Thiruvananthapuram: On his maiden visit to his home state since becoming Number Two in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's team, Defence Minister A K Antony managed to set the cat among the pigeons with his remarks. Antony, widely considered a man of few words, drew attention to his words not once but on two different occasions, forcing party colleagues to sit up and take note. The opposition was quick to grab at the remarks to show the Oommen Chandy government in the state in poor light.
In a speech at a function to honour senior BJP leader O Rajagopal, Antony plainly told party colleagues to show restraint as they spoke to the media: "I wish they would show some restraint, and not air opinions which at times are personal and this should not happen." Party leaders knew that the defence minister was referring to recent instances, when leaders big and small had publicly vented problems with each other and with the Congress and other parties in the coalition.
At a meeting at the BrahMos Aerospace Thiruvananthapuram Limited (BATL) here, the Defence Minister, while complimenting the previous Left Democratic Front government of V S Achuthanandan, said that during that time, six units of his department could function from the state. "Till 2011, I got in six units of my department into Kerala but now I don't have the courage to get another one here because the attitude towards defence establishments is not proper," Antony said.
"Every time my close friend Chief Minister Oommen Chandy meets me, he seeks more support from me, but honestly, something is wrong somewhere. I am helpless because I can't sort out the issues here and I do not know how it can be sorted out," the defence minister said.
Antony's words come as a bonanza for the beleaguered Left opposition. Using the remarks to taunt the government, leader of opposition and former chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan said Oommen Chandy could "hang the certificate issued by Antony around his neck".
Chandy, however, attempted to be poised and claimed that the defence minister was remarking about trade union activities that should never have happened at a defence unit like BATL. "Antony was referring to undesirable trade union activities at BATL. We have now decided to ensure that the registration of all trade unions be cancelled," Chandy said.
Just days after Antony's remarks, former Kerala Minister and opposition Revolutionary Socialist Party leader N.K. Premachandran opined that in recent history, each time the Congress was in power in the state, there was a change of leadership mid-way into the chief minister's tenure. "Antony's loaded statements will cause heartache to Chandy, if one looks at past trends," Premachandran said.
Incidentally, in the history of the Congress governments in the state, only K. Karunakaran (1982-87) managed to complete a full term as chief minister. C.P. John, member of the State Planning Board and senior leader of the Communist Marxist Party, an ally of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), said the coalition is now in the process of "looking in the mirror". "As someone who has been attending meetings of the UDF for nearly two decades, I can say that if there are areas where we have to pull up our socks, we'll just get down to it," John said.
All eyes are now on the Indian Union Muslim League, the second-largest ally within the UDF. At the weekly cabinet meeting here on Thursday night, P.K. Kunhalikutty, state industries minister, expressed discomfort that Antony had praised Elamaram Kareem, who served as industries minister in the previous Left government. It remains to be seen if the state Congress and the coalition government at the state will pay heed to Antony's unsolicited advice. One thing, though, is clear -- the defence minister has left the opposition in the state with ample ammunition.