Return of Leader

Published : Feb 01, 2008 00:00 IST

After two years of unsuccessful fortune-hunting, 89-year-old K. Karunakaran returns empty-handed to the Congress.

in ThiruvananthapuramMost congress leaders

The real Congress, rid of all the dirt was how K. Karunakaran described the new party, the Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran), that he floated on May 1, 2005, to avenge his son K. Muraleedharans expulsion from the Congress and to further the latters political ambitions. Two years of unsuccessful fortune-hunting later, as the grand old man of Kerala politics returned empty-handed to his parent organisation, without his son, the majority of Congressmen ought to have enjoyed the irony of Karunakaran coming back to the real Congress, rid of all the dirt.

Most Congress leaders in Kerala, however, seemed to be on edge as Karunakaran, or Leader as he is called, reappeared in their midst with the support of the Congress high command. For the time being, at least, Muraleedharan appears adamant not to follow his father and stays marooned, heading a rudderless State unit of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) with which the DIC(K) merged strategically within a year of its grand inauguration.

Though the break-up of the Karunakaran faction and subsequent events had weakened the Congress in Kerala and had sourly affected the electoral fortunes of the United Democratic Front (UDF) it led, never once did the new Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) leadership, among them Opposition Leader and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and PCC president Ramesh Chennithala, express the hope that Karunakaran and his parivar would return soon to the Congress fold.

Instead, with the Lok Sabha elections approaching, they were perhaps beginning to heave sighs of relief that they would not have to deal any longer with the man who had held sway over the fortunes of the party, as Chief Minister (four times), Opposition Leader and a factional leader always bent on boosting the political fortunes of his son and daughter and those who stood by them, and whenever he failed to succeed in it as a diabolic wrecker of party fortunes.

However, as the return of Karunakaran indicates, the affairs in the Congress are not entirely within the grip of its new State leadership. There are forces that are none too happy at the power equations that developed in the party in a unipolar fashion after the exit of Karunakaran in 2005 and those who believe that a senior leader like him who had been close to Indira Gandhi still has his own relevance and utility in the Congress.

Surely it must be because of this subdued support and encouragement that he received from within that Karunakaran threw his pride and caution to the winds and returned to his ancestral home.

For over three decades from the late 1960s, the State Congress politics revolved around two leaders, Karunakaran and (now Defence Minister) A.K. Antony, who had among themselves authored the unwritten rules of group politics in the party in Kerala. For years on end, the same drama was enacted: at the end of each bout of factional feud, both leaders would make up in the interests of the party, leaving their supporters, especially the younger leaders in the Antony camp, fuming, as at every such juncture Karunakaran would gain something or the other through sheer belligerence, nothing else.

Eventually, during Antonys last term as Chief Minister, Karunakaran gradually helped his son to the post of the PCC president, over an array of senior leaders. He struck a clever bargain with the rival faction that if the post of chief ministership went to the Antony faction, that of the PCC president should go to the Karunakaran camp. Karunakaran seemed also to have been eyeing a future chief ministership for his son through such a bargain.

In retrospect, the Karunakaran faction should have left it at that. But encouraged by the political gains that his son seemed to garner at every turn, Karunakaran began to encourage his daughter Padmaja Venugopal, too, into party politics.

But the Congress rout in Kerala in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections (in which Muraleedharan and Padmaja suffered humiliating defeats along with other Congress candidates) became a turning point. On the eve of the Lok Sabha elections, as Karunakaran was bargaining hard for the party ticket for his daughter too, Muraleedharan began to lean towards the Antony camp and even accepted Antonys invitation to join the Cabinet. But Muraleedharan lost the Assembly byelection that followed and had to resign.

If it was Karunakarans nagging dissident activity and enthusiasm to promote his children that alienated him from the party high command and a majority in the Antony camp, it was Antonys lacklustre term as an administrator and his strategy of seeking compromises to quell rebel activity in the party that eventually forced him to step down as Chief Minister after the Lok Sabha elections in 2004.

With the resignation of Antony, his loyalists were finally ready to break free from his restraining idealism and his penchant for humiliating compromises. With Oommen Chandy becoming the Chief Minister and Ramesh Chennithala the PCC president, it also became necessary for Muraleedharan to seek a platform of his own that would see him through even after Karunakarans lifetime role in the party.

This was the context of the formation of the DIC(K) originally named the National Congress (Indira) at a function in Thrissur on May 1, 2005, with a not-so enthusiastic Karunakaran announcing its birth and its political position, thus: We will follow in the footsteps of the Nehru family. But it is the labour class that should bless us in our journey.

The new party was placed on an unrealistic political platform, seeking a convenient short-term alliance with the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to prove its strength in the elections to the local bodies and the Assembly elections, and a possible return to the parent party under Sonia Gandhis leadership in the long term, by when, its members believed, the new State leadership would be shown its place.

Eventually, though, the doomsayers were proved right. With the CPI(M) Polit Bureau rejecting its offer of support, the DIC(K) had to scurry back for an alliance with the UDF itself in the Assembly elections and face a rout as the electorate supported the LDF to power. The election-eve promise of a merger of the DIC(K) with the Congress under the new State leadership never materialised.

Within a year, Karunakaran announced the merger of the DIC(K) with the NCP led by Union Minister Sharad Pawar, ignoring the disaffection among party members. For Pawar, perhaps, who was looking for ways to extend his partys influence beyond Maharashtra, getting a senior former Congressman like Karunakaran was an advantage. The NCP, therefore, readily agreed to make Muraleedharan the president of the partys State unit. Though it was a brilliant political move on the part of Karunakaran the NCP being a coalition partner of the Congress at the Centre and the ruling CPI(M) in Kerala in the end it too failed to pay dividends for him and Muraleedharan.

The merger led to further erosion in the DIC(K) ranks. Many members left the party in protest and rejoined the Congress. The DIC(K)-NCP merger cost the NCP, too, high. The ruling LDF formally asked the party to leave the coalition as the partys composition had changed after its merger with Karunakarans party and, as it said, the LDF had already decided against an alliance with the DIC(K) or its leaders.

Left with no other alternative, Karunakaran has now returned alone to the Congress. He has proclaimed that his son too will soon be forced to come back. Karunakaran has also announced that henceforth he will not be part of any group in the party and that those who oppose his return would soon be alienated within the party.

There was no immediate response from the high command to Karunakarans request to conduct a merger rally and a conference to announce his return, in the presence of Sonia Gandhi and/or Rahul Gandhi. A rally was subsequently scheduled for February 1 in Kochi, in consultation with PCC leaders, when Karunakaran paid his first visit to the State headquarters of the party in Thiruvananthapuram on January 9. Among those who were not present at the party office that day was Oommen Chandy, who had already said that he had reservations about the proposal to accept Karunakaran back into the party.

As a culmination of a parallel family drama, on January 9, Muraleedharan, who derided his fathers betrayal and his decision to rejoin the Congress, said that from now on it would be Karunakaran and Antony and their supporters on one side and Oommen Chandy and his followers on the other and that Karunakaran had dramatically altered the group equations in the State Congress the minute he stepped into the party office.

His re-emergence as a Congress leader is perhaps the last chance for 89-year-old Karunakaran to rise above his paternal and factional instincts and to prove his worth as a senior leader of the party. But sceptics are dime a dozen and for them Muraleedharans prophecy of renewed factionalism in the State party would seem to be the most likely result of Karunakarans return to his ancestral home.

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