Soon after the Indian Air Force helicopter took off from Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced on his Facebook page that he was off to visit flood-affected districts in the state and that he was accompanied by Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala.

Given the long rivalry between the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Opposition Congress – which have ruled Kerala by turns for several decades now – news of the two leaders setting aside their political differences during a crisis generated both wonder and praise on social media. This also apparently marked the first instance in Kerala’s political history of a leader of the Opposition traveling with the chief minister to a disaster area.

The floods in eight districts of Kerala have left 39 people dead while more than 35,000 residents are in relief camps. They have also destroyed homes, farmland and roads. The districts of Idukki, Alappuzha, Kottayam, Ernakulam and Wayanad are the worst affected. The south-west monsoon regained momentum in mid-July before intensifying even more on August 8, bringing heavy rain to the state. The Meteorological Department has forecast heavy to very heavy rain in all the eight affected districts till Wednesday and the State Disaster Management Authority has issued a red alert effective till Tuesday, along with an advisory to residents to avoid hilly areas. The state government has described the situation as “unprecedented” while the Central government has said it is “very serious”.

On Saturday, Vijayan and Chennithala met affected families in Ernakulam and Wayanad and conducted an aerial survey of the districts. However, their helicopter could not land in Idukki because of inclement weather. The two were accompanied by Revenue Minister E Chandrasekharan, Chief Secretary Tom Jose, Additional Chief Secretary PH Kurien and state police chief Loknath Behra.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his delegation visit a relief camp in Wayanad district. (Credit: Chief Minister's Facebook Page)
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his delegation visit a relief camp in Wayanad district. (Credit: Chief Minister's Facebook Page)

‘Not the time for political bickering’

“Kerala has been hit hard by flooding, this is not the time for political bickering,” MV Jayarajan, private secretary to the chief minister, told Scroll.in. “That is why [the] chief minister invited [the] leader of Opposition to join him to visit flood-affected areas. Chief minister wanted Chennithala to be part of the delegation.”

He added, “Chennithala showed the political maturity to accept the invitation.”

Chennithala was also keen on demonstrating political unity. “We have to keep aside all differences and work together for the people at this hour of crisis,” he said.

Congress leaders said Chennithala discussed Vijayan’s invitation with his senior party colleagues Oommen Chandy and MM Hassan before accepting it. “Both leaders advised him to accept it as they felt it was not good to politicise the issue,” said one party leader who did not wish to be identified.

Ramesh Chennithala decided to accept Pinarayi Vijayan's invitation to join the survey of flood-hit areas after consulting his senior Congress colleagues. (Credit: Chief Minister's Facebook Page)
Ramesh Chennithala decided to accept Pinarayi Vijayan's invitation to join the survey of flood-hit areas after consulting his senior Congress colleagues. (Credit: Chief Minister's Facebook Page)

This was a departure from the Congress’ position a week ago, when Chennithala had criticised the chief minister for failing to visit flood victims in the Kuttanad region. Many Congress leaders, including Chennithala, had also boycotted a meeting called by the government on August 5 to review relief operations in Alappuzha district. “The people of Kuttanad expected that the chief minister would meet them and listen to their grievances,” Chennithala had said, with media reports saying the Congress leader had pointed out that Kuttanad was just 15 minutes away from the venue of the meeting.

It was also expected that the Congress would make the suffering of the flood victims a big part of its campaign for next year’s Lok Sabha elections, especially in constituencies in the affected districts. All 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala are set to witness a direct fight between the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front, with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance being the other dominant coalition in the fray.

All parties on board

The unity of the ruling and Opposition parties in Kerala in dealing with the flood crisis is accompanied by individual efforts by political parties to help relief operations and raise funds.

Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, state secretary of the Left party, urged party members to join relief activities. The BJP’s state president, PS Sreedharan Pillai, asked party workers to help government agencies as well as non-governmental organisations such as Seva Bharathi. Congesss president Rahul Gandhi too appealed to party workers to help the flood victims. He tweeted on Friday:

The same day, Vijayan issued a statement in which he said the situation was “a calamity for the entire state” and asked Kerala’s citizens to contribute generously to relief efforts. “We become civilised only when we show compassion towards those who are suffering,” the chief minister wrote. “I urge all to consider this as a request of Kerala and contribute generously to relief efforts.”