The Left Democratic Front government in Kerala headed by Pinarayi Vijayan has been in office for six months, which is ten percent of their tenure of five years. The manner in which voters from all regions of Kerala supported the LDF in the May elections was an indication of the people’s deep frustration with the previous government and expectations of decent governance from a new government.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of the new government was the introduction of some decorum into administration. The last days of the Congress-led United Democratic Front government were remarkable for total lack of propriety and transparency in functioning. The UDF government faced serious allegations not only of corruption and malpractices, but also of personal misconduct by persons in high places. Citizens are entitled to good governance as a matter of right; when it is denied, they are often helpless until the elections. Pinarayi Vijayan has declared a total war against corruption, and one hopes this declaration will be enforced throughout his tenure. There are investigations into allegations of corruption against several Ministers in the Oommen Chandy cabinet; these have to be taken to their logical conclusion by getting the guilty convicted. However, some of the actions taken against senior officers in the name of vigilance have embarrassed the government; after a highly publicized visit of a Vigilance team to the residence of Additional Chief Secretary K M Abraham, the Chief Minister and the Finance Minister were heard openly eulogizing him. Again, one has to wait and see if there is justification for the high profile cases against Tom Jos and the arrest and parading of Padmakumar of Malabar Cements. Corruption is not a one-person game; there are multiple players involved and the scent of corruption spills into the atmosphere. A competent and unbiased vigilance machinery can help to reduce corruption at all levels in the administration; simultaneously, the government must prove its intentions by ensuring integrity at the top of the hierarchy. A large section of the public believes that Pinarayi Vijayan as Chief Minister is capable of securing this. The government must also realize the tremendous damage to the system if senior officers are demoralized with public display of investigation into frivolous charges.
The delivery of public services reflects the quality of governance. The CPM has tried to be disciplined as a political party, but when in government, they never sought to enforce discipline in government offices. In a welcome change, Pinarayi has reiterated the need for prompt disposal of business at the cutting edge levels, as also the need for discipline in the government offices. The most revered Communist leader E M S Namboodiripad, when he was Chief Minister, set a precedent for the policy of ‘Administration-cum-Agitation’. This is now practised by several State Chief Ministers. The Kerala government is following the same path with support to the ‘all-India general strike’ (synonymous with ‘hartal in Kerala only’) called by the trade unions in September and the recent dharna in front of the Reserve Bank.
The government has spelt out its vision and missions clearly, and delineated an action plan to achieve the declared objectives within the tenure of the present government. The plan is ambitious and comprehensive, targeting total housing, better healthcare and quality education apart from a Green Kerala Mission for total sanitation, waste management, agricultural development and water resources conservation. The success of these schemes depends on mobilizing resources and public participation, and effective implementation. The government is also giving due importance to the development of infrastructure, a sector which has received inadequate attention in the past. In all these matters, the support of the Central Government is critical, and it is heartening to see that the two governments have so far been working with mutual understanding, respect and coordination. Prime Minister Modi, having been a State Chief Minister for long, understands Chief Ministers very well, and Chief Minister Pinarayi has taken care to see that the political hostility between the CPM and the BJP is not carried over into the administration.
Pinarayi has been his usual self – focussed, confident and matter of fact. His mettle was seen on several occasions, whether it was the swift action in the E P Jayarajan issue, or the prompt moderation of Minister A K Balan’s statement in the Assembly. Of the CPM ministers, three have previous experience as Ministers and that has helped them to settle down quickly. Dr Thomas Isaac has been very visible with two important activities – the budget and the special purpose vehicle for infrastructure, KIIFB. The budget had several positive ideas for action, but an assessment of these can be made only after the close of the year. The good thing about KIIFB and the proposal to raise Rs 50,000 cr over five years is that there will be a special effort to develop infrastructure; the State has a dire need for such an effort. However, most of these projects, including the big ones like Vizhinjam Port project, do not generate any returns for the government, and very few projects contribute to economic activity in their regions. When non-remunerative projects are financed with borrowed funds, there is a huge debt burden for the citizens. With his characteristic disarming smile, Dr Thomas Isaac is quietly placing an additional debt burden of Rs 50,00,000 lakhs on the 80 lakhs households in the State, over and above the normal government borrowing. Minister A K Balan occupies seat number 2 in the Assembly, and has shown his commitment to his work. The Public Works portfolio has been with Ministers belonging to the Muslim League or the Kerala Congress for most part of the last forty years. The Department needs clean-up and G Sudhakaran is an appropriate choice as Minister; his style is blunt and abrasive, but integrity unquestioned. The other CPM ministers are first time Ministers who are yet to make their mark. A minor reshuffle has been effected now and there would be a few interesting things to watch – will M M Mani mellow down, will A C Moideen develop as a good Industries Minister like Elamaram Kareem in the previous LDF government, and will Kadakampalli Surendran who has shown excellent potential as Minister do well in the new portfolio where the approach will be more political than administrative. E P Jayarajan’s handling of administration was clumsy and unacceptable, and obviously he had to leave; but there is a Kannurian E K Nayanar-like innocence in him, without the sense of humour and with added brashness.
The CPI Ministers are all new, and except for V S Sunilkumar, they have been low profile. In the early coalition governments in Kerala, the CPI Ministers were some of the smartest, with the likes of C Achutha Menon, M N Govindan Nair, T V Thomas, P K Vasudevan Nair and P S Sreenivasan. Nobody would attempt comparing the present ministers with these stalwarts and one has to allow more time for them to settle down. Of the Ministers from the other coalition partners, A K Saseendran, Mathew T Thomas and Ramachandran Kadannappally have shown maturity in actions and statements.
The government was found wanting in a few areas. Until the Centre created the currency problem, the biggest threat to the people of Kerala came from stray dogs. No civilized society would tolerate such an army of stray dogs in public places. The government could not evolve a policy or develop an action plan to contain this menace. The second issue was the spat between the mediapersons and the lawyers. The incidents happened in the premises of the courts and the primary responsibility is on the higher judiciary to take a fair decision in favour of transparency in public interest. The media, especially the visual media breaking news every minute, can often be accused of biased and ill informed reporting, but that is not a justification for preventing the reporting of court proceedings. A third area of concern is the number of fatalities in the CPM – RSS confrontations, especially in Kannur, with the cadres keen on scoring the equalizer with every murder.
The Assembly used to be split into two sections namely the Ruling Front and the Opposition Front; the latter now bears a kaleidoscopic look, with a fragmented opposition consisting of the UDF, Kerala Congress (M), the BJP and an Independent. Even with depleted strength, the Opposition has made their presence felt, and Ramesh Chennithala has emerged as an effective Leader of the Opposition.
The ugliest episodes during this six months period do not involve the government but involve two former Chief Ministers. Oommen Chandy and five others were indicted by a Bengaluru Court and ordered to repay an amount of Rs 1.6 cr allegedly collected from a planter for setting up solar projects. V S Achuthanandan’s greed for public office and government facilities was exposed when news channel cameras captured the contents of a paper he gave to the CPM General Secretary Yechuri.
The government seems to be on the right track, but is yet to pick up speed. People’s expectations are still very high as the Government is headed by a leader capable of taking tough decisions in public interest. The next elections are far away, and this is probably the time to act.