‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.’
Shakespeare could not have been more wrong when he put those words into the mouth of Mark Antony at that famous funeral oration at Julius Ceaser’s funeral.
At least in the case of Oommen Chandy, Shakespeare was wrong, way wrong. It was after Oommen Chandy – Kunju Kunju or the Little Little One, as he was known to those who were close to him and as OC to those who spoke of him from afar – died that there was this unbelievable outpouring of grief right across the Malayali world that has taken Kerala and its people completely by surprise.
What each one thought was a good deed that OC did only for them, they collectively realised at his death that he had similarly helped lakhs of others. And those lakhs poured out onto the streets in homage to thank him for the good that he had done to them individually. That was when everyone realised collectively that he had touched not just one life but the lives of lakhs and lakhs of others.
My first close contact with Oommen Chandy began when I was the Labour Commissioner of Kerala. Oommen Chandy had then already become Labour Minister of the state. At just 35, he was and still is the youngest person to hold the post of Labour Minister of the state. He then went on to become the Home Minister of Kerala.
When I met him as Labour Commissioner, he was an opposition MLA. Sri. Nayanar was the Marxist Chief Minister. Those were the days when the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, the CITU of the Marxist Party, was virtually ruling the state. All employers, managers, and workers had to follow the diktats of the CITU. The Chief Minister and everyone else had to do the same. Strikes, lockouts, and the closure of factories were the order of the day. The CITU and its leaders ruled the roost and the state by proxy.
Oommen Chandy was then also the President of many unions of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the INTUC, which was affiliated with the Indian National Congress.
Because of the very many strikes, lockouts, and closures that had become a regular feature of the labour scene in Kerala then, as Labour Commissioner or LC as they would call me, I had a hectic time, holding conciliation talks one after the other, trying to settle disputes before they resulted in lost man days. Also, when a factory or an establishment had closed down because of a strike or a lockout, I had to step in to conciliate, settle the dispute, and try to get the closed units reopened. It was a herculean task, as the workers and the unions, sensing the power they held, would often be very recalcitrant, demanding huge increases in wages. The management had to often give in or close down. Giving in meant that they had to foot a wage bill that they could not afford. They were simply staving off the inevitable for a few months or years.
My hands as a Labour Commissioner were then always full holding talks with the unions and managements to end disputes, prevent strikes, lockouts, and closures, and if they did take place, try and quickly reopen the closed ones.
These talks would go on for hours together, starting in the morning till late evening. We would, of course, not come to any agreement in the first such sitting, and I would adjourn the talks to say a week or 10 days later. The talks would continue thus for many sittings, some taking even years, most at least a few months through many many dozen sittings.
The conciliation talks would usually be attended only by the local leaders of the trade unions. The state-level leaders would not generally participate in these meetings. Only in the final meetings, when a settlement was being reached, would the big state-level leaders come in. They would come in on that last day, make speeches, and sign the Conciliation Agreement, as though they had gone through the mill and the grind of every one of those many meetings, the hours of talks and discussions, and the passion, disappointment, and often anger that we had collectively gone through. Not to forget the hunger the workers and their families were passing through because of the strike, the lockout, or the closure.
But Oommen Chandy was different. Like the ordinary unit-level labour leader, he would come in for most of these many talks, if not for all. He would come in quietly and sit on the chair at the front right-hand side of the many rows of chairs laid out in my room.
He would come in and wish me, ‘Commissioneriku Sukam Aanoo?” which means, “I trust the Labour Commissioner is okay,” and take his seat. While most other labour leaders would come and sit in these discussions as though, they ruled the establishment, if not the whole wide world, Oommen Chandy would sit awkwardly on the chair, as though the chair was too big for him, almost trying to fade away into the chair, as though he was not good enough for it.
Remember that at that time he was a sitting MLA, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, a former minister twice over, and the President of very many INTUC trade unions. But yet he would come and sit for hours together in my office and participate in the conciliation meetings. He would sit right through and leave only when the meeting ended and after exchanging a word or two with me.
If the discussions were not proceeding satisfactorily, he would take his workers and leaders out and advise them. He would, of course, advise the Employers as well. They were in as much awe of him as I was.
He would sometimes come back to my room to have a private word with me when the rest of the workers and Management representatives were outside and advise me on how to proceed.
When the time was ripe for a settlement, he would sense it and tell me to step in. He would say, for example, that I should suggest a figure for the wage increase that the Unions were demanding. Embarrassed at being asked to suggest a figure myself, I would ask him how much I should suggest. He would beat about the bush for a while, all the while knowing quite well that I would certainly ask him that question. He, of course, had the correct answer in mind.
After dilly-dallying for some time, he would say, ‘Commissioner, oru nanooru rupa parayu,’ or ‘Commissioner, why don’t you suggest a Rs. 400 increase.”
I would be aghast! This was at a time when the Unions were demanding an increase of Rs. 4000 per month and was declaring that they would die if they had to agree on even a rupee less. And the management was steadfastly adhering to the Rs. 40 that they had agreed to as a wage increase some six months ago.
‘Rs. 400, sir?’ I would ask aghast, ‘the Unions will not accept it. And the Management would reject it outright’, I would add.
‘Commissioner, athu paranju noku’………… ‘Commissioner, you suggest the amount’, he would add cryptically and leave the room.
He knew their pulse. At the reconvened meeting, after much further talk and discussions, Oommen Chandy would stand up and after a brief speech addressed to both the workers and the Management, would say, ‘at this stage, let us leave it to the Labour Commissioner for his suggestion. Let us accept his suggestion. He is a fair person. He will suggest a figure that would be fair to both us the workers and the Managements’.
There would be dead silence in the room. I would look away. Suddenly a worker from the back would stand up and say, ‘I endorse what Chandy Sir has said. Let us leave it to the Labour Commissioner.’ Suddenly a couple of others including from the CITU and the BMS and the AITUC would stand up and endorse, ‘As the MLA says’ – referring of course to Oommen Chandy – ‘let us leave it to the LC, the LC being me the Labour Commissioner’.
Soon the topmost CITU leader would stand up and add his agreement. His party was ruling the state and he was keen on a settlement. If OC was ready to take the blame for anything going wrong with the LC’s suggestion, so much the better. The strike would be settled, the unit would reopen, the CITU could claim credit and if there was any criticism, OC would be given the blame.
So it was now up to me. I had to suggest a figure. And I had to suggest Rs. 400 knowing well that both the Management and the workers would be dis-satisfied with the figure. But I could not suggest anything more or anything less. For then I would not have the support of Oommen Chandy. Like two negatives making a positive, I knew somewhere in my mind that OC was correct.
But I would huff and puff, I would hesitate. I would act coy. It was very important that I do not seem too much in a hurry to declare a figure for the wage increase. Oommen Chandy had warned me of that. ‘Take some time, and then suggest Rs. 400’, he had added while leaving the room previously.
I would take my time. I would let the meeting drag on for a couple of hours more, late into the night. As the time passed the workers would get impatient. ‘Sir, you suggest a figure and we will agree’.
As the time neared 11 PM, I would come out of my coyness. I would say that if all of you agree to go by my suggestion, I will suggest a figure. Both the workers and the Management would agree in unison.
Then after a short speech myself, sort of evaluating the demands of both the sides, explaining what was possible and not possible, I would suggest that Rs. 400 increase that Sri. Oommen Chandy had suggested to me. Of course, in all this I would make no reference to OC nor even look at him.
Once I announced the figure, there would be a moment of stunned silence. It would be very clear that the workers were disappointed. They were expecting at least a two-thousand-rupee hike. The Management would be aghast. They had been prepared only for a two-hundred-rupee increase.
But before the murmurs began, Oommen Chandy would stand up, shuffle around, look at the workers and at the Union Leaders and say, ‘Commissioner parajathallee. Namukku athu ottum pora. Ennal nammal avishyapettitu alle Commissioner a thuka parajanathu. Namukku athe angu sammathikaam’ or ‘The figure is what the Commissioner has declared after we asked him to do so persistently. It is of course not satisfactory at all. But with our full respect to the Commissioner, let us accept the Rs. 400 hike he has declared.’
Striking while the iron is hot, the CITU leader would stand up and put the blame on Oommen Chandy. ‘LC paranju, OC sammathichu. Ini namukku onne pattu. Namukkum athu angu angeegarichu agreementil oppidam’ or ‘The LC declared an amount. And OC agreed to it. The hike is highly unsatisfactory. But we are now left with no choice. We left it to the LC. We are therefore forced to agree to it. Let us do so and sign the Agreement.’ There would be round of applause from the workers. That signified their agreement.
It would now be the time of the Management to say how high the figure of Rs. 400 was. That they could not afford it. That it would kill the industry. However they were left with no choice but to agree to it as they too had left it to the LC to declare a figure.
And before midnight an agreement for a wage increase of Rs. 400, a discussion that had got nowhere in the last 8 months would be signed by all the parties.
That was OC. He knew the pulse of the people, the workers. He knew when to step in. He knew how to step in. He knew how to take matters forward to a positive conclusion.