May 25, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Kerala Chief Minister A K Antony
'I am not a dictator'
When the Congress wants to project a clean image, the baton is often handed to A K Antony. It is this image that has proved Antony's greatest strength. And he knows it.

Sworn in as Kerala's chief minister for the third time on May 17, the 61-year-old Antony has spent most of his time shuttling between meetings since then. Known to be one of Congress president Sonia Gandhi's inner circle, he spoke to Ramesh Menon in New Delhi. Excerpts:

Does the 'clean image' weigh heavily on you?

This is my lifestyle. It is not an image. It has been like this since my childhood. Nothing has been put on. My father died when I was very young. I had too many responsibilities. It was very tough. But that struggle to survive taught me many lessons. I had to work as a Life Insurance Corporation agent while in college. It was a hard life. I could not afford a luxurious lifestyle. So I continued living like that. Even today, as chief minister, I am the same. Positions will come and go, but as far as my personal life is concerned, I will not change.

Are you against change?

I do not want to be a prisoner of the past. I am certainly not against change and will definitely change if there is a need. I am open to ideas. I am a realist. Other states are racing ahead and we need to change to go ahead and do well.

How does it feel to take over as chief minister of Kerala again when the state's economy is in a shambles?

'My priority is to pull Kerala out of its financial mess'
I have inherited a bankrupt state. For the first time in India, a chief minister was denied a ticket by Indian Airlines. They wanted cash. [Antony then had to get himself a ticket through an agent to fly to a meeting in New Delhi]. This itself shows the credit-worthiness of the government.

Sounds pathetic. What will you do now?

I have to take tough decisions. We have to take the people into confidence. We do not even have enough money to pay salaries. Even for that, we have to take loans. There are arrears of billions of rupees. There is a total financial breakdown. This is definitely going to be my first priority. We need investments for economic development. But the government has no money to invest.

How will you tackle this then?

We are hoping to get loans from the World Bank, LIC, HUDCO [Housing and Urban Development Corporation] and others and use it for industrialization and building capital assets. We are relying on Malayalee NRIs all over the world to help the state by investing in it.

Kerala Chief Minister A K Antony It is a tough job ahead.

We have to resurrect the economy of Kerala from the ashes. We will not shut the existing public-sector units, but will attempt to improve their functioning. But no new ones will be started.

We also hope to engage the private and cooperative sectors in various areas like education, information technology, tourism and communication.

Kerala has excellent development indices, but has a large educated population which is unemployed.

Kerala has 4.2 million people who are unemployed today. I want to ensure that at least 15,00,000 new jobs are created in the next five years. It is a serious issue.

One of the things we want to do is to develop training in information technology for at least one million youngsters in the next five years. Then they can get jobs anywhere in India or anywhere in the world.

You have just taken over as chief minister, but have you worked out an agenda for Kerala?

My first priority is to get Kerala out of the financial mess it is in.

We want to provide drinking water to all in five years. We hope to house all the homeless. We want to construct latrines in all coastal areas. Kerala has serious environmental challenges as large areas are degraded. We want to rectify that. The rising divorce rates and death rates worry us. Social issues like this also have to be looked into immediately.

In the next five years, I want to make Kerala as good as any other southern state. We will give a corruption-free government.

Kerala has become very politicized. There is so much bitterness and revenge in the air.

During the time of the Marxists, there was a concept of first-class citizens and second-class citizens. All Marxist supporters were treated like first-class citizens. The rest were second. Now everyone will be treated equally. There will be no vindictiveness. We are determined to restore the rule of law that was destroyed by the CPI-M.

Why did the Congress do well in Kerala?

'An anti-government vote got us into power. The previous government ruined the state'
Frankly speaking, it was just an anti-government vote that got us into power. The previous government had ruined the state. Kerala was bankrupt and had borrowed from every possible source imaginable. The agricultural economy was in a mess. People were fed up. All independent voters shifted their vote to us this time.

How did you finally make peace with K Karunakaran?

We have to work together. I have to respect him, as he is a senior Congressman. I may differ with him on issues, but both of us have to compromise. If we do not, we cannot defeat the Marxists.

Have your relations with Karunakaran improved?

Relations have improved. I am clear that I do not want a confrontation with him.

Many were surprised that some tainted politicians have got into your Cabinet.

They have cases instituted against them. But that does not mean they are guilty. Nowadays many cases are slapped just because of political vendetta. It is a fashion now for one government to slap cases on the previous government.

Are you finally compromising on your ideals that you fought for all these years?

In a democracy, there will be political compromises. My word cannot be final. I have to work with my party. I have to work with the opposition. I am not a dictator. I am free to take any decision only in my personal life and not in politics.

Kerala has whipped up some fascinating strategies as far as tourism goes. What are you planning?

The entire state is a tourist spot. Kerala has great potential. With private capital, we are determined to make Kerala what we call 'God's own land'. The only limitation today is infrastructure and communication, but we will work on these areas and fix them.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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