Monday, May 29, 2017

Exclusive Interview with Ramesh Chennithala, Leader of Opposition

Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala makes his boisterous presence felt in person as much as he does in the assembly when pushing the ruling party on the backfoot. A popular political figure in the state, Chennithala is leading the way with his scathing attack of the LDF government’s 1st year in office for what according to him has been “a total failure on all fronts”. He even goes to the extent of calling it the ‘worst government’ in Kerala’s history. 

However, even if people might disagree with his assessment, it is an easily noticeable fact that Ramesh Chennithala has brought in a fresh lease of life into the role of a constructive Opposition. The 4-time MLA from Haripad agrees that the Opposition should fully cooperate with the government for smooth functioning of the state, but laments that there is nothing noteworthy done by this government that deserves support. 

From price rise to political killings, Chennithala hasn’t spared the government any criticism while at the same time ensuring his party speaks in a unified voice. He is optimistic of the view that the Pinarayi Vijayan government doesn’t enjoy public support but regrets that the state may be moving backwards after 2 terms under Congress rule.

Seasonal Magazine caught up with Kerala’s former Home Minister to understand his perspective of the LDF government’s 1st year in office and his reasons for giving the Pinarayi Vijayan government a thumbs down:

In the last 1 year, what according to you has been the LDF government’s biggest failures?

Firstly, this government has nothing worthwhile to mention. A full year in office is a sufficiently long period in politics. So when somebody asks, “what is the achievement of this government?”, there isn’t a single initiative that this government can highlight. Of course, there is nothing wrong in continuing the policies of the previous government. However, apart from this, there is no fresh initiative, programme or project.

But they often point out how they’ve managed to make 13 PSUs profitable in a short period…

No, but that’s a very routine affair. It’s not like they’ve launched new PSUs or anything. Due to favourable market conditions, certain sectors do well and there is nothing new about this. There are also situations where the national & international markets become sluggish. In such times, PSU performances stagnate. Therefore, the so-called profitability is due to seasonal factors. The government hasn’t done anything special to make these units profitable. Even they have nothing to say about this.

Are there efforts to procure products from Kerala’s PSUs to other state’s departments/PSUs?

We all know that we live in an age of globalization. Protectionism isn’t very practical. It is the age of competition where only the fittest will survive. Therefore, market conditions resulted in profits. If they had created a new PSU & ensured its profitability, that would have been understandable. It is the duty of every government to streamline the functioning of all PSUs.

Secondly, the issue of price rise. Yes, it is a phenomenon existing in our country and not the creation of state government. But the LDF government hasn’t introduced any policy or intervened in the market to alleviate concerns of people. PDS is completely in shambles. They will say that the Food Security Act is the reason for this. However, whichever state has implemented the Act has not faced this problem.
Even ration cards haven’t been delivered in time to the common man. Door-delivery of ration cards hasn’t been done enough. As a result of that, prices of all commodities have gone up. For example, rice which now costs Rs. 50 per kg. This is what hits the common man the hardest. Effective policies are expected to tackle inflation concerns but nothing has been done on this front.

Thirdly, there is a lack of cohesion within this government. CPI(M) & CPI are often not on the same page. As a result of that, smooth functioning of the government has been affected. For example, in the case of Munnar, the CM and Revenue Minister don’t agree with each other. When the Revenue officials are taking action, CPI(M) criticizes them. When action against encroachments on government lands are being taken by the Revenue department, the CM is against it. Even the Electricity minister is taking a different stand. As a result, Munnar eviction has been completely stopped.

You recently stated that only CPI seems to be standing up for socialistic ethos..

No, that’s not what I said. I stated that CPI is standing by public opinion. For example on the Law Academy issue, Munnar eviction issue, fee hike for PG courses, Jishnu’s mother Mahija’s protest, RTI Act etc. I wonder why CM Pinarayi Vijayan is taking an anti-people stand. I am not sure what has happened to him. Maybe because of his ego or maybe he thought if he takes an anti-people stand he will appear stronger? I am just showing you the divisions existing within the LDF.

The CM said that he wasn’t aware that Section 144 was announced. What is his authority to continue? What moral right does he have to continue as CM after this? This inefficiency and infighting has severely affected governance in the state.

Also, take the issue of the question paper leak. For the first time the Education department has come under the scanner. 9 students had secured A+ in all subjects but the 10th student couldn’t because the mathematics examination had to be re-taken. This has happened to many more students. The result would’ve been better if the question paper leakage hadn’t happened. This is solely due to the government’s ignorance and inefficiency.  Moreover, this smells of a big racket by  KSTA. This is what they’ve done. So, people are very unhappy about that.

There is also a general feeling that the Opposition has failed to pin down the government on corruption charges…

Not at all. It has only been a year actually. Also you should understand that the question paper leak scam can be treated as one. Moreover, two of their ministers have had to resign. Is that their achievement? Such incidents speak volumes about the failure of this government. They can never justify this.

Additionally, the law and order situation has been very poor. Political killings are becoming a permanent feature. 18 political murders have taken place so far. It is troubling to note that almost a murder a day seems imminent in Kerala. From 2 year olds to 92 year old women being raped, the government has failed to ensure women’s. Other atrocities against women are on the rise. The Home ministry is under the CMO. It is his responsibility to ensure a conducive law and order situation. Please find out if any person of this state is content with what this government is doing. People are totally against the actions of the government.

There was so much expectation when he came to power as he had strong control over party and government. However, this government is like an “NPA” (non-performing asset).

What is your take on KIIFB?

It is totally unconstitutional and puts the assembly in the dark. It is an illusionary body. Finance Minister Thomas Isaac said that he has funds amounting to Rs. 3000 crore, but asking for Rs. 50,000 crore debt. We had raised this in the assembly. Otherwise, any government can ask for money in this manner. This is going to lead to a situation of financial anarchy. Thomas Isaac is just fooling the people. KIIFB doesn’t require any approval from SEBI or RBI. So who has the authority to give so much money? Also, it is not accountable to the assembly. Every penny being spend requires the consent of the assembly and Parliament. That’s why we have budget sessions. But this is outside the budget. So when they ask for a huge amount of money from outside the budget, what is the guarantee? This is bound to create a burden for the future governments. The possibility of mismanagement is very high.

The CM’s reply to this is that he has appointed competent people to manage the affairs of KIIFB. However, that is not enough. The issue is that there is no scope for scrutiny. In my opinion, there is no rational basis for having something like the KIIFB. Departments are clueless and just keep parroting “KIIFB, KIIFB”. Apparently, the mantra of this government is KIIFB, but nothing is going to happen.

But in these testing times, how does the developmental agenda gain any traction?

The point is that I’m not against getting private investment. Every government is in need of private investment. Attracting investors is a major task of every government. But there has to be a method to this. I would like to ask the Finance Minister if anybody invested in the last one year. The answer is no. This government got only the petrol tax and motor vehicle tax. Other than that, nobody has invested and is going to invest in the state. This is because the first thing that happened was a vigilance enquiry in the KIIFB office. Do you think anybody would want to invest in such an environment?

Secondly, he is saying that he is going to collect funds through NRI chits. NRIs will join it certainly, but once it matures they’ll take it back. These are simply the thoughts of a Finance Minister living in a dreamworld! Even in his previous term, the Finance Minister promised to raise 40,000 crore through Islamic bank, but this hasn’t materialized. They said through sand mining they will raise another 10,000 crore. But nothing has happened. He is simply fooling people. The entire burden will be transferred to next government.

There are also talks about launching a Kerala Cooperative Bank….

It is totally absurd and is going to ruin the cooperative sector. This is because in the last many years, we have had 3 tier system: primary bank, district bank & state cooperative banks. They are the same people who opposed the merger of SBI & SBT. Why is that? The banking sector itself is facing a lot of problems. Recently, the Central government had infused Rs. 80,000 crores for making these banks functional. NPAs are increasing, restructuring of loans are taking place and capital adequacy is very low. That is why the credibility of banks are at an all-time low. That’s the reason for the mergers. This begs the question as to why the very same people who opposed the SBI-SBT merger are now singing a different tune. Also, the 3-tier system is foolproof in every respect so what is the need for tweaking it?

You see, they just want to take money for KIIFB from the cooperative banks. As a result of that nobody is going to invest in the state.

As a responsible Opposition leader, who wishes for progress in the state, what are the suggestions you have for your counterparts in power?

You see, in a democratic setup, it is the responsibility of the government to take the Opposition into confidence. They had requested for our cooperation for 4 missions. We sincerely extended our help but nothing has happened on this front. Even he isn’t in a position to say anything constructive about these 4 missions.
The real problem is that the CM isn’t in touch with his fellow ministers and other people. Files are being piled up in his office as well as in his ministers’ offices. IAS officers are also against this government. The administrative delay is costing us very dear.

What about the impact of the restrictions on alcohol availability for tourism sector, corporations etc?

We are in total favour of phasing out alcohol availability. Although it takes a hit on state revenue, it is only for the betterment of society. It will help people lead healthier lives. Crucially, women will no longer be subjected to alcohol abuse. It is due to these reasons that the UDF introduced such a policy. But this government, on the other hand, is promoting alcohol sales. Also, I don’t think it affects tourism very much. You see, I’m talking about the few restrictions that have been put in place, not the ban on alcohol per se. People who want to drink, will find the means to do so. The intention is to ensure young people don’t resort to alcoholism.

What about the fall in rubber prices? Do you think the government has done anything to tackle this problem?

No, they haven’t done anything.  It is due to the strength of our government’s policy that the rubber prices hadn’t fallen. In the international markets, the prices are coming down. Like us, there are many rubber-growing countries where the tapping has significantly increased. There has to be some sort of market intervention policies that this government should consider. Ultimately it is about protecting the interests of farmers.

Where do you think the government went wrong in the Senkumar appointment case?

It was utter foolishness to not execute the Supreme Court order reinstating his appointment. A brilliant article was written by TJS George on this issue. It aptly summarized the government’s folly on this very matter. He stated that the CM has become a standing monument to foolishness. When a similar issue happened in Karnataka, swift execution of SC order took place. I read the verdict and found no grounds for disapproval. Why should Pinarayi Vijayan have a problem then? Shouldn’t his advisors apprise him about this? But let me tell you, the problem is his advisors. The government can only take decisions based on appointments & suspensions according to Kerala Police Act.

Even in the Jishnu Pranoy case, the government seems to have gone a bit too far…

See, the police mismanaged the entire issue. If anybody is going to hold a strike, the police is duty bound to ensure things don’t go out of hand, not unnecessarily create problems. This only required the DGP to talk to the aggrieved parties and sort out the matter. The action of the police towards Jishnu’s mother was despicable. All this points to the uneasiness of the government towards the right to hold protests for the common man. The CPIM has always known to be a party that only knows how to protest and not govern. Therefore, it is surprising that they curb protests against them. We know they are trying to smear our name in this issue, but we have the public’s support. That’s all that matters. This gives people the opportunity to compare the two governments.

What about the future of your party’s alliance with KM Mani?

You see, every party has the right to take their own decisions.  Therefore, we aren’t going to do anything right now to make a case for his return. As far as UDF is concerned, we did exceedingly well in the Malappuram election winning by a comfortable majority. In the current times, we strongly think that public sentiment is against this government. The LDF government has failed to introduce a single spectacular, far-reaching policy initiative in the last one year. Therefore, right now, our sole objective is to raise the flaws of this government and push them to correct their mistakes. We don’t intend to protest unnecessarily. We are strongly of the view that we are a constructive Opposition.

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