Crafty patriarch

Print edition : January 28, 2011

For three decades, K. Karunakaran (1918-2010) had a dream run on the Kerala stage.

in Thiruvananthapuram

K. Karunakaran. The people of Kerala could never ignore him.-VIPIN CHANDRAN

IT ought to have been a full life, at 93 years, when he died. Undeniably, for over a quarter century beginning from the early 1970s, K. Karunakaran did have a dream run on the Kerala political stage: as one of its most dynamic leaders; a tactically brilliant anti-Left coalition builder and Opposition Leader; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's undisputed party confidant; a controversial State Home Minister during the Emergency; four-time Chief Minister with a reputation for personal efficiency, quick decision-making and a love for speed travel and eager coteries; member of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha; and Union Industries Minister. He was a political trouble-shooter and king-maker (briefly) in New Delhi within the Congress under P.V. Narasimha Rao; and, at long last, a cheeky party dissident. He was also an ardent Krishna devotee, a loving husband and an ambitious father, a caring patriarch to his supporters and a spiteful enemy to fierce opponents.

However, long after his death in a private hospital in Thiruvananthapuram on December 23, people may continue to wonder: why did it all change? When exactly did he begin to slip?

True, Karunakaran never laid claim to being a lofty visionary or a man of high principles or scholarship. Neither did the tributes that flowed in after his death refer to qualities like selflessness, humility or unblemished integrity. But the people of Kerala could never ignore him, and his enemies grudgingly acknowledged him for what he was: a crafty come-back player in Kerala politics; a master of the art of the possible; a pragmatic, self-made political actor; a bold, resourceful administrator; and, perhaps, personally, an affectionate, honourable human being yet, above all, one who was blinded by a kind of crass political ambition for his children and never had the grace to be apologetic about it.

That was the tragedy of Karunakaran. But it had been a while since some of his associates hurtfully remarked that he would come out of the hospital only in a coffin (after a miraculous escape in a car accident in 1993 when he was Chief Minister and the uncrowned king in the State Congress) or since his critics began whispering that he was turning senile. Of late, certainly, he was in and out of hospitals, for one ailment or the other. Nevertheless, Karunakaran proved them all wrong repeatedly with his come-back buoyancy, mental agility, stinging wit and sarcasm and his naughty political manoeuvrings that often left opponents perplexed and vulnerable.

In later years, Karunakaran savoured every moment he got to pretend as the father-figure who built the State party from a group of nine MLAs in 1967 and who, as an Indira loyalist, saw it through the two divisions, in 1969 and 1978, and, eventually, to a strength of 57 in 1991, when the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) came to power under his chief ministership.

But after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, which also marked the end of his long, symbiotic association with the Nehru family (which had been an important reason for his rise to power in Kerala), and right at the height of his glory in 1995 as the head of the State government and as a key political manipulator in New Delhi, Karunakaran was abruptly forced to quit as Chief Minister.

Or, as he saw it, his colleagues in the Congress and partners in the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition he had helped found, had treacherously pushed him out of power. The fleeting role as king-maker in New Delhi also came to an abrupt end, with the party high command also dumping him, as pressure from within the State party and the UDF coalition became too much to subdue. He never ever got over that insulting exit.

Kunnoth Karunakaran was born on July 5, 1918, as the third son of Ramunni Marar, a tahsildar in British Malabar's Kannur district, and Kalyani Marasyar. He studied only up to Class VIII but later won a diploma in design geometry and painting from a technological institute. He was initiated into politics in 1935, at the age of 19, and was elected to the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee in 1940, in which he held no official post until his death, despite being a member for nearly six decades. He was a Congress Working Committee member for over three decades and a member of the Congress Central Parliamentary Board for about 20 years.

He was arrested twice during the Independence struggle, first for a very brief period in 1941 for participating in an agitation defying prohibitory orders, and later in August 1942 when he spent nine months at the Viyyoor jail in Kannur, along with many prominent leaders, including Communist Party of India (CPI) leader C. Achutha Menon.

Karunakaran's rise, however, was through trade unionism. He was the secretary of the Kerala Labour Congress at the time of its formation in 1943-44 and was the leader of many workers' organisations in the textile, coir and plantation sectors. In 1948, he became the first State secretary of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).

In 1964, he was forced to go into hiding as an accused in a case of retaliatory murder of a plantation superintendent of Tattil Estate in Thrissur district. After evading arrest for two months, he appeared before a court. The court found that prima facie there was no case against him and let him off. Only one witness stood against Karunakaran, a woman, who said she heard him tell a meeting of nearly 400 workers to kill the superintendent.

By 1967, Karunakaran had come into the limelight in Kerala. In that year he became the Congress party's choice to lead its nine MLAs in the Assembly, following the electoral debacle of many of the party's prominent leaders. He refused to let go ever since and played a key role in the tumultuous political events in the State in the years that followed. As a member of the CPI-led coalition Ministry headed by the visionary Chief Minister Achutha Menon during the Emergency, Karunakaran became the controversial Home Minister who is often credited' with the unleashing of a police raj that led to the stamping out of the naxalite movement in Kerala.

Several people became innocent victims of police excesses during the period, but Karunakaran acquired a reputation as a firm administrator who stood behind police officers and civil servants who were doing their duty of course, in most cases, as per his bidding. The shrewd politician that he was, Karunakaran never let go of the Home portfolio, or his coterie of doting police officers and other officials, whenever he was in government, and often wore the epithet the policeman's home minister with a certain easy afterglow during the rest of his life.

In the elections immediately after the Emergency, when the Congress faced a rout in the North, the coalition led by it won a resounding victory in the State and Karunakaran became the Chief Minister. A month later, however, he was forced to step down when the Kerala High Court passed strictures against him and some officials in the Rajan case, relating to the death in police custody of a student of the Regional Engineering College, Kozhikode, during the Emergency.

Rajan allegedly had links with the naxalite movement. Karunakuran, as the then Home Minister, stated before the court that the police had not taken him into custody. Subsequently, while Rajan's father, Prof. Eechara Warrier, fought a long court battle to bring out the truth behind his son's death and sought compensation, Karunakaran maintained a stoic silence, refusing to abdicate responsibility or to blame the police officers concerned.

After the 1980 Assembly elections, there was no looking back for Karunakaran. He became a key player in State politics, either as Chief Minister or as Opposition Leader and as a successful mediator among disparate political and communal forces and parties that were shoring up the anti-Left coalition in Kerala.

However, despite his meteoric rise, so to say, the people of the State never reposed complete faith in Karunakaran. All the four State Ministries under him were badly stained with allegations of corruption, and Karunakaran proved to be an effective, at times even popular Chief Minister, but by no means the ideal one. By the time Leader' (as he was nicknamed early during his trade union days) became the so-called king-maker in Delhi, he also started attracting enemies as never before.

By then, as a result of the serious injuries he suffered in the car accident, his physical appearance had changed noticeably: he became shorter in stature and began walking around with a pronounced stoop. And, as political cartoonists in Kerala who adored him for his colourful character traits quickly noticed, his personality, too, seemed to change around that time. He became increasingly impervious to criticism, adopted a bruising, autocratic style of functioning and began to nurture self-serving expectations of colleagues and associates in matters of loyalty to the party and loyalty to him, personally.

Not surprisingly, it was during the same period that he began to promote his son K. Muraleedharan as his successor in Congress politics. It was from that point, perhaps, that the Leader' began to waver and many of his protgs and followers began to desert the Karunakaran camp one by one, as they increasingly realised that Muraleedharan was a hindrance to their prospects within the Karunakaran faction and therefore in the party and its governments. Karunakaran brushed aside the growing resentment in the State unit against him and his son, who, despite his obvious brashness and immaturity, soon rose to be a Member of Parliament on the party ticket. In March 1993, Karunakaran suffered a serious setback in his personal life, with the death of his wife, Kalyanikkutty Amma, following a heart ailment.

The taint of a corruption scandal involving the import of palmolien when he was Chief Minister, and his stubborn refusal subsequently to take action against the then Inspector-General of Police Raman Srivastava, one of his most trusted police officers then accused of involvement in the sensational Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) espionage scandal, soon became the excuses for the party mutiny against Karunakaran, which eventually led to his replacement as Chief Minister in 1995 by A.K. Antony, a year before the UDF government's term was to end.

By a strange quirk of fate, while Karunakaran had to leave office, the ISRO espionage scandal itself was scoffed at by the Supreme Court. All the accused were let off, including Srivastava, who later rose to be the Director General of the State police under a Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. A bitter Karunakaran then had to wait until the next elections in 2001 for his revenge.

When the UDF came back to power that year, the party high command succumbed to Karunakaran's demand that Muraleedharan should be made the Pradesh Congress Committee president if Antony was to be the Chief Minister. But Muraleedharan soon began acting strangely, attacking his father and his faction, leaning towards the Antony camp and for a brief while (before he lost a byelection) even became a Minister in Antony's Cabinet.

The reasons were not hard to find. Karunakaran had by then also started promoting his daughter Padmaja Venugopal within the State Congress. As the father turned his benevolent attention towards the daughter by securing the leadership of various Congress trade unions for her, Muraleedharan, who had imagined himself to be the sole inheritor of his father's legacy, began to feel threatened. The already lacklustre Karunakaran-led I group thus became a grand stage for sibling rivalry. Temporarily at least, Muraleedharan showed signs of becoming an impartial KPCC president by leaning towards the Antony camp, perhaps in resentment. The estranged son soon took the bait of joining the Antony Cabinet after stepping down as PCC president, but lost the byelection and had to resign as Electricity Minister.

The Karunakaran story turned farcical from then on, with his party opponents coming to positions of power (Oommen Chandy replaced Antony as Chief Minister and Ramesh Chennithala became PCC president) and a resentful Muraleedharan soon turning against the State government. Muraleedharan was suspended initially for six years and, when he rose against the party high command, was dismissed from the party in 2005.

A reluctant Karunakaran then left the Congress, which he had served for over six decades, to support his son's new dream of floating their own party, the curiously named Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran), in the unrealistic hope of finding eventual sanctuary in the LDF camp. But that hope, too, was dashed after a failed attempt at an electoral alliance in the local body elections that followed. In a desperate move, the DIC(K) announced it was merging with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by Sharad Pawar, and Muraleedharan became the NCP's State president.

For Karunakaran, however, the future looked bleak within the NCP. His only sane alternative was to do what he did eventually seek a humbling re-entry into the Congress. While his son, as NCP State president, then denounced him as a traitor, his daughter, Padmaja, who had stayed on in the Congress, subsequently alleged that her father had lost his peace of mind and had been far from his usual self ever since he was compelled to leave the Congress by Muraleedharan.

It was to be expected that Muraleedharan could not survive politically outside the Congress, and though still estranged from his father, he announced his resignation from the NCP in July 2009. Simultaneously, the NCP national leadership dismissed him for anti-party activities. Since then, goaded on, no doubt, by a loving father, he and a motley crowd of supporters have been trying to come back to the parent party. The tragedy of Karunakaran, the politician and the parent, was thus complete and had reached a climax much before his death.

Somewhere along the way, as the drama unfolded, in place of a spirited, energetic and efficient politician and administrator, with seemingly enduring leadership and personal qualities, the people of Kerala had started seeing only a diminutive and increasingly frail old man with a trade-mark hump and jarring speech weaving day dreams about his children and becoming a poignant victim of scathing caricatures in newspapers and mimicry on stages and television screens.

But as the cortege wound its way from Thiruvananthapuram for his funeral on Christmas Day at Thrissur, it was clear, in his own peculiar way, that he had touched the hearts of a large number of people during a 74-year-long political career.

In a sense, it was sad to see K. Karunakaran leave as he did: with his bag of maverick political tricks empty and after facing, no doubt, the darkest period in his personal and public life.

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