‘It was my first meeting with him (Narendra Modi) after he took over, and it was only a courtesy call. He had taken charge only three days before I met him. So, I did not go there to discuss any major issues relating to Kerala. I would say he was very responsive in the meeting.’
‘We want a cordial relationship with the Centre and we will go with that attitude. Our stand is very clear. I have openly said that we might have political differences but we would work together for the welfare of the people of Kerala.’
‘I don't find any fault with the way Rahul Gandhi led the campaign. You can't blame one single leader or all the top leaders alone for the failure. The fault lies with all the Congress leaders and workers.’
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy tells rediff.com’s Shobha Warrier why the UPA lost in the general elections, the decline of the Left and what he expects from the Centre.
Like Narendra Modi, there is another leader in India who puts in long hours every day, and that is Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.
His day starts quite early in the morning and goes on till midnight. Last time when I interviewed him at his office at 9.30 pm, the office was full of his staff including bureaucrats. By the time I finished my interview, I could see many bureaucrats waiting with files.
This time also, it was no different. I was to meet him at 7 pm at his official residence but by the time he reached home, it was 8.30. By then, the house was crowded with people waiting to meet him and his table, piled up with files.
As the interview was going on, two of his ministers came inside and patiently waited to talk to him. His wife peeped in to ask whether he wanted anything to drink. His little grandson came in, climbed on to the chair and gave him a tight hug.
When I left at 9.15 pm, he came out to talk to those who had come to meet him. It was as if it would take hours for the day to end for the hard working chief minister.
It seems people of Kerala are also aware of the amount of work he puts in and they rewarded the United Democratic Front with 12 MPs in Parliament.
In this exclusive interview with rediff.com’s Shobha Warrier, Chandy talks about many things, including his first meeting with the new prime minister of India.
After Narendra Modi took over as prime minister, you went to Delhi and had a meeting with him. How did the meeting go?
It was my first meeting with him after he took over, and it was only a courtesy call. He had taken charge only three days before I met him. So, I did not go there to discuss any major issues relating to Kerala. We have so many issues to discuss and we are preparing a list which we want to submit to the PM and the concerned ministers. After the assembly session, we will discuss these issues with the Centre.
When I reached there, I saw a news item in some of the papers that Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister would take a decision on the Kasturirangan Committee report in three days. I thought as it was an urgent issue, I had to discuss it with the PM. I told him that they would have to hear the opinion of the chief ministers of all the states concerned. He assured me that the government would.
After my meeting with the PM, I also met Javadekar and he told me that the news report was not correct at all. He also told me that he would convene a meeting of all the chief ministers and only then, the ministry would take a decision. I was satisfied in that matter.
The second issue I discussed with Modi was about an economic package for the Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Limited, Kerala's oldest PSU. It is facing a very serious financial crisis. In order to help FACT, the UPA government had prepared an economic package but before we could implement it, the elections were announced.
The Election Commission refused to give us permission as it was an old package. We had worked on the package for the last one year, so I requested the PM not to scrap the package.
I would say he was very responsive in the meeting.
How hopeful are you about having a good relationship with the central government?
We want a cordial relationship with the Centre and we will go with that attitude. Our stand is very clear. I have openly said that we might have political differences but we would work together for the welfare of the people of Kerala and the welfare of the state. We are not for any confrontation with the Centre.
I hope he also will reciprocate the same way. Our country has a federal set-up and such a system will work only when there is co-operation between the state and the Centre.
When different parties rule the state and the Centre, there is always this complaint that the Centre is not responsive towards states ruled by opposing parties. Modi himself spoke about the problems he faced as the CM of Gujarat on many development issues. According to you, how should the Centre-state relationship be?
When the A B Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance ruled at the Centre, A K Antony was the chief minister of Kerala and they had an excellent working relationship. Antony also had the outlook that politics was different from the welfare of the state. We also will follow the same path.
From our experience, I can say that we had a very cordial relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the UPA. In fact, we differed with the Congress-led UPA government on several policy decisions, like for example, FDI in retail. We went to New Delhi and met Sonia Gandhi and told her that it was not possible for Kerala to accept FDI in retail. We told her that we were not bothered about what other states did but we had reservations about FDI in retail in our state. We met (then commerce minister) Anand Sharma also. He didn't want us to take the lead in opposing FDI in retail.
We assured him that we would not make any noise about the whole thing; but we made clear that we were concerned about Kerala as we had lakhs of Keralites involved in trade and their livelihood would be affected by FDI in retail.
In a county like India where the needs and the aspirations of the people of each state are different, how relevant is the central government taking decisions and designing projects for them? Do you think states should have more say in the Planning Commission?
When the UPA was in power, I had raised the issue of state's needs in the first Planning Commission meeting itself and asserted that states need more freedom in implementing the centrally sponsored programmes. The local situation of each state is different and what we need may not be what a state like Uttar Pradesh needs. We may feel like rejecting a project that is very much needed for Gujarat.
When I pointed out the need to have more freedom for states to choose programmes, the Planning Commission appointed a committee to study the needs of each state. They submitted a report about this in six months and it was in favour of the states. According to the report, the Centre and the Planning Commission should give freedom to each state to choose programs.
For example, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. It is a very good programme, in the sense, we give wages which is beneficial to the family and there is no starvation among the poor but we found that it was not productive in Kerala. It will get its full potential only if we help in asset creation. That was when we put forward a proposal; we import milk from other states as we have shortage of milk.
So, we wanted rearing cows also to be included in the NERGA programme. Instead of giving 100 days wages, let them help a farmer manage two cows. This way, without increasing the price of milk, we can protect the interest of the farmers.
Do you feel we should take a re-look at the Constitution so that states get more powers?
In a federal system, what we need is a strong Centre and satisfied states. If the Government of India is weak, the states will also lose in the bargain.
Did the way the Congress got drubbed in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, come as a shock to you? Kerala is one state where the Congress fared well.
Yes, it was a shock to us. It is true we expected more seats but we knew we would lose the elections this time.
Why did you get such a feeling? Is it because of the scams that hit the UPA?
Yes, there were scams but the truth is the government took necessary action against the guilty. Nobody was spared. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munntera Kazhagam left the UPA only because of our strong action against corruption. M Karunanidhi was very annoyed with the government's action against A Raja and Kanimozhi. We also passed a very strong law against corruption; the Lokpal Bill.
But we were not pro-active in our attitude towards the people.
Did you feel the mood of the people was against the Congress?
Yes. That is because we failed miserably to communicate to the people the achievements of the UPA. People knew more about the scams than our achievements.
Do you think Rahul Gandhi failed as a leader?
I don't find any fault with the way he led the campaign. You can't blame one single leader or all the top leaders alone for the failure. The fault lies with all the Congress leaders and workers.
Why is it that if something positive happens, the credit goes to the Nehru/Gandhi family while if the party fails, the blame goes to the workers?
It is a fact that the media was completely against us. Modi got the support of all the corporate houses and the entire media. Along with that, our rank and file was not very energetic to fight against the strategies of Modi and the BJP.
That is why I said, you cannot blame one person for the party's failure. He alone is not responsible.
While you were campaigning, you said that it would be a referendum on your government.
Yes, I said that. Kerala is the only state where more than 50 percent of the seats came to us and not a single seat to the BJP. Even after winning 12 seats, I am not satisfied. We wanted to win 17 seats out of 20.
The Left parties got the worst drubbing in this election. Do you feel they are fading away in India?
There is no doubt about that. They are living in a fool's paradise now. They couldn't understand the feelings of the people. They may be sincere to their ideology but that is not practical or acceptable to the people today.
Till now, most of the elections were fought on issues like communalism, secularism and vote bank politics but this time, the plank was development. Do you feel today's voters especially the young generation is interested only in development?
Development is the most important issue now. In Kerala, the Communist Party of India-Marxist had been working against all our development plans. They were into so many agitations and allegations against us, not letting us function. Even then, people of Kerala did not accept them. That is because people want only development now and not agitations.
Kerala lost so many opportunities in the IT sector because of them. When the whole world was changing, the Communist parties agitated against even installing computers in offices! We were left behind because of them. The Communist parties are not practical and they do not understand the wants of the younger generation.
You spoke to the PM about the economic package for FACT. Do you think it is high time governments stop taking care of the sick PSUs?
Some of the PSUs that are in public service like transport, water supply, electricity, etc. must continue. The government must continue to run the essential services without looking at profits.
In other cases, we can help them once, and if they do not recover after that too, let us not help them anymore. It is not right to waste public money in such sick PSUs. In the highly competitive world, other than public utility services, other organisations must make profits. Similarly, FACT has to come out of the financial problem with the Rs 550 crore economic package we would be giving.
After Narendra Modi came to power, Shashi Tharoor wrote an article appreciating him. If as the prime minister, he did something good for your state, will you appreciate it although he is from the opposing party?
What he (Tharoor) wrote was his personal opinion. There is nothing wrong in that.
If Modi does something good for our state, definitely, we will have the same attitude. There will be political difference but when it comes to performance, we go my merits and issue by issue, and not by party politics.