This is his seventh yatra across Kerala and the state’s Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala has already started creating a political storm across the state with the UDF’s Aishwarya Kerala Yatra just completing its Malabar leg.
The United Democratic Front in Kerala was in real shambles just after the local body elections. Discord between party leaders was out in the open and friction between the allies started causing wear within the alliance. The corruption allegations against the LDF government were losing steam and the UDF was unable to set any political agenda. A literal magic wand was required to gel the alliance partners and to set a new narrative.
Cadres looked up to the Aishwarya Kerala Yatra, which started from Kasargod on January 31, 2021, with hope. The Yatra was inaugurated by former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy in the presence of top UDF leaders. The unity and comradeship the leaders exhibited on stage gave a fresh lease of hope for the party and front. The event also saw the participation of citizens, especially women, in large numbers and this has resulted in packed venues in almost all locations around their tour.
Yatras was always a forte of Ramesh Chennithala. The famous yatra which he undertook against the then CPI (M)’s EK Nayanar government, which failed to provide jobs to the youngsters, led to the downfall of the government. The Ekta Yatra he undertook as National president of Indian National Youth Congress from New Delhi to Sriperumbadur in Chennai proved his ability to coordinate people from across the nation.
The first leg of the current Aishwarya Kerala Yatra had to cover the Malabar region, which includes the districts of Kasargod, Kannur, Kozhikode, Wayanad, and Malappuram. The political course for the yatra was set in the Malabar region with Chennithala and other UDF leaders conducting guerrilla warfare on LDF, as the latter was unaware of what hit them.
During the Lok Sabha elections, the Sabarimala issue, which was LDF’s nemesis, was brought to the limelight again. The left front was not prepared on this issue, which they would have preferred never brought up. When Chennithala challenged the LDF to make their stance clear on Sabarimala and with Oommen Chandy writing a letter to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, asking for a review petition to be filed in Sabarimala, the LDF lost its steam.
Chennithala was ruthless in his attack with new issues being brought to the fore daily. The LDF had tried to communalise a courtesy visit of Chennithala and Chandy to the residence of IUML Kerala president Hyder Ali Shihab Thangal in Pannakkad, but it was duly defended by the Opposition Leader. He exposed the stand of CPM which was trying to project the Indian Union Muslim League as a communal party and thereby Muslims as communal. Besides, he highlighted how the CPM and the Bharatiya Janata Party are speaking in the same communal voice. Chennithala did not even spare Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who had fired the first salvo on this issue. Malabar region, which has a Muslim population in huge numbers, picked up the narrative. With Congress leaders extending their moral support to IUML, whatever minor issues both parties had were buried and they started gelling with strength. The masterstroke was the draft bill proposed by UDF for Sabarimala, which will protect the interests of believers, with which even the BJP was dumbstruck.
Adding to their success, the UDF had been able to get the support of minority voters in the area, as they were able to identify with and address the needs of minority communities in the area. One of the ways was when Ramesh Chennithala took a stronger and, often bolder stand in relative to the government, against the BJP. The ruling CPM creates a complicated narrative around their relationship with BJP, as they claim that they are the only opposition to the saffron politics rampant in the nation.
On the other hand, Pinarayi Vijayan has received countless help from the Narendra Modi government, and the left government has sought financial support on multiple occasions to fight the ‘left terrorism’ in Kerala. This is an important matter as well, as the CPM, who has vehemently opposed the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, has been one of its strongest proponents ever since it came to power.
Moreover, the left government has also had under its belt a good number of very questionable Maoist encounters in the state. Both these issues have also pushed the minority support base to the UDF, as the latter’s leaders are empathetic with the people. The last straw had been the arrest of Allan Shuhaib and Thwaha Fazal in a UAPA case, which experts are calling “unnecessarily extreme” for the circumstance.
All of these have created a complicated situation for the CPM, as they also often make a passive-aggressive stand against the BJP, but the Pinarayi Vijayan government and its CM has not yet made any strong stand against the so-called “saffron incursion” into the state. During the assembly session, when the state government had passed a resolution against the Centre's three controversial farm bills, the UDF had motioned to add a few statements into the resolution against the BJP government. However, the LDF refused to support it.
This is one among many instances in the last few years, where the state hasn’t made strong disapproval of the BJP government, even though it should have. In the case of the other contentious legislation, the Centre has brought out, apart from a resolution against the policy, the left representatives neither spoke against the saffron party nor its leaders in such politically charged matters. This has created a doubt within the minority population and they are slowly moving towards the UDF belt, and if Ramesh Chennithala can maintain it longer, then the swing might turn into an exodus, thus taking away one of the left’s vital advantage in the state.
The backdoor appointments of kith and kin of CPM leaders at various government positions surfaced during this period and it was a shot in the arm for Chennithala. He did not waste any opportunity and latched on to it. The unemployment issue faced by the state was highlighted and it was pointed out how LDF-affiliated people are getting jobs very easily, but not the deserving PSC aspirants who are awaiting their turn for a job. Chennithala even promised a law, which will punish officials who do not report vacancies on time.
When Chennithala and other leaders speak about the political murders in the state and take the names of Kripesh, Sharath Lal, Shuhaib and Shukoor, who were ruthlessly murdered by CPM men, it touches the hearts of their mothers.
The huge crowd that turned up in every venue of the yatra was an indication of the changing winds. He could easily connect to the people with his casual approach and speech. Bigger crowds he drew at Kannur district, which is always considered as a left fortress shook the LDF. The government came up with Covid-19 violation cases against UDF leaders and cadres. However, that did not deter the yatra. In fact, he used the case as an opportunity to make a statement. He proudly stated about his association with the cadres that he cannot chase away them when they showed so much love. He also took a dig at the Pinarayi Vijayan who stays away from the common man.
Pinarayi Vijayan is well-known for his harsh and arrogant behaviour toward others. His arrogance towards various sections of people, insulting and publically shaming them on various occasions did dent his popularity. However, he started to exhibit a cool face after getting into power, which the opposition claims to be a part of his PR facade. On the other hand, Chennithala is seen as a more approachable leader with even kids allowed to come near him for conversations. Such gestures do make a lot of difference. It speaks volumes about the Congress leader who has definitely come on top with this yatra. His interactions with the common man have given a fresh lease of hope for the common public.
In the last five years, the Kerala Chief Minister has often shown impatience with public questions and it has been evident in many instances. In 2017, Vijayan lost his cool and in an insulting way told journalists and media persons to “get out” at a hotel, where he had arrived for a “peace meeting” with the BJP-RSS. The media persons were left shocked by the CM’s treatment. Later, his office issued a statement stating that the media wasn’t allowed at the event. This was not the only incident.
In 2019, barely hours after the Lok Sabha polls had ended, the CM lost his composure and lashed out at media persons. This time, he shouted, “Move aside”, while getting into his car to reach Nedumbassery airport. Before the incident, he had shown tremendous tolerance to the media, especially after the announcement of the Lok Sabha polls. More recently, the CM shouted at a female student as she asked a question addressed to him. This occurred at an event organised by the state government at MG University. The CM justified that an outburst, where he told the student very roughly, “No more questions are welcome, it is over,” occurred because the student had asked the question in the concluding session. However, being a public personality, he could have handled it better, or at least spoken to her in kind words, which was rightfully pointed out by others.
On the other hand, Ramesh Chennithala is a people friendly person. Once, during an event, a participant shouted from behind the crowd to know if the welfare pensions will be increased when UDF comes to power. Chennithala responded to that question positively, promising an increase in pensions.
Chennithala’s first itinerary of the day starts with a press briefing. He takes all questions without ducking any and answers them with a lot of clarity. Even the toughest, crooked questions are answered with a smile. This is again a contrast to Pinarayi Vijayan, who expresses his irritation over questions from the media. Even in sensational cases, Ramesh has often expressed his opinion in a composed manner.
In the infamous Walayar case — where two girls were found dead under mysterious circumstances — the Opposition Leader has not only stood with the mother of the murdered children but has raised a strong opposition against the general apathy that the government has shown in the matter. The Kerala High Court had noted that the initial probe in the matter had “affected any further investigation into the case”. Moreover, despite constant protests from the family, the mother, and an action council, the government is yet to speed up the second probe in the case.
Announcement of the NYAY scheme in every stage he addressed had touched the poor and needy and it has become a runaway hit among the public. The scheme itself is a game-changer, while the “kit” politics by LDF will take the back seat with the arrival of NYAY. Now the CPM and LDF appear to be in shambles. Their leaders, who are talking out of turn, are keeping their sheer frustration on display with their statements. Definitely, this yatra has ruffled few feathers among the left.
Without a doubt, it is evident that Ramesh and UDF are hitting CPM and LDF where it hurts the most. Most of the questions raised and issues brought forward seem out of syllabus questions for LDF. With this yatra, the Opposition Leader evolves as the centre stage of Kerala politics and political observers believe that by the time Aishwarya Kerala Yatra reaches Thiruvananthapuram, if they maintain the same momentum, the UDF would amass enough support to counter any narratives that the left or BJP, for that matter, could throw at them.
The advantage which LDF had during the local body elections has been negated and now UDF appears to be having a clear start ahead of the left front in its election preparation.