An Empathetic Leader: Tribute To Oommen Chandy – OpEd


The south Indian state of Kerala finds itself immersed in an extraordinary display of warmth and love, seldom seen for a politician, in the wake of Oommen Chandy’s passing. As a veteran Congress leader and former Chief Minister of the state, his demise has touched the hearts of the people in an unprecedented manner. The overwhelming flood of affection since Tuesday serves as a touching reminder of the profound impact Chandy had on the lives of countless people throughout his remarkable journey in politics. He died in Bangalore after a prolonged illness. 

As his mortal remains made the heart-rending journey from the bustling capital of the state to his cherished hometown of Kottayam, an unusual yearning pervaded the air. It was a desire, unprecedented in its intensity, to witness the presence of this leader, renowned for his deep connection with the people. Rare indeed are the occasions when political figures possess the remarkable ability to amass such vast crowds while shouldering the weight of great responsibilities. Oommen Chandy, affectionately known as OC, remained a captivating figure both within the corridors of power and in the warmth of his abode. Today, as the multitude accompanies his body, a profound legacy resonates—an enduring one etched upon the hearts of those he touched. 

As a senior leader of the Indian National Congress, Oommen Chandy left an enduring legacy on Kerala’s political landscape during his two terms as Chief Minister, from 2004 to 2006 and again from 2011 to 2016. He steered the state with his vision and dedication amid all criticisms and heated controversies.  Moreover, during the period from 2006 to 2011, he played a crucial role as the Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, fearlessly voicing the concerns of the people. In 2020, Chandy completed 50 years of his role as a legislator, an illustrious political career, representing the same constituency in Kottayam without any break. Hence the people of Puthuppally have fond memories of their leader and they cannot yet reconcile to the fact of his demise.  

Chandy’s political journey began with the Kerala Students Union in the 1960s, where he honed his skills and passion for public service. Over time, his dedication and acumen propelled him to higher echelons of power, ultimately achieving the esteemed position of Chief Minister. Prior to assuming this role, he held pivotal portfolios such as Finance, Home, and Labour, under the United Democratic Front (UDF) dispensation, contributing significantly to the state’s governance and welfare.

Throughout his political journey, spanning over six decades, Oommen Chandy exemplified steadfast leadership and unwavering commitment to the welfare of the people. His influence extended beyond party lines, garnering admiration from supporters and respect from opponents. Despite the challenges that come with public office, Chandy’s commitment was so profound, and his accomplishments as a minister left a lasting impact on the state. His ability to address complex issues with competence and compassion earned him widespread respect and admiration. During his ministerial spells, Chandy’s leadership shone brightly with the brilliance of an able administrator and the foresight of a practical statesman. His tenure was marked by a visionary approach, driven by a deep understanding of the needs and aspirations of the people. 

In 2006, during his tenure as Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy took the stage at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos. In his captivating presentation, he offered a comprehensive overview of Kerala’s remarkable progress in several social sectors. One significant area of focus was the empowering of women through the transformative “Kudumbashree” programme.

In 2013, Oommen Chandy’s resolute commitment to combating corruption and promoting transparency in public service earned him international recognition. The United Nations honoured him with the prestigious United Nations Public Service Award for his exemplary efforts in this critical area, specifically in the Asia-Pacific region. The award ceremony took place in Bahrain, where Chandy was presented with the esteemed accolade by Wu Hongbo, the then UN Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs. The theme for the award, “Transformative e-Government and Innovation: Creating a Better Future for All,” highlighted the significance of leveraging technology and innovation in building a brighter and more equitable future. 

As the labour minister, he took a historic decision to grant unemployment allowance to the educated jobless youth. This initiative not only provided much-needed financial support but also instilled hope and encouragement among millions who were struggling to find suitable employment opportunities.  During his time as the home minister, Chandy brought about a positive change in the police force that instilled a sense of pride and confidence among the police personnel. As the finance minister, he took charge of stabilizing the State’s finances, which were in a state of disarray. Despite the challenges and criticisms, he never shied away from making difficult choices to achieve financial stability and ensure the welfare of the State and its citizens. Chandy’s popularity among the people remained strong, and his leadership style combined empathy and pragmatism. 

During his tenure, Chandy initiated a host of ambitious projects and transformative initiatives that reflected his development vision. The launching of the Vallarpadam Transshipment Terminal, the Vizhinjam Port project, and the Smart City project were all significant milestones that aimed to bolster Kerala’s connectivity and enhance its economic potential, thereby improving the state’s infrastructure and transportation systems. The implementation of the Metro Rail project and the Kerala State Transport Project were critical steps in modernizing Kerala’s public transportation and easing congestion in urban areas. His foresight also extended to the development of Sabarimala Master Plan, Kannur International Airport, and Trivandrum International Airport, emphasizing the importance of boosting tourism and improving air connectivity.

Indeed, Oommen Chandy’s compassion and empathy towards the poor and needy were among his most commendable attributes. His genuine concern for the welfare of the underprivileged was evident in his actions and willingness to go the extra mile to provide them with solace and support. Through his Mass Contact Programme, Oommen Chandy connected directly with the people, and the overwhelming response from thousands of people across the state spoke volumes about their confidence in his leadership. It was a testament to the genuine bond he shared with the people, and their unwavering trust in his ability to address their concerns and struggles. Chandy himself said that “the thrust of the campaign was to bridge the gap between the people and the government by removing the menace of ‘red tape’ which comes in the way of just and speedy delivery of services. The experience gained from the campaign would be factored in to update official rules and procedures for better governance.”

Chandy’s determination to help those in need knew no bounds, and he tirelessly worked towards uplifting the marginalized and disadvantaged sections of society. His commitment to social welfare and his dedication to improving the lives of the less fortunate were evident in his policies and initiatives. Beyond his political roles, he remained approachable and accessible to the common people, further reinforcing the strong rapport he had with them. Chandy’s compassion and dedication to the welfare of the people endeared him as a leader who genuinely cared for the well-being of the people. 

In his condolence message, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled his various interactions with Oommen Chandy, particularly when they both served as Chief Ministers of their respective states. He said: “We have lost a humble and dedicated leader who devoted his life to public service and worked towards the progress of Kerala.” 

Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan said that with Oommen Chandy’s departure, “an important chapter in the history of Kerala’s politics has come to an end. The distinctive personal qualities he has left behind will transcend time and mark their presence in the State’s public sphere.”

M.A. Baby, a member of the CPI (M) politburo and former Minister of Kerala, wrote that Oommen Chandy had an exceptional ability to maintain personal warmth amidst political differences. Even during their time when Baby served as the Minister of Education in V.S. Achuthanandan’s cabinet while Chandy held the position of the opposition leader in the Assembly, Chandy exhibited a remarkable willingness to collaborate. Despite the existence of significant disagreements on various issues, Chandy extended a helping hand to facilitate a programme for teachers, albeit facing strong opposition from teachers’ organizations. This act demonstrated his commitment to finding common ground and his dedication to the betterment of education. 

 P. T. Chacko, the Press Secretary to Oommen Chandy during his tenure as Chief Minister and later as Opposition Leader, offers a captivating portrayal of Chandy’s life in the coauthored book A Gracious Voice: Life of Oommen Chandy. Chacko describes Chandy as a person who “embodied the qualities of being protective, understanding, and proactive in embracing new ideas.” His “unwavering commitment to development projects and genuine concern for the downtrodden earned him widespread admiration.” 

Remarkably, Oommen Chandy’s life subtly weaves together the political and the personal, resulting in an endless fusion where the two facets become indistinguishable. As he traversed the realm of politics as a prominent figure, his leadership style and governance approach were profoundly influenced by his adherence to certain core values and his own personal experiences. This harmonious blend enabled him to forge a unique and empathetic path in his political journey. Chandy died at a crucial juncture even as the Congress Party is all set to mobilize a national opposition to the NDA dispensation in the 2024 General Elections. 

The author wishes to thank P.T. Chacko and MA Baby for their comments 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He frequently writes for ‘Global South Colloquy.’ He can be contacted at [email protected]

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