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We have leaders who refuse to lead

By T V R Shenoy
December 15, 2011 13:16 IST
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Where is the much-vaunted Congress 'high command', asks T V R Shenoy.

Exactly where it was when Anna Hazare was shaking Delhi in August?

Exactly where it was when the FDI-retail concern brought Parliament to a halt in November?

The Congress's allies dug a trap for 'Big Brother'. Having fallen into that pit, the Congress proceeded to make matters worse by digging its own grave. That, briefly, is the untold story of the Mullaperiyar issue.

I am certainly not against the construction of a new dam, yet there seems to be little point in discussing it at this particular moment in time. That is for three reasons.

First, passions have been so inflamed, on both sides, that any reasoned debate is all but impossible.

Second, the Supreme Court is seized of the matter.

Third, the technical issues should, ideally, be decided by a team of experts, and such a team is already charged with the task.

But this is as much, if not more, about politics as it is about the safety of the Mullaperiyar waterworks.

The Kerala Congress, a component of the Congress-led United Democratic Front, has been itching to get even with the Congress for some time. The grumbling began well before the last assembly polls, when the Joseph and the Mani factions of the Kerala Congress decided to merge.

The Congress -- expecting to repeat its landslide of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, when it swept Kerala -- refused to give the 'new' Kerala Congress a larger share when it came to seats.

The grumbles grew ever louder with the formation of the Oomen Chandy government, the Kerala Congress believing that it did not get its due. When you crunch the numbers in the Kerala assembly, you find that the Kerala Congress has a point.

Ten of the twenty ministers in the Kerala government are Congressmen, a ratio slightly better than 1:4 as the party has only 38 MLAs. The Muslim League and the Kerala Congress believe they should enjoy the same ratio of ministers to MLAs, which would give the Muslim League five ministries and four to the Kerala Congress.

This is not possible. Constitutionally, Oomen Chandy can't just create portfolios as the Ninety-First Amendment limits the number of ministers. Politically, it would skew the Hindu:Non-Hindu ratio, a sensitive point in Kerala, since the Muslim League would undoubtedly name a Muslim and the Kerala Congress is equally certain to name a Christian.

Forty-nine of the 72 MLAs in the ruling United Democratic Front are non-Hindus -- a tad over 68 per cent -- though Hindus still constitute a slim majority in Kerala.)

Whatever the reason, it has left the Kerala Congress eager to find some occasion to embarrass 'Big Brother' Congress. The Mullaperiyar issue presented the opportunity, and P J Joseph, one of the two Kerala Congress ministers, was ideally placed since he holds the water resources ministry.

'Seven million people can get washed away if the dam collapses,' P J Joseph announced in November, adding that 26 tremors had been recorded at the site of the dam in the preceding 11 months.

Kerala's solution is to construct a new dam at the site to replace the old structure, simultaneously reducing the existing dam's storage height from the current 136 feet to 120 feet. This, as anyone could have foreseen, was unacceptable to the Tamil Nadu authorities.

Thus, P J Joseph went to Delhi, fasting for a day at the Gandhi Smriti in the pious hope of a 'change of mind of Tamil Nadu.' Simultaneously, his Kerala Congress colleague, K M Mani -- Kerala's finance minister -- fasted in Idukki, pressing for the construction of a new dam at Mullaperiyar.

Oomen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala (the president of the Congress's Kerala unit) then danced to the Kerala Congress's tune. The Congress' state executive held a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, concluding that the storage level of the Mullaperiyar dam must indeed be lowered to 120 feet. The Congress too went off to Delhi to petition the prime minister to intervene.

Kerala's ministers should really take a good hard look at themselves, and see if they have helped or hindered Kerala's cause.

For instance, was it necessary for Revenue Minister T Radhakrishnan, or the chief minister himself, to publicly express their dissatisfaction with Advocate General K P Dandapani after he appeared before the Kerala high court in connection with the Mullaperiyar issue?

The DMK in neighbouring Tamil Nadu has its own reasons be unhappy with 'Big Brother.' It was quick to make the most of the furore in Kerala, seeking to emerge as the champion of Tamil Nadu's interests.

Karunanidhi's party did not just dismiss all concerns of the dam's safety, it actually insists that the storage level be raised to 142 feet.

The DMK's posturing forced J Jayalalithaa's hand, and the chief minister of Tamil Nadu has now called for a special session of the assembly to discuss the matter. We may all rest assured that this will solve precisely nothing.

Jayalalithaa also took the battle to the court of public opinion. One statement was particularly intriguing: 'The water spread area has been encroached upon by land grabbers in Kerala who have built resorts and other buildings on the lands leased to Tamil Nadu. If the water level is increased from 136 feet, these resorts will get submerged and this is also cited by some as the possible reason for the plea to decommission the Mullaperiyar dam.'

Everyone in Kerala knows how the land mafia thwarted the anti-encroachment drive by former chief minister V S Achuthanandan. Would the chief minister of Kerala care to make an official statement denying that there has been any encroachment in the disputed area?

Meanwhile, the Congress's Tamil Nadu unit apparently feels that it needs to make its own voice heard over those of the two regional parties. A section of Congressmen from Tamil Nadu have now come up with the ingenious 'solution' that all of Idukki district should be transferred to Tamil Nadu.

In other words, the Congressmen of Tamil Nadu, having destroyed the party in their own state over a period of 44 years, are now bent upon doing a demolition job on the Kerala unit too.

With Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram refusing to budge, it is really up to Delhi to make a call. But the truth is that an already-embattled prime minister has little or no room to manoeuvre.

Tamil Nadu has 39 MPs in the Lok Sabha, effectively 40 MPs, since the lone member elected from Puducherry always votes alongside the Tamil Nadu contingent. Kerala has precisely half that number, 20 MPs.

If he goes with Kerala, poor Dr Manmohan Singh risks his own government as even Congress MPs may feel compelled to join hands with DMK members. But siding with Tamil Nadu runs the danger of toppling the Congress-led government in Kerala.

You may understand the compulsions of regional parties like the DMK and the Kerala Congress. You may even understand their need to needle 'Big Brother'. But the Congress boasts of being the sole party with a 'national perspective,' so why did Congressmen from both states muddy the waters?

Why did the Kerala unit think it necessary to speak out on the storage height, and why did Congressmen from Tamil Nadu speak of grabbing all of Idukki district?

Where, most important, is the much-vaunted Congress 'high command'? Exactly where it was when Anna Hazare was shaking Delhi in August? Exactly where it was when the FDI-retail concern brought Parliament to a halt in November? It was shirking the issue.

The Supreme Court may, hopefully, provide closure to the Mullaperiyar crisis, but it cannot save us from leaders who refuse to lead.

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