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Kerala: Congress leader makes casteist slurs at CM Pinarayi Vijayan, the party comes out in support

Pinarayi Vijayan belongs to the Thiyya or Ezhava community, who were once denied equal opportunities and worked as 'toddy tappers.'

On Tuesday (February 2), Congress MP K Sudhakaran stirred a new row by making casteist remarks against the Kerala Chief Minister and Communist party leader Pinarayi Vijayan, ahead of the upcoming Vidhan Sabha elections.

During a political meet in Kannur, Sudhakaran took a dig at Vijayan for hiring a helicopter for his travel. Labelling the Kerala CM as ‘chethukarude kudumbam’ (belonging to the family of toddy tappers), he said that Vijayan would go down in history as the leader of the working class people, who maintained a luxurious lifestyle. The Congress leader further added that it was upto the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to decide whether it was a matter of honour or disgrace.

“What is Pinarayi’s family? Chethukarude kudumbam. Pinarayi Vijayan, who held the revolutionary flame of the working class from a family of toddy-tappers and led you from the front holding the red flag, where is he now? A CM who rose from the toddy tappers’ family needs a helicopter to travel. He will be the first CM in Kerala to do so,” K Sudhakaran emphasised.

The Casteist undertones of the comments

Sudhakaran’s jibe at Pinarayi Vijayan reeked of casteism. The Kerala CM belongs to the Thiyya or Ezhava community, who were once denied equal opportunities and traditionally worked as ‘toddy tappers.’ The community members are also classified as OBCs (Other Backward Class) by the Government of India.

Interestingly, Sudhakaran is also a member of Parliamentary Standing Committees on Rural Development and Welfare of Other Backward Class. As such, his comments received fierce criticism from all quarters, with many arguing that he could have taken potshots at the Kerala CM’s luxurious lifestyle without resorting to the ‘toddy tapper jibe’. The CPI(M) has said that the Congress leader intended to shame a section of people as an inferior class, who are somehow not worthy of holding a public office.

Sudhakaran justifies his comments, Congress backs him

After the caste row, Sudhakaran emphasised that his comments were not targeted at Vijayan’s caste but rather to his extravagant lifestyle. The comments, made during the Aishwarya Kerala Yatra led by Ramesh Chennithala, put the Congress in a tough spot. Chennithala, Congress MLA and Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, mildly criticised Sudhakaran and asked him to refrain from making personal remarks.

However, a strong reaction came from another Congress MLA named Shanimol Usman, who asked Sudhakaran to apologise for his casteist slur. This stirred infighting with the Congress party with Sudhakaran lashing out on both of them. The Congress leaders soon backtracked in order to pacify the situation. While Usman tendered an apology on Facebook, Chennithala stated that the party would never reject Sudhakaran.

In a sudden change of heart, Chennithala said, “Mr. Sudhakaran had merely pointed out that Mr. Vijayan’s public persona as a working-class leader conflicted with his fiscal profligacy as Chief Minister.” Similarly, All India Congress Committee general secretary K. C. Venugopal and Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president Mullappally Ramachandran also extended their support to Sudhakaran.

The Background of the Helicopter controversy

Sudhakaran’s helicopter jibe was premised on the fact that Pinarayi Vijayan used a helicopter in December 2017 to attend a CPI (M) party meeting in Thrissur, Kerala. In an order passed by the Kerala Disaster Management Department, the government sought to pay for the helicopter ride to the tune of ₹8 lac using state relief fund meant for Cyclone Ockhi.

Softcopy of the order (Image Courtesy: India Today)

Following a public outcry, the government rolled back the order and the Kerala CM assured that the outstanding payment would be made from public administration account. The helicopter controversy re-surfaced last year, with the Kerala government making a purchase of a helicopter. In his defence, Pinarayi Vijayan claimed that helicopters were required for disaster management work.

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Staff reporter at OpIndia

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