`I am with the people'

Published : Oct 24, 2003 00:00 IST



Interview with K. Karunakaran.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview that Congress(I) leader and former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran gave R. Krishnakumar in Thiruvananthapuram:

In the context of the Ernakulam Lok Sabha byelection result, what is your assessment of the performance of the Congress(I) and the coalition government it heads in Kerala?

The Congress(I) has not discussed this issue. But the party's all-India leadership has already appointed a committee. I don't have anything to say on this. But the election result is a reflection on the Chief Minister A.K. Antony, the functioning of his government, and the decisions taken by it. Although the Cabinet is the policy-initiating body, policies are not discussed there. There is no platform for discussing government policy. Particularly, in the past 14 months, the announcements made by the government were not fulfilled. For example, decisions were not made, approved or accepted by Cabinet colleagues. Every Minister has been acting as the lord of his own small empire. There has been no collective leadership, no responsible government. There was no interaction among various government departments. If a Minister disagrees with the Chief Minister, he goes ahead with his own individual decision. Why should then there be a Chief Minister?

Over and above these, the Chief Minister makes statements and announcements that go against the policy of his own party. In a coalition government too, the Chief Minister should guide the government. Here Antony has failed to do that. Appeasing the minorities to take them along is one thing. Here, the appeasement is not for the well being of the people or the good of the State or the country. He makes his own... I don't want to say anything on this further.

Antony does not have the political background of an ordinary Congress(I) worker. But for the stint as KPCC(I) president, he has not had any experience in party work at the grassroots level. Whatever failure he exhibits is therefore because of his inexperience. Even an outsider knows that this time around Antony wanted to establish his supremacy over the party and the government. But he does not know how to go ahead with it. When things go wrong, he shirks responsibility. He puts the blame on other Ministers, and officers, and walks away. So, is there no one responsible in this government? Isn't the Chief Minister responsible? Antony being a Congressman, the Congress party will also have to face the adverse effects of his actions.

The `I' group has demanded a leadership change by November 19. What are the specific reasons for this?

From the very beginning I've been warning the Chief Minister that the government should not be allowed to go in such a way, that it should be a functioning government, that we have given certain hopes to the people and that we should fulfil them, that wrong decisions should be corrected. People are fed up with this government, particularly with the Chief Minister. In general, there is an anti-Antony feeling. It is not because of Muslims or the party factions. There is an anti-government feeling among the people of Kerala. The Chief Minister's policy of appeasement has put him on the wrong side of the people.

There has also been a feeling among the people right from the beginning that you have been harshly critical of the government and had been instrumental on many occasions in causing a breakdown of the State government's functioning. Is it not a true assessment?

Read my statements closely. Can anyone show that any of my statements were wrong and that these were not facts? In that case I will compliment the Chief Minister and the government. It [the criticism] was made in good faith. But the Chief Minister ignored my suggestions, as if he didn't care. For public men like me it is a personal thing. The government did not utilise the experience of experienced men. He did not take my criticisms seriously. It was constructive criticism. You must remember that I too made some contribution in bringing this UDF government to power. I went to Antony's constituency to campaign for him when I was told by my colleagues that Antony might lose the elections. I told them that the defeat of Antony would be the defeat of the Congress. But in public I told the people that we're all for a change of the then LDF government, which people were finding unbearable, that we'll make all efforts to correct its mistakes and if we don't, or if they think we're going wrong on any issue, they can come to me and that I'll be on their side. I had promised them I wouldn't allow this government to go wrong. I would not have gone for such public criticism of the government had there been some machinery to discuss problems, elsewhere. Unfortunately, there was no such forum.

In 1995, one important factor that led to your ouster from the Chief Minister's post was the stand taken by your party's coalition partners that they cannot accept your leadership any longer. Can you now trust the very same partners to join hands with you to remove Antony?

It is not against Antony. What is the problem here? Although not directly, indirectly you mentioned the way I was pushed and pulled out of the Chief Minister's post. That campaign had nothing to do with the then government's performance or about correcting mistakes of governance. So when I make some comments, it is to improve the functioning of the government, to keep the promise that I have given the people.

My question was whether you could trust the coalition partners to come out of the Antony government and join hands with you.

If they really want to implement the idea in the interest of their party, naturally they should. Everybody knows that in politics there are no permanent enemies or friends. Now the position is that every coalition partner realises the mistakes it committed last time. Even a man like Indian Union Muslim League president Panakkad Shihab Thangal, who has never criticised the government, has now criticised it. Leaders of the other coalition partners, such as R. Balakrishna Pillai and T.M. Jacob, have been critical of the government. However, I want you to understand that I have not made any decision. I want to continue in the Congress(I). But [if it is] a Congress that doesn't care for the fundamentals of the Congress, then naturally I may search... or go to some other thing, which I don't want to mention now.

K. Karunakaran was once the Congress(I) high command's man in Kerala. Why are you now being kept at bay by the party leadership?

When great leaders who loved the country and wanted to implement their ideas or party programmes headed the party, they were very practical. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi... They always took the right decisions. They could recognise party workers who could deliver, those who would do good for the party. Therefore those leaders were very helpful to me. The present leaders have not had the opportunity to assess who's who. I see this as the reason. And, I want to say, I was one among those responsible for bringing in the present leadership.

One of your supporters, former Union Minister S. Krishna Kumar, who left the party on the eve of the Ernakulam byelection, said recently that the party president was surrounded by a coterie of advisers that prevented her from recognising true Congressmen. Is this true, from your experience?

To a certain extent, but not in his case. In his case, it is not true.

Will an existence outside the Congress(I) be possible for the "Leader"?

(Winks) For a leader, yes... For me, as I always see it, I am with the people, and for the people. It is the people who'll decide.

You are one among the few in Kerala who have consistently taken an anti-Communist Party of India (Marxist) position and worked for strengthening the Congress(I) against the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) coalition. Is it not true that the political positions you have espoused have always been at divergence with those of the CPI(M), a party whose support you are expecting now to bring the Antony government down?

Again, to a certain extent, yes. As a party worker I was fighting those forces opposed to the Congress and its ideology. The CPI(M) line in those days was far different from what it is now. For example, they were once of the view that major changes in Kerala society could only be brought in through a `revolution'. But now they have accepted democracy...

Some CPI(M) leaders have said that support to a breakaway Congress(I) faction led by Karunakaran is not possible if he is pinning his hopes also on communal, casteist and religious fundamentalist forces.

This has been the slogan throughout, in Indian as well as Kerala politics. But which are these communal forces? Can these people point out any party and say this is a communal party? We too were saying this at one time. But it was [E.M.S.] Namboodiripad who first brought their so-called communal parties to power and shared power with them. In Kerala politics, can you call any political party communal because it has members who believe in a particular religion or belong to a certain caste?

The Indian Union Muslim League, the second largest party in the UDF, has been specifically mentioned in this context, along with the BJP and others.

The CPI(M) was in alliance with the Muslim League before. At one time they were with the Muslim League, with A.K. Antony, in fact, with everybody except Karunakaran. Given the state of affairs at the national and State levels, to my mind the time has come - if it is not too late - to bring all democratic forces together. So naturally, those who were with such forces earlier cannot say that they are untouchables now. The term itself is vague and wide. Can anyone call the few parties that together represent 45 per cent of the [State's] population `communal'?

You are demanding a leadership change. What alternative do you have in mind?

In a democratic set-up, the alternative... Some other man will come along with the backing of the majority.

Is it now an accepted formula within the State Congress(I) that if the chief ministership is held by the Antony group, the PCC(I) leadership should go to the Karunakaran group and vice versa?

At a critical time there was a feeling that a divided Congress may not be able to serve the people as well as they expected it to do. So naturally, at a time when the leadership felt it should bring them [factions] together, or the Congress(I) will not have an existence in Kerala, there were discussions, and we decided to bring both together, one to head the party and the other government. We felt there should be a compromise where both groups were satisfied. It was in such a situation that as a compromise it was decided that if one position goes to the `I' group, the other should go to the other group... Antony should not forget this basic fact.

So are you saying that if Antony is removed, the chief ministership should go to the Karunakaran group?

It need not be done. I am not asking for that. What I am saying is that if the Congress goes to fight the general elections, which are just round the corner, under Antony's leadership, it is a foregone conclusion that it will not succeed.

So can an alternative chief ministerial candidate be found from within the Antony group itself, if at all Antony is removed?

Let them do what they want. I am not bothered.

You are only bothered about changing this Chief Minister?

Yes, because of his functioning and approach.

People say this group war is the tragedy of the Congress(I) in Kerala.

They are mistaken. They do not know Kerala politics. I have been a humble party worker for nearly 60 years. At the time when Namboodiripad became the general secretary of the KPCC there were two groups [in the party], one called the Chalappuram camp and the other, the so-called socialist group. On one side was an array of top leaders and on the other, Namboodiripad and a few workers. There were fights between them. Everyone knows what happened in 1977 because of group rivalry. When the Congress lost the elections in the whole country lost the elections, in Kerala we won, the group won. At that time the groups were functioning based on principles, policies and programmes...

Many a Congress man has alleged that you promote your children to such an extent that there is no room for other leaders within your fold. As a leader of stature, were you not making a mistake by alienating all the top leaders of the party and facilitating their entry into other camps?

It was never done. By this question I know what you mean. This senior person (former loyalist and Tourism Minister K.V. Thomas, who recently joined the Antony camp) was not removed by me. I was backing him. But now I may say very proudly that today there is not a single leader who can get the confidence of all the communities, castes and religious denominations (as I do)... This is not my view alone. Ask people in the Christian community, for example. So, there it is.

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