A party for the son

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

K. Karunakaran and his son Muraleedharan split the Congress in Kerala to form a new party, the National Congress (Indira), but his pro-Left posturing and anti-UDF tirade are yet to find takers.

in Thiruvananthapuram

"COLLEAGUES, when a child is born, the most important function is the one held to christen it. We usually choose temples or places of worship for such functions. Today, at Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, we take a pledge before the [historic] Saktan Tampuran temple [museum] that [we will build] an organisation capable of ending the corruption, violence, profligacy and so on and so on going on in Kerala and its name will be National Congress (Indira). National Congress (Indira). National Congress (Indira)... Jai Hind, Jai Hind, Jai Hind!"

Eventually, it was in such a staccato manner that K. Karunakaran - coalition-builder, four-time Chief Minister, former Union Minister and a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress - ended his seven decades of association with the Indian National Congress and announced the birth of his new party in Kerala on May 1. Former Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president K. Muraleedharan, perhaps the most controversial hero of "son-rise politics" in South India, has been nominated its president.

The new party is "the real Congress, rid of all the dirt", Karunakaran said. It too has a tricolour, with a blue charka and its USP - the figure of Indira Gandhi - on the white centrepiece. The National Congress (Indira) has been positioned in a seemingly unrealistic political space - against the new local leadership of the Congress and the All India Congress Committee leaders in charge of Kerala, but favouring the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and the Nehru family, and yet, seeking the alliance of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the State.

"We will follow the footsteps of the Nehru family... But it is the labour class that should bless us in our journey," Karunakaran proclaimed in his founder's address to a 10,000-strong convention of "representatives" drawn from the 14 districts held at his political home-ground, significantly, on International Workers' Day.

Muraleedharan was more precise. After mounting a scathing attack against the Oommen Chandy-led United Democratic Front government for (as he alleged) encouraging corruption, communalisation and criminalisation of governance in Kerala, he said: "Although they have expelled us, we will remain Congress workers, with the Congress culture. We will seek to forge a coalition in Kerala only as envisaged by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi has made the call for a coalition of democratic Left parties in order to face the communal fascist forces. Therefore, certainly, we will only think of the real democratic, secular coalition as envisaged by Sonia Gandhi in the ensuing elections to the local bodies and the Assembly."

Left with no alternative after the expulsion of Muraleedharan from the Congress for six years (Frontline, May 6), the father-son leadership has placed their new party shrewdly on an in-between political platform, seeking a convenient alliance with the LDF in the short term, for the local bodies elections due in a few months and the Assembly elections due in a year, and at the same time, leaving the door ajar for a possible return to the parent party under Sonia Gandhi's leadership in the long term.

The convention, marked by the absence of known Congress leaders except Karunakaran, Muraleedharan and a few of their closest supporters, cheered loudly to approve a political resolution calling for a United Progressive Alliance-like coalition of secular, democratic and Left parties in Kerala and an economic resolution pointedly Left-leaning, calling for a pro-poor, pro-farmer, pro-worker policy as the cornerstone of any new government that results from such a coalition. Muraleedharan indicated the launching of a series of struggles by the new party against the "anti-people policies" of the UDF government.

But doomsayers were a dime a dozen. Prominently, former Chief Minister A.K. Antony, who failed to work out a compromise formula to avoid the split, described the move as "suicidal", "something that those who left the party will soon regret". He told Frontline: "It is unfortunate that a leader like Karunakaran decided to take such a course of action. The Congress split of 1978 proved entirely to the advantage of the CPI(M). But then, later, Kerala was the only State where Indira Gandhi came personally to reunite the splintered factions of the party. It is so sad that Karunakaran, who was a signatory to that personal unity effort by Indira Gandhi, is using her name to end the Congress rule in Kerala and bring the CPI(M) to power. Those who left the party will soon realise that the CPI(M) will never help them. They will certainly regret it soon, as the Marxists get stronger and stronger at their expense. A Congress-CPI(M)alliance is impractical and impossible in Kerala."

Vayalar Ravi, one-time `I' group member and former AICC general-secretary, said that Karunakaran "the most successful beneficiary of the Congress in the whole of India, being Chief Minister and MP four times each, must explain why, for what and for whom he did such a hugely foolish act". He told Frontline that the pro-Left pronouncements by Karunakaran and Muraleedharan were "purely opportunistic" and that they had squarely placed themselves "with a begging bowl" at the door of the CPI(M). He said that Karunakaran, who had taken a position against Indira Gandhi in 1961 and had later hitched his fortunes with her when he found it extremely useful personally, was now trying to use her name once again to hide his weakness because he had no confidence in himself. "But the Left is playing a trick on him and is trying to push him into a triangular electoral battle in Kerala," he said.

SURELY, Karunakaran and Muraleedharan may have hoped for a more enthusiastic reaction from the CPI(M) and the LDF leaders to the formation of the new party. But CPI(M) State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan told Frontline a day after the May 1 convention that his party's and the LDF's attitude towards the National Congress (Indira) will be known only after detailed discussions within the CPI(M) and among the coalition partners. "We are yet to take a decision on our approach to Karunakran's new party," he said.

M.A. Baby, CPI(M) leader and former Rajya Sabha member, explained that the formation of the new party signifies the deep crisis within the Congress and the UDF. "Three UDF coalition partners [the Kerala Congress groups led by former Ministers T.M. Jacob and R. Balakrishna Pillai and the Revolutionary Socialist Party-Bolshevik] are already at loggerheads with the Congress leadership. Karunakaran, the architect of the anti-Marxist alliance in Kerala, now seems to have understood how impractical and irrelevant such a formation is. But we cannot go by mere pronouncements and will have to consider the way they conduct themselves because until yesterday, both Karunakaran and Muraleedhran too were part of the anti-people UDF government. So our decision about them would depend on their willingness to launch struggles against the UDF government as well as their future programmes and policies".

Baby said that joining the LDF might not be the only option before Karunakaran's party because in the mid-1960s, when a vertical split in the Congress led to the formation of the Kerala Congress, the new party had decided to go it alone in the elections to the State Assembly that followed. Again, in Maharashtra, the Congress splinter group led by Sharad Pawar decided to contest elections in alliance with the parent party. "So, Karunakaran's new party need not line up with the CPI(M) or the LDF at all," Baby said.

In that case, and with Karunakaran himself ruling out an alliance with the BJP, the possibility of a third front in Kerala would soon be an option for the father-son duo. In his presidential address, Muraleedharan repeatedly made strong and pointed references to the disaffection among various communities in Kerala under the UDF government. "The huge participation of people at the public meetings convened by certain community organisations [the Nair Service Society and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, the largest majority community groups in Kerala] is because of the feeling that they are not secure [under the UDF government led by Antony and Oommen Chandy]. Both majority and minority communities in Kerala feel insecure," he said. If realised, a grand alliance of community-based groups within the majority community (that have their own support base outside the ambit of the BJP-RSS combine), the rebelling Kerala Congress factions, the RSP (B), if not the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) would be a godsend for the new splinter Congress.

Asked about the possibility of a third coalition in Kerala, former Minister T.M. Jacob, leader of one of the two Kerala Congress factions that are in the UDF and are at loggerheads with the Congress leadership, said that it would be known only in the next two to three months. He told Frontline that the UDF had no existence now that Karunakaran, who played a major role in its formation, had left the Congress. "The government at the Centre is functioning smoothly with the Congress being supported by the CPI(M). We see a lot of difference in the attitude of the CPI(M). They have become more practical now. The record of coalitions in Kerala is that they are built on common issues and programmes by various parties," he said. On whether he thought the Kerala Congress groups that were at loggerheads with the Congress would also be acceptable to the CPI(M) if at all it decided to join hands with Karunakaran's new party, Jacob said: "We have not thought of the possibility of becoming a part of a coalition led by the CPI(M) as yet. Our position regarding Karunakaran's new party will be decided only after discussions in the party."

The sprouting of a new Congress has started a tug of war for party offices and workers. The name of the new party is also likely to be challenged, according to KPCC vice-president A.C. Jose. Out of the 10 Congress legislators reportedly favouring Karunakaran, seven were in Thrissur with Karunakaran on May 1, though they did not turn up at the convention venue. They have decided to stay on in the Congress, refrain from making public statements, but serve Karunakaran instead of Sonia Gandhi. At the time of going to press, the Congress leadership was yet to make up its mind about what to do with them.

On May 2, top Congress leaders were earnestly immersed in an effort to try and contain the damage. Antony convened a media conference in Thiruvananthapuram to tell Congress workers about the danger in the moves initiated by the new party to help the CPI(M) to return to power. "Now that all Congress workers, including those who attended the convention, have understood that the aim of the leaders of the new party is to bring the Marxists to power, they should reconsider their decision to follow them out of the Congress." He called on party workers to use the crisis as an opportunity to rebuild a party without groups from the grassroots level. Asked whether this was possible at all, Vayalar Ravi said: "It was Karunakaran who institutionalised `groupism' in the Congress in Kerala. With his exit, the Congress will be more united. But there will certainly be group alignments."

In the run-up to the elections to the local bodies and the Assembly, the electoral prospects of the CPI(M) and the LDF seem getting brighter by the day.

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