to fend off Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president and rival V.M. Sudheeran’s attempt to strike five names, including those of three ministers in Chandy’s Cabinet, off the candidates’ list. In between, Sudheeran and Chandy had one-on-one meetings with Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, who had tried to get Chandy agree to Sudheeran’s demand. Chandy stuck to his guns and threatened that if the five were not fielded, he himself wouldn’t want to contest and lead the campaign.
Sudheeran, considered an idealist in the party, had set two norms for candidate selection: the ministers tainted with corruption charges and the sitting MLAs who have contested the elections for four times already should be kept out of the contest. These first was necessary to help the Congress-led UDF coalition to shrug off the corruption scandals acquired by the Chandy Government; and, the second was the only way to keep power-hungry oldies out and to bring in young blood.
But, Chandy, a pragmatist to the core, argued that winnability should be the main criterion and, in an anticipated neck-and-neck contest with the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front, all the sitting MLAs who wanted to contest again should be re-nominated in order to increase the winning chances.
The screening committee rejected Sudheeran’s norms out of hand because victory in Kerala was very crucial for the Congress nationwide as the return to power of the party’s government in Assam was a little doubtful. Of the five Assembly elections, the Congress was in power only in Assam and Kerala. Sudheeran relented, but insisted that the five names should be axed. But, Chandy was stubborn that all the five should be in. Otherwise, he would stand down too. The stand-off continued for six days, along with negotiations at various levels.
The decision on the disputed candidates was left to the Congress election committee, which on Sunday signalled that all the five would be re-nominated.
This was immediately interpreted as the `surrender’ of a helpless high command before a stubborn Chandy and a total setback for the idealist Sudheeran. Since Chandy was crucial in getting the Congress returning to power in Kerala, the high command had to totally accept his demands.
But, when the central leadership announced the names of 83 candidates on Monday night, one of the disputed names—of Benny Behanan, a sitting MLA from Thrikkakara—was missing. A few hours before, in a shrewd backroom manoeuvre, Behanan, a Chandy confidante, was persuaded to withdraw his claim. Instead, P.T. Thomas, earlier suggested by Sudheeran, was chosen.
The strategy served three purposes: one, Sudheeran’s bruised ego was soothed (at least one name got dropped); two, Chandy can take heart that all his demands have been accepted (Behanan, after all, had pulled out); and three, and most important, the high command remains the high command.