The massive multitudes who thronged to bid farewell to Oommen Chandy while his hearse meandered from Thiruvananthapuram to Kottayam were unprecedented. The cortege took 28 hours to cover the 150 km, prompting an anchor to gush; MC (Main Central) Road turns OC (Oommen Chandy) Road.
Perhaps, Kerala witnessed such a spectacle for the first time in 2004 when E K Nayanar’s mortal remains were carried from Thiruvananthapuram to Kannur. Next year, P.K. Vasudevan Nair also received a tearful farewell on his last journey from the state capital to Perumbavoor. Massive numbers lined the route when K Karunakaran’s cortege took 18 hours to reach Thrissur from Thiruvananthapuram in 2010.
Certainly, the mass outpourings clearly point to these leaders’ immense popularity. Yet, I hope it wouldn’t be offensive to their admirers to hear that 24 hour-television channels’ seamless coverage (without other news or commercials) also played a crucial role in the bandwagon effect. Although no less emotional, EMS Namboodiripad’s funeral procession travelled only a couple of kilometres from AKG Centre to the public crematorium, and it was also before seamless news channels came into being.
Channels are criticised by some for “spectacularizing even death.” But can any media turn away from any event that attracts such large numbers? Whether the television brings the crowds or vice versa is a chicken-and-egg question to be left for academics. The media gushing over the departed also is no sin as the ancient Latin mortuary aphorism goes, De mortuis nil nisi bonum. (of the dead, nothing but good is to be said). However, I wonder if any news channel anywhere else would suspend everything else to dedicate two days fully to a former Chief Minister’s demise.
This is not to take away anything from Chandy, clearly one of Kerala’s most popular leaders in history. Winning from the same constituency continuously for more than a half-century alone is proof of Chandy’s incomparable personal connect with the people, given Malayali’s notoriously fickle-minded voting preferences. Except for K.M. Mani, none could match the record, including from either the Communist parties, Congress, or even Muslim League. The only Communist who could come close was KR Gouriamma. As journalist KA Johny wrote, Chandy was Kerala’s best example of the famous Mao saying that a political activist should be with people like a fish in water. Interestingly, Puthuppally stood like a rock behind Chandy for 53 years despite the constituency having hardly anything big to show.
But what made Chandy different from other leaders or the former Chief Ministers? What made him such a darling of the people though he didn’t have many conventional traits that made great leaders? He was no formidable intellectual like EMS or an orator like Pattom Thanu Pillai; he enjoyed no unstinted support from his community, unlike R Shankar or CH Mohammed Koya; he was no visionary like Achutha Menon or a parliamentary expert like PKV or a favourite of the High Command like Karunakaran; he was no idealist like Antony or an ethical warrior like Achuthanandan; he lacked the humour of an avuncular Nayanar or the iron grip on the party like Pinarayi Vijayan. (Neither did Chandy ever pretend he had any of these traits.)
Yet, what made people love him more than others? All others were immensely admired and respected for their various qualities, but Chandy overtook them in the index of love. If others were revered like icons who stood on high pedestals and hence distant from the masses, Chandy was one among them. He could be the only one to be trusted as a friend in need by everyone who came across him, irrespective of party, religion, class, or gender. The only other leader who could be in this league was AK Gopalan. But then, AKG became a darling of the masses through his heroic struggles for the poor. Chandy was not known for any such heroism. Yet he connected with the people by being there like a father, a brother, or a son for their private needs and personal miseries. As is well-known, plebeians and patricians alike could call or meet him anytime. He was ready to help whether he held any office or not. The innumerable stories of unknown men, women, and children, irrespective of their political or religious affiliation, about how Chandy helped them on their most difficult moments, explain his place in Malayali hearts and the thousands who thronged on the MC Road.
Nevertheless, the cause for most of his big troubles also was his nature. No protocols or rules stood in the way of his legendary “pragmatism”. Though this made him the “patron saint of the impossible,” like St Jude as a channel described him, this wreaked havoc on him when he was the Chief Minister. When the people he trusted for long used their closeness to the Chief Minister to further their personal agenda and helped shady operators, Chandy, too, was obviously held accountable. Yet, as one who valued personal friendship even above principles, Chandy never cared to disown them to prove his innocence. Though public accountability was imperative to ensure a transparent system of governance and probity in public life, Chandy believed it personally immoral to let down even his untrustworthy friends. Everyone, friend, for or fraud, could freely move around his office, as shown when a mentally unstable man was found ensconced on the Chief Minister’s official chair. For him, everything was kosher as long as his conscience was clear. This was the same with regard to his ministry also. The last government he led was seen as the state’s most corrupt, although the two Left Democratic Front governments that succeeded couldn’t prove any of its alleged wrongdoings. Though Chandy paid a heavy price for his “tolerance,” he could emerge personally clean before he passed. Yet, neither this nor the succeeding governments' failure to claim anything better would exonerate him from making our system less transparent and clean. Though many are trying to blame it on other factors today, overwhelmed by the emotional upsurge triggered by his demise, Chandy, more than anybody, knew he was primarily responsible for his front’s crushing defeat in 2016. He was also gracious enough to admit it and declared not to take up any party position as a sign of penitence.
Chandy, the politician, was no saint. Nothing was anathema for him to outsmart his rivals. Yet, unlike others, he never hankered after pelf or position for himself. But he would fight until last for his party or his faction. Unlike most others at the helm, he fought his way up from the lowest levels without any godfathers. Inside Congress also, he was the most ferocious factional fighter since the beginning of the Karunakaran vs Antony war. Antony was only the figurehead of the faction, led from behind by a young brigade led by Chandy. When Karunakaran ran roughshod on them with the blessings of Indira Gandhi, this brigade bled heavily to survive. But when the opportunity arose, Chandy was merciless in retaliation. He fought for his faction unabashedly until last, as political clannishness ran through his blood. But when sharing spoils, he was content with his faction or leader Antony being given their due. And if this wasn’t done, he fought like a wounded tiger. He did not even let his “god” (Antony) let down his group, as proved by the revolt he led with Aryadan Mohammed within the A group against the appeasement of Karunakaran and his family, which culminated in AK quitting his Chief Ministership in 2004. Chandy would be the only Congress leader never lured by posts outside his home turf, whether in High Command, Union governments, or parliament.
Chandy’s democratic sense of tolerating criticism was also remarkable, particularly when the trait is facing extinction among leaders. This writer had often been denied interviews by Chandy (or his staff) during the veteran’s politically and personally difficult times. There were also occasions when my magazine was denied promised government advertisements after reports critical of him appeared. But, compared to many other leaders’ attitudes, Chandy being temporarily cold was no big deal. I was surprised he carried no grudge, even when I met him after my organisation aired the most damning stories against him. His simplicity, humility, humanity, ability to treat everyone equally, unwavering decency even towards his bitterest rivals, refusal to be carried away by positions and power, etc, would be abject lessons in politics.
The unprecedented emotional outpouring shows that in death, too, Chandy teaches us many simple things, of which the most important is the abundant grace of being nice to others.