INTERVIEW | Congress has realised Left has been right: P Rajeeve | #socialmedia

Express News Service

Industries Minister P Rajeeve is one of the promising faces in the second LDF government. He is on a hot seat, literally, as the state is not exactly known for its industry-friendly image. Rajeeve talks to TNIE about his plans, controversies, challenges, and CPM’s struggles in Ernakulam district. Excerpts:

Kerala does not have an industrial-friendly image. You have initiated a series of measures to change that. How has it been going?
There is a common perception that Kerala has a negative investment climate. But if we look into our past, one can see that we have been at the forefront of many new things. We established Keltron in 1973. We established the country’s first IT park ‘Technopark’ in Thiruvananthapuram. The first ecosystem for startups was developed in Kerala. Though we had taken a lot of steps in the right direction, we haven’t been able to maintain the momentum. The perception that Kerala lacked an industrial-friendly culture remained. Now there is a positive change.

Despite all positive measures, harassment by officials in the name of licences and inspections continues. What steps have been taken in this regard?
The two-tier grievance address mechanism has been equipped to handle any sort of complaint. It will handle complaints from an already running industry and from those who want to establish an industry. As far as complaints about harassment by officials in the name of inspections, we have put in place Kerala Centralised Inspectorate System, which decides who should conduct the statutory inspection. After each inspection, the officer concerned should upload the report within 48 hours. The status of the inspections is updated in the system which alerts when to conduct an inspection again.

Kitex Group complained of harassment and opted for an investment in Telangana. How has it affected the state?
Though Kitex made a huge fuss, nobody in the industrial sector supported them. All knew their real intentions. If there was a genuine issue, they could have contacted any of us when there was such harassment.

You mean it was politically-driven?
The election result may have disappointed them and they were looking for a reason to make an investment outside Kerala. They must have expected something in the assembly elections and were frustrated. We don’t have any politics in the issue. That’s why none from the government made any statement against them.

A lot of big IT brands like IBM, Cognizant and TCS are setting up infrastructure in Kerala. Are there more in the pipeline?
We have already handed over 2 lakh square feet of space to Tata Elxsi in Thiruvananthapuram and we did it ahead of schedule. As of now, 40% of their workforce is operating from Kerala. They have now asked for an additional 2.5 lakh sq ft which we will be able to hand over in eight months. They are looking for space in Kozhikode and are planning to shift their major workforce to Kerala. TCS is setting up a 36-acre campus in Kakkanad which is their biggest.

This focus on IT is part of a plan?
We can’t have all types of industries. We can’t have highly polluting industries and we have little land available. So our focus is on food processing, IT, pharmaceutical, e-vehicle and we are getting positive responses. Our good socio-economic indicators are a reason why multinational companies are coming here. We have better living standards. There is absolute freedom in Kerala to eat or wear what one wants… We are going to promote ‘Work from Kerala’ in a big way.

Militant trade unionism is still an issue…
There are some isolated incidents. The media exaggerates these minor incidents while more gruesome incidents – even murders — happening in other states over labour issues are not reported. Here we try to intervene at the earliest. For instance, the issue with the Nesto group in Kalpetta. When I came to know about this through social media, we intervened. Now they have agreed to invest Rs 650 crore in the state. But very few media outlets reported this positive development while all were eager to report the unrest.

An entrepreneur has the right to recruit his employees. However,  in some places, trade unions are trying to control that…
The trade unions have no right to recruit any employee. Nokkukooli is not a labour dispute. It’s a criminal activity. But I would add that trade unions have changed a lot. When they lose jobs, the workers will agitate. That is natural. It’s quite like the situation where theatre owners are now up in arms against OTT platforms. We all have to change considering the developments and changes occurring in technology.

What is the new focus area of the Industries department?
Our focus is now on the MSME sector and we aim to create 1 lakh new MSMEs yearly. When we took charge, the number of MSME units registering annually was only 17,300. During the tenure of the previous LDF government, the number rose to 68,000. In the last four months itself, 44,924 new MSME units have been registered in the state. Our next focus is on encashing on the Kerala brand. The state already is a well-known brand across the globe. Making use of this goodwill that the state has, we are planning to create a ‘Made in Kerala’ brand which will be certified by the government.

There is a general perception that the second LDF government is not as good as the first one. One main reason cited for this is the lack of experienced ministers in the Cabinet…
This is part of a narrative that is being constructed by the media with the tacit support of the opposition. If the second Pinarayi government is as good as the first, then naturally the third one will also be of the Left. And the opposition is wary of that possibility as they know they will not survive that. Let me remind you there is only one person who arrived in state No. 1 car for taking the oath and returned in the same car. That’s Pinarayi Vijayan. And he achieved this without the support of the media. The media has been hounding him for the last two decades. He won because the people of Kerala know that he is good for the state. People can see through these negative narratives.

The next question is connected to this answer… Is the LDF government all about Pinarayi Vijayan?
Again, this is a manufactured narrative. Ours is a collective government where everyone has a voice and it will be heard. The LDF government goes ahead as per the LDF manifesto.

The opponents mockingly say it’s like the ‘headmaster and students’
There is an open discussion in the Cabinet meetings where we all express our opinions and decisions are made collectively. But once a decision is made, we all follow the official line. That is LDF’s discipline.

This government has courted many unnecessary controversies. For example, the appointment of Sriram Venkitaraman as Alappuzha collector. Couldn’t that be avoided?
These are administrative matters. Three years of field service is mandatory and all those in his batch have served as collectors. We have to follow the administration norms. However, there are no compromises on other issues.

AP Sunni group which is considered to be close to the CPM is on the path of agitation…
The government has no reason for showing special commitment towards this person. We have just followed the norms. There will be no leniency towards him.

The party lost Thrikkakara bypoll with a huge margin. Was such a high-profile campaign necessary given the political history of the constituency?
Our decision was electorally correct. By-elections would definitely get media attention. If CM Pinarayi Vijayan addresses a local rally as part of the election campaign, it is criticised as an unnecessary high-voltage campaign, but when Oommen Chandy, as chief minister, attended a family meeting, he was celebrated. That’s the difference. We knew Thrikkakara was a strong bastion of Congress. But still, we wanted to put up a fight as that is the correct thing to do politically. If our vote share had declined, you could say we were wrong. However, I admit that we could not reach out to certain sections as we had expected.

Did you expect a win there at any point of time?
No. Thrikkakara is one of the five strong bastions of Congress in the state. Also, it was a do-or-die battle for them. If Congress had lost, the UDF would have withered away by now.

There was some unusual confusion in CPM regarding the candidature. The party workers had painted graffiti and started campaigning for Arunkumar
That was because of the confusion created by news channels. We never considered Arunkumar as a candidate. Dr Jo’s candidature was a collective decision.

If CPM workers start campaigning for someone going by what TV channels say, doesn’t it mean that the organisational structure of the party in Ernakulam is weak?
The UDF had already announced their candidate and our workers were eagerly waiting for the declaration of a party candidate. They got carried away.

The candidate’s name was announced in the presence of a priest. Wasn’t that unusual?
That controversy was created by the media. Stories were planted in the media that he
was the candidate of the cardinal. Jo is someone with strong left leanings. The media and the opposition spread stories even about the Red Cross that was there on the dais. It was an attempt to spoil any advantage we would get.

Has the panel deputed by the party to study the reasons for the defeat submitted its report?
We are examining the issues. We have already found the reasons for the defeat.

There was an attempt to put the blame for the defeat on you.
That is because I am the only minister from the district.

You are the face of CPM in Ernakulam. While the party has been able to make inroads in Kottayam and Pathanamthitta which have a right-wing character, the party could not improve its presence in Ernakulam. Why so?
Ernakulam is a metro city and has a floating population. There are factors like class, social issues, caste, and religion. We are trying to overcome this.

CPM has been forced to consider religion and caste while fielding candidates in Ernakulam. Why a progressive party like CPM is doing this? 
In elections, our goal is to win and we give preference to candidates who can garner votes over above that of the party.

Till recently, CPM was seen as a party that opposes development and Congress was seen as a pro-development party. But of late there has been a change. Opposition leader V D Satheesan told us during Express Dialogues that Congress is the “real Left” now.
Well, that is a good thing to hear. It means that Congress has accepted that the Left has been right always and they are now trying to follow our path. Congress knows that there is an acceptance for the Left in Kerala society and is trying to use the label.

CPM asked Saji Cherian to resign for his comments against the Constitution. Is this newfound love for Constitution a genuine stand or a convenient one?
Communists were the first to raise the demand for Purna Swaraj. We may have had our
differences in the past. But in contemporary India, the most important political responsibility is to protect the Constitution. The politics of the present are more important than the past.

What is the status of K-Rail? There is not much discussion about the project nowadays.
We had admitted from the beginning itself that the project can be implemented only with the cooperation of the Union government. The approach of the Centre was positive initially. They had supported many development projects. But of late, their response has been political.

The Kerala BJP had been opposing the project. What made you think that the Centre will support it ignoring BJP’s opinion?
The Centre was supportive of many National Highway development projects. How can we think that a government that bats for a high-speed rail project will oppose a semi-high-speed rail project? There was a report that if the K-Rail is completed by 2025, there is a chance that the LDF will get a third consecutive term. The campaign against the government started after this.

You were the face of the government in the previous assembly session. Is it an indication of a generational shift in the CPM?
There has been a generational change in the party at all levels. We have collective responsibility. If you felt I was more active in the last assembly session, it was because many issues that came up for discussion were related to my departments. We work as a team and respond to the discussions according to the situation. There is no other meaning.

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