Congress crisis in Kerala

Published : Oct 24, 2003 00:00 IST

The byelection to the Ernakulam Lok Sabha seat takes to a flashpoint the simmering feud between the Karunakaran and Antony factions in Kerala's Congress(I), endangering the State's coalition government the party leads.

in Thiruvananthapuram

SOMETIMES it takes only one man to wreck a government.

The never-say-die Congress(I) dissident, K. Karunakaran, is at it again in Kerala. This time he defiantly helped the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF)-supported independent candidate, Sebastian Paul, win the September 23 Lok Sabha byelection in the Ernakulam constituency with a margin of 22,134 votes over the ruling Congress(I)'s candidate M.O. John. His `I' (for Indira Gandhi) group has since served an ultimatum to the party high command that there should be a leadership change in the Congress(I) legislature party before November 19, "Indiraji's birthday", just before the party is to face an election in five northern States. Chief Minister A.K. Antony must go, Karunakaran told Frontline.

But this time, the Congress(I) high command may not be listening.

THE central Kerala constituency of Ernakulam is a traditional Congress(I) stronghold, which elected the party's candidates in 11 of the 14 parliamentary elections held there so far. The intense factional rivalry within the State unit of the party, especially since the early 1980s, had also made Ernakulam the preserve of the Karunakaran-led `I' group in the State party. Congress candidates in Ernakulam therefore had almost always been the nominees of the `I' group.

In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, Karunakaran-supporter George Eden (whose death necessitated the September 23 byelection) emerged victorious with a margin of over 1.11 lakh votes. This time around, Karunakaran manoeuvred the party's candidate selection process in such a way that the eventual result, in all likelihood, would be the defeat of the party candidate, whoever it may be, and hence an indictment of the State government led by Antony.

In a way, the former Chief Minister, smarting under the humiliation he and his group suffered repeatedly at the hands of the Congress(I) central leadership ever since Antony became its blue-eyed boy, was luring his enemy to his lair, to lick him to the bones. No sooner was the election announced, Karunakaran made it well known that it would be a referendum on the Antony government, of which he, more than the Communist Party of India(Marxist)-led LDF, had been highly critical, from Day One. The Karunakaran group then suggested two names as likely candidates for the party leadership to consider. But their acceptance as party nominees by the high command was suspect, just as their electoral prospects were, as Karunakaran would have known only too well.

He thus forced the high command and Antony to reject the suggestion and in one of the shrewdest political moves, literally forced Antony to field "his own candidate" in a constituency where the `I' group was widely believed to have the upper hand, in terms of local-level party workers owing personal loyalty to Karunakaran. Then, in the most obvious "indirect" manner possible, Karunakaran asked his supporters in the constituency "to watch television" (the Opposition candidate's election symbol) and to work for the defeat of "Antony's - and Antony's alone - candidate".

All through the campaign, Karunakaran's son and Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (I) president K. Muraleedharan as well as Karunakaran's supporters kept reminding the party high command and others concerned that the prominent minority Muslim and Christian communities in the constituency held a grievance against the Chief Minister and that Antony's candidate would therefore face defeat. Then as Sebastian Paul was declared the winner, the loudest cheers were heard from Karunakaran's residence in Thiruvananthapuram, where sweetmeats were distributed.

ALREADY, there is sense of deja vu in Kerala. Despite a whopping majority of 100 in the 140-member State Assembly, the Congress(I)-led United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition government is once again teetering on the brink. In 1995, another UDF government, led then by Karunakaran, was pulled down by Antony loyalists under similar circumstances. The rivalry later led to the rout of the UDF in the 1996 Assembly elections that brought the LDF to power.

This time around, Karunakaran's strategy was more focussed, jeopardising government functioning for months on end right from the beginning. One by one, the Congress(I)'s coalition partners were showing signs of restlessness with the way the unending group war was beginning to wreck the government's prospects. In 1995, all the coalition partners joined hands to demand Karunakaran's replacement before the Congress(I) high command. Karunakaran is hoping that they will now help him bring down Antony.

Antony loyalists assert that it may well turn out to be a pipedream. Says KPCC(I) vice-president M.I. Shanavaz: "Karunakaran has claimed credit for the UDF candidate's defeat all to himself. In terms of the actual `I' group votes polled, according to our assessment, it may only be around 7,000. In fact, what seems to have worked more is the consolidation of Muslim votes against the UDF candidate. It is the Muslim factor that worked against us in Ernakulam."

Both the LDF and the `I' group, which worked openly against the Congress(I) candidate, had focussed on the implications of what they repeatedly described as "anti-minority statements of Chief Minister A.K. Antony" and about his government's failure to ensure the safe return of the nearly 500 families which were forced to flee their homes immediately after the communal carnage in the north Kerala coastal village of Marad in May 2003.

"They realised that if they had to defeat the UDF in Ernakulam they had to ensure that Antony did not win in Marad," AICC(I) general secretary Vayalar Ravi told Frontline. In fact, Antony was in a dilemma on the Marad issue. He could not ensure the safe return of the Muslim refugees, before the demands of the Hindu organisations regarding the victims of the Marad massacre were met. The Marad Araya Samajam, a pro-Hindutva fishermen's organisation, and the Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindutva organisations wanted a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry and sufficient compensation to the victims, among others. But the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a major constituent of the UDF government, was against it, along with other Muslim organisations. "Antony did not want to risk the consequences of a forced rehabilitation. Police reports repeatedly suggested that it would lead to a communal carnage in Kerala," Ravi said.

In fact, with the government deciding to wait for the right atmosphere to evolve, a situation emerged at Marad wherein the Hindutva organisations prevented every attempt made by small groups of Muslim families to return to their homes. The Muslim anger that built up in the State in the weeks before the election had important implications for the IUML and its attitude towards Chief Minister Antony. Once Antony made his inopportune "minority pressure group" statement and its (perhaps unintended) implications were given wide publicity by Antony-bashers, including the LDF and the `I' group leaders, the IUML dissociated itself from the election campaign, though the Ernakulam constituency has a sizable Muslim population.

The IUML feared an erosion in its mass base. Muslim fundamentalist groups were utilising the opportunity to run a campaign against the Antony government. As in the period immediately after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, when the IUML was sharing power in the State with the Congress(I), this time too the IUML was worried over the reaction of Muslim voters to the question what the government was doing to protect the interests of Muslims. It was also worried about the reaction of Muslims outside Kerala, especially in the Gulf, who are a source of party funds.

In fact, there were deep divisions within the IUML too and one section, led by Member of Parliament E. Ahmed, was putting pressure on the government for the immediate rehabilitation of the refugees of Marad. Antony's statement was the last straw, and Muslim anger seems to have run over at Ernakulam. The LDF campaign against the Antony government and the vicious attack launched by Muslim groups, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami and the National Development Front (NDF), on the one hand and the Karunakaran group on the other, thus combined to form a major cause of the defeat of the UDF candidate. But, significantly, it now has important implications for the Antony government, in the context of the deadline set by the `I' group for a leadership change.

In fact, if the Ernakulam byelection result provided a context for the demand for a leadership change, the defeat of the UDF candidate, particularly the setback he suffered in the Muslim-dominated areas of the constituency, was an indication that the government's handling of the Marad issue in the days that followed would be a crucial factor in deciding the fate of the Congress(I) group war. "If Antony wins at Marad, he will win the war with Karunakaran. And Karunakaran knows it very well," a senior Congress(I) leader told Frontline.

Significantly, on October 5, a visibly relieved Antony announced that the vexatious issue of rehabilitation of the displaced Muslim families was finally "settled" and that it was a "miracle" and a "model for the entire country". The terms of the peace accord, in which various Muslim and Hindu organisations were a part, included a partial conceding of the demand for a CBI inquiry, compensation and jobs to the dependents of those killed or injured in the incident and immediate steps for the rehabilitation of the Muslim families. Significantly, no sooner was this decision announced by the Chief Minister in Thiruvananthapuram, than KPCC(I) president Muraleedharan (who was summoned to New Delhi) was informed by the high command that the demand for a leadership change was unacceptable.

OUTSIDE the `I' group, most Congress(I) leaders view Karunakaran's revolt as a sure sign of an impending split in the party. They claim that Karunakaran's political moves have for quite sometime revolved exclusively around his personal interests - the political future of his children Muraleedharan and daughter Padmaja Venugopal; the need to wreak vengeance on party colleagues who forced him to step down from the Chief Minister's post in 1995 and paved the way for his replacement by Antony; his disappointment with party president Sonia Gandhi for not including a senior leader like him among her advisers and to prove therefore to the high command that he cannot simply be brushed aside; and his frustrating need to demonstrate to his supporters that he still has the power to mould the affairs of the party and their fortunes.

These leaders point out that these personal compulsions are behind every challenge thrown by Karunakaran at Antony's government - from the agitation of government employees against the decision to cut their emoluments (which Karunakaran encouraged through his statements during the Rajya Sabha elections in April) and the subsequent crisis when the `I' group threatened to sit as a separate bloc in the Assembly and had to withdraw suddenly the decision under threat of expulsion by the high command. They also feel that Karunakaran has overstepped all limits and has for some months been directly challenging the authority of the high command.

Curiously, in all these instances, Karunakaran seemed also to have tested various options that he can reliably try should he leave the party he has served for nearly six decades. The Rajya Sabha election issue, in which he fielded a rebel candidate against the party's official nominees, was the most significant example (Frontline, May 9). Then, in fact, though his candidate lost, Karunakaran proved that he could indeed consolidate the support of 26 MLAs for a rebel cause under extremely trying conditions. (The Congress(I) has 62 MLAs in the 140-member Assembly. The strength of the other constituents of the UDF are: IUML 17, Kerala Congress(Mani) 9, Janadhipathya Samrakashna Samiti 4, Kerala Congress(Jacob) 2, Kerala Congress(Balakrishna Pillai) 2, the Revolutionary Socialist Party(B) 2, the Communist Marxist Party 1 and independents 1.The LDF has 40 members: CPI(M) 23, Communist Party of India 7, Janata Dal(Secular) 3, Kerala Congress(Joseph) 1, Kerala Congress(Secular) 1, Revolutionary Socialist Party 2, Congress(S) 1, Nationalist Congress Party 1 and independents 1.)

Soon after the `I' group raised the demand for a leadership change, members of the Antony group and all the other factions convened a meeting and declared their intention to join hands against the attempt of Karunakaran and his son to "destroy the Congress". In a rare press conference after the meeting, Antony lieutenant and UDF convener Oommen Chandy said: "In spite of several such instances of attempts to destroy the party, Chief Minister Antony has been trying to prevent the high command from taking disciplinary action against Karunakaran. But this time they have gone too far, helping a CPI(M) candidate win against the party's official nominee. This time, if the high command wants to take action, there won't be anybody here to prevent such a move."

Asked about the high command's view on taking action, a senior leader told Frontline: "The party leadership first wanted Antony to take a position on this; if the high command took any action, it wanted to ensure first that the government would not be affected, before the elections to the five northern States; it also wanted the Marad issue to be solved before any action was taken. Meanwhile, it did not mind Karunakaran leaving the party on his own, something which was beyond its control anyway."

IT was in this context that on most issues affecting the people, Karunakaran and Muraleedharan began to express opinions which were similar to those of CPI(M) and LDF leaders. In fact, the shifting equations in Kerala were evident in the response of various leaders to the amicable conclusion of the peace talks on Marad, where, significantly, Muraleedharan, speaking to the media in New Delhi, said that the Antony government had agreed to a partial CBI inquiry bowing to pressure from the Sangh Parivar. He also claimed that it was a decision which the Congress(I) could not agree to and that it would organise agitations against it together with other political parties, including those in the LDF. "Let the Cabinet decision come. Then we shall see. The Chief Minister is trying to implement the Sangh Parivar's agenda. That should be the responsibility of people like Narendra Modi, not of Congress Chief Ministers."

CPI(M) State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan said that "if Karunakaran takes a positive position" the LDF would also "approach it in a positive manner". He also said that though the CPI(M) would not be interested in joining such a government, the party would not be averse to supporting it from outside (see interview).

Congress(I) meeting venues are humming with speculation as to what Karunakaran might eventually decide to do. Will he leave the party to form another? Will he go the Sharad Pawar way? Most party leaders in the Antony camp, however, are quick to observe: Karunakaran's tryst with the CPI(M)-led LDF, if at all, can only be for the short term. And the speculation about a possible association with Sharad Pawar is linked to the question: "Who will then be No.1?"

It is instructive to see what this incessant factional warfare has done to the State Congress(I) and the Antony government. Nearly two and a half years into its existence, and with the Lok Sabha elections looming ahead, there is little to boast on the government's scoreboard. The UDF may face the next Parliament election with only the scars of an ugly squabble, just as it did in 1996. The Congress(I) failed to defend its own government. Party MLAs and grassroot workers were increasingly dissatisfied. A senior leader and Karunakaran-basher told Frontline not long ago that ordinary Congressmen had started grumbling that Antony's style of governance put too much of a restraining hand on party workers from "enjoying the fruits of their own party's rule". Asked why then they did not go to Karunakaran, he said: "Because they hate Karunakaran. Karunakaran is the force, the pet-hate, that helps Antony keep his flock together."

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