Friday 28 September 2012
Last Update 28 September 2012 3:45 pm
With the expectation of going into a large house, well furnished and air-conditioned, I went to visit A.K. Antony, the then chief minister of Kerala, a southern state of India from where a lot of expatriates in the Arab Gulf states including Saudi Arabia come. These expatriate workers remit a large chunk of their hard-earned money back to India which helps the central as well as state governments meet the requirements of the government especially imports of food and arms. Kerala has, in fact, played a great role in the progress and development of the whole country and the state continues to prosper as I could see during my editorship of the company’s Malaylam daily newspaper, now in its 13th year of publication.
Antony was chief minister of Kerala when I made one of my visits to the state. The house was nice but in no way luxurious, clean but rather dark and the reception room where he welcomed me was not air-conditioned. He spoke softly and smiled rarely as he was earnestly attentive to my questions and arguments. I respected him a lot and in due course got along very well with him.
I had known about his incorruptibility and honesty in public life so much so that he was referred to as Mr. Clean of Kerala in the same way as Rajiv Gandhi used to be known during the first years of his premiership following the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi. Later on his reputation was badly tarnished by allegations of corruption regarding the infamous Bofors gun scandal in which some opposition members dragged his name into the mud although nothing substantial was ever proved against him. He was killed by the Tamil Tigers for sending Indian troops to fight against them in Sri Lanka. He also suffered the rare humiliation of being batted on the back of his head by a Lankan soldier during a guard of honor salute moments before his departure from Sri Lanka where he was on a state visit. He was not hurt at the time.
Antony spoke about his ambitions for the state and assured me that he would do what Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamed had done earlier. But while Mahatir had time to fulfill his determination to bring the country to the level of Asian Tigers, Antony did not have the time to change the face of Kerala as much as he would have liked to do. Had he stayed much longer I believe he would have probably done something in that direction.
Antony was born in a Syrian Catholic family at Cherthala near Alleppey in Travancore which I visited much earlier. He was the son of A.K. Pillai, one of the prominent families of the state which is linked to the Nair family, equally famous. He completed his high school, went on to obtain a degree in arts from Mahatma Gandhi University.
Antony was an activist from the beginning of his student days and led many labor strikes like the single penny strike. He had no particular party affiliations but he was left of center in terms of political leanings until he became the youngest chief minister of the state at the age of 37 from l977 to l978. I met him during his second tenure which ended in l996. Later he became leader of the opposition in Kerala legislative assembly.
Then he returned for a third term but did not last long and was replaced by Oommen Chandy.
Antony was famous for construction of the legislative complex, introduction of unemployment allowance, festival allowance for the state employees and prohibition of arrack — locally made alcohol — to which hundreds of thousands are addicted to the detriment of their family life. People had a lot of confidence in him given his reputation for honesty and probity so he took initiatives in the fields of higher education, science and technology, biotechnology and information technology.
I believe that he would have achieved a great deal for Kerala if he had not gone to Delhi to become defense minister although this post is a huge promotion for any Indian state minister or chief minister as India is only second to China in military power and is unlikely to succumb to China again as it had done in the past during the tenure of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when China swept through northern India like it was on a picnic.
Krishna Menon, a south Indian like Antony, was then defense minister.
— Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.