On the verge of a split

Print edition : May 06, 2005

The Congress in Kerala seems to be close to a split, with the high command punishing senior leader K. Karunakaran's dissident faction and the `official' group showing no willingness to accept a compromise.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

K. Muraleedharan at the rally organised by the `I' group at Kozhikode on March 9.-S. RAMESH KURUP

AT long last, the Congress(I) high command set aside the restraining hand of `consensus-maker' A.K. Antony, former Chief Minister of Kerala, and expelled the son of `coalition builder' K. Karunakaran, another former Chief Minister of the State. Politics in Kerala is now set to rock, with a crumbling Congress(I) at its helm.

The expulsion of former Pradesh Congress Committee(I) president K. Muraleedharan for six years "for indiscipline and anti-party activities" and the launching in mid-April of massive official rallies with the message that `the party is supreme, not individual leaders' by the anti-Karunakaran PCC(I) leadership implied a chain reaction: an imminent split in the party, cataclysmic changes in the ruling United Democratic Alliance (UDF) coalition, a third Front, perhaps, a distant opportunity for the Bharatiya Janata Party and a godsend for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) it leads.

Statewide elections to the local bodies are round the corner and Assembly elections are only a year away.

Karunakaran and Antony, around whom State Congress(I) politics revolved for nearly four decades, are now in unfriendly terrain. Over the years, the two friendly rivals had established unwritten rules for group politics in Kerala - at the end of each bout, both leaders would be willing to smile and make up "in the interests of the party" leaving their supporters on the edge, fuming.

But the Congress(I)'s rout in the Lok Sabha elections (in which Karunakaran's children Muraleedharan and Padmaja suffered humiliating defeats along with all other Congress candidates) became a turning point for the party in the State and the two leaders. If it was Karunakaran's nagging dissident activity and enthusiasm to promote his children that alienated him from the party high command, Antony's lacklustre performance as an administrator and his strategy of always seeking compromises to pacify the suicidal rebel activity in the party eventually forced him to resign the chief ministership in August 2004 (Frontline, September 24, 2004). For the first time in decades, leadership of the party and the government shifted from the hands of Karunakaran and Antony.

Muraleedharan now has the compulsion to establish a support base of his own that would ensure a safe platform for him even after Karunakaran's lifetime, either within or outside the party. Former Antony loyalists are eager to break free of his restraining idealism and his penchant for "humiliating compromises". With Antony announcing that he will not contest the Assembly elections or for a post in the State party ever again, it is now a battle for the future leadership of the Congress(I) in Kerala, in which Muraleedharan is more than willing to split the party and the coalition, if it comes to that.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy with senior Congress leader K. Karunakaran.-JOHNEY THOMAS

The month of March saw three huge "rebel rallies" organised by Karunakaran's `I' group in Kozhikode, Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi under Muraleedharan's stroppy leadership. It was a factional show of strength ignoring the party high command's warnings and asking supporters "to be ready to capture the KPCC(I)" or, otherwise, forge "new political alliances". While Karunakaran asked his supporters to be ready for a show of strength "within the party", Muraleedharan described the rallies as harbingers of new political equations that would soon emerge in the State - suggesting a sure split in the party, if the new State party leadership and Chief Minister Oommen Chandy continued to ignore his demands.

The Congress(I) high command responded initially by suspending Muraleedharan and a few `I' group leaders and tactically sparing Karunakaran, "in deference to his advanced age, seniority and loyalty to the party". Ever since, the `I' group has seen an erosion in its ranks, with several leaders, all of them long-time Karunakaran loyalists, refusing to take part in the rallies that were expressly prohibited by the high command.

At the rallies and at subsequent press conferences, Muraleedharan's choicest abuses were reserved for "such turn-coats", as he described them, and for the new State party leadership, described as being "under the thumb of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy".

In the final and the biggest rally, held in Kochi, the `I' group was able to ensure the presence (albeit reluctant) of 13 MLAs, ignoring what was termed as a direct request to Karunakaran by party president Sonia Gandhi. Significantly, Padmaja played an uncharacteristically subdued role in the rallies and gave the impression in her press statements later that she was in two minds about leaving the party and wanted her father to decide first.

As Oommen Chandy and his allies recommended firm action against the dissidents, Antony flew to New Delhi to caution the party high command of the debilitating effects of a split on the fortunes of the party in the coming elections. "The party cannot afford one more split in Kerala," Antony kept repeating every time he returned from New Delhi.

The expulsion of Muraleedharan meant Antony's one-time supporters had won over him, as well as Karunakaran. Soon, the PCC(I) organised much-bigger "official rallies" in all three regional centres in the State from April 11, with the high command's blessings and with an array of State leaders, a large number of them alienated Karunakaran supporters, in the lead. Antony did not participate in the first two rallies, in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. At the time of writing, the third rally was yet to take place and Karunakaran had declared he would announce the decision of the `I' group (to split or not to split) on May 1, "the day workers are honoured, a day of change and hope". "A positive decision would be taken on May 1 in Thrissur in consultation with my supporters," he said. The significance of May 1 in a State where the CPI(M)-led LDF was in Opposition and Karunakaran's uncharacteristic emphasis on having "consultation with supporters" was not lost on anyone.

IN a way, Karunakaran's hunger for revenge against party colleagues who once removed him from power before the end of his tenure in 1995 and his unashamed political ambitions for his children had wrecked the Congress(I)'s fortunes in Kerala ever since Antony assumed power in May 2001 with a strength of 100 seats in the 140-member State Assembly.

But eight months into its term, the Oommen Chandy government too seems to be faltering, giving Karunakaran and Muraleedharan the opportunity they had been waiting for - to rise in revolt against the new leadership which seemed out to get them, denying them and their supporters positions in the party and in government. The government has failed to live up to its promises and enthuse the people or party supporters. The State's finances are still a shambles. If Antony was for compromise solutions and was generous to his opponents and strict with his followers, Oommen Chandy showed a penchant for confronting problems head on. His administration soon fell easy prey to allegations of favouring group members, of alienating coalition partners including the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress factions led by R. Balakrishna Pillai and T.M. Jacob and, most importantly, of increasingly being under the control of minority religious and communal interests, thus preparing the ground for a potential communal polarisation in the State.

Despite several fast-track development initiatives, the general impression about the government is one of failure to deliver, and of it being too immersed in internal squabbles to be concerned about people's problems. Oommen Chandy and his supporters also stand accused of trying to impose their control over both the government and the party under the mild-mannered president, Thennala Balakrishna Pillai.

The crucial factor for Muraleedharan and Karunakaran would be the willingness of their supporters to go the whole hog with them, to doom or glory, if indeed they decide to leave the party. Of the 13 MLAs (of the total 60 Congress(I) MLAs) who rallied with them at Kochi, only four had readily agreed to resign and be with Muraleedharan when and if he was to be made the leader of a new party. Also important would be the decisions of the Congress' UDF partners.

Given the current political climate in Kerala, the `I' group has a tough chance of survival on its own if it breaks away, and the long-term prospects of an alliance with the LDF or the formation of a third Front with disgruntled coalition partners and other political parties such as the BJP are not as rosy as it may seem initially.

In the short term, however, a new party would make some political gain if it is able to forge (even covert) alliances with disgruntled UDF partners and the LDF or even the BJP, if it comes to that, and teach the "official Congress(I)" leadership a lesson in the coming local body elections. The possibility of the BJP gaining through such an alliance, even on a small scale, is what the leaders of the new party would wager with, in their efforts to ally with the LDF.

Karunakaran would have liked to take the plunge, if at all, immediately before an election, but Muraleedharan's increasing belligerence and his early expulsion perhaps leaves him no choice. A party led by Muraleedharan alone would have very few Congressmen in it and little chance of survival, as is clear from the reactions of even the closest of Karunakaran loyalists.

Will the grand old man of Kerala politics therefore leave the party he has served for over six decades?

May 1 will in all probability be a red letter day for the Congress(I) in Kerala and time for celebration for the LDF.

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