A flare-up in Kerala

Print edition : May 09, 2003

With senior Congress(I) leader K. Karunakaran leading a rebellion over a Rajya Sabha seat, the power struggle within the faction-ridden unit of the Congress(I) in Kerala comes to the fore once again.

in Thiruvananthapuram

THERE have been any number of occasions in the past decade when the senior Congress(I) leader and former Kerala Chief Minister, K. Karunakaran, stepped beyond the limits of reasonable dissent and directly challenged the authority of the party high command. But can there be an enduring victory if the battle plan is premised on the belief that the enemy will remain bewildered forever? This is the question his supporters in the Congress(I) in Kerala are asking at the end of yet another round of factional fight in the party, this time, once again over the sharing of Rajya Sabha seats.

Congress (I) leader K.Karunakaran with rebel candidate Kodoth Govindan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram.-

There was an air of expectation all over Kerala on April 14, when, after nearly a week of haughty nose-thumping at the party high command, Karunakaran made the confident declaration that the rebel party candidate he had fielded for the Rajya Sabha elections would triumph over one of the two official nominees. Until the last minute, informed sources told Frontline, Karunakaran had waited for a call from party president Sonia Gandhi. It is a reflection of the state of affairs in the Congress(I) that, had that face-saving opportunity been offered to Karunakaran, as it had occurred in the past, the "rebellion" would have probably ended. But, unlike old times, when Karunakaran was literally the high command in Kerala and was held in great esteem by party presidents, the call never came.

As the 140 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) were queuing up to cast their votes, Karunakaran left Thiruvananthapuram, hurt and angry but putting on a brave face, to pray at his favourite temple, in Guruvayoor in Thrissur district. Before he reached the temple town there was jubilation in the streets of Thiruvananathapuram as the party's official nominees, All India Congress Committee(I) general secretary Vayalar Ravi and former Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee(I) president Tennala Balakrishna Pillai, won conclusively, along with the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidate, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader K. Chandran Pillai. Apparently, one more rebellion had ended in disgrace for Karunakaran and his `I' group.

Some of the I group MLAs, including K.V. Thomas, one of the three Ministers in the A.K. Antony-led Cabinet who owed their positions to Karunakaran, had voted for the official candidates. The help Karunakaran expected from the Congress(I)'s coalition partners too was not forthcoming in full measure. The rebel candidate (since then suspended from the party), Kodoth Govindan Nair, got only 26 votes. Vayalar Ravi and Tennala Balakrishna Pillai got 38 and 36 votes respectively. Chandran Pillai won the third seat with 39 votes. Karunakaran later alleged that the official candidates had won with the help of money power and inducements and that the `liquor mafia' had played a prominent role in the defeat of the rebel candidate.

With a brute majority of 100 seats in the Assembly, the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition was sure to win two of the three Rajya Sabha seats that had fallen vacant. The KPCC(I) had appointed a 12-member committee to decide the two party candidates. The committee entrusted the job to Chief Minister A.K. Antony and KPCC(I) president and Karunakaran's son K. Muraleedharan.

The high command wanted Vayalar Ravi as one of the candidates, the logic being that Ravi could then use the privileges of a Member of Parliament in his work as party general secretary. There was no objection to his candidature from the four Congress(I) groups, at least initially. Since Ravi belonged to a faction other than Karunakaran's, it was also decided that in order to maintain group equations in balance, the other seat should be given to the I group. Curiously, Muraleedharan, who had of late been maintaining a distance from his father's confrontationist group politics, suggested the name of estranged Karunakaran supporter, former MP P.C. Chacko, as the I group's nominee.

As soon as the decision was made known, Karunakaran issued a public statement objecting to Chacko's candidature. Apparently, the party high command took into account Karunakaran's objection and announced that the second candidate would be the non-controversial Tennala Balakrishna Pillai. Soon after the Assembly elections in 2001, Tennala Balakrishna Pillai was summarily told to quit as State party chief when Karunakaran insisted that his son, "as the representative of the I group", be made the KPCC(I) president, if Antony, "as representative of the A group", was to be the Chief Minister. It was a clever political move, positioning the young Muraleedharan on a par with Antony and as the main contender for chief ministership if ever Antony was to lose his position.

Karunakaran reacted to Tennala's candidature by describing it as an instance of "denial of justice to the I group", and alleged that he had not been consulted before the decision was taken. He claimed that the seat rightfully belonged to the I group. His nominee, a little-known entity in State politics, Kasargode District Congress Committee (I) president Kodoth Govindan Nair, filed his nomination papers as a rebel candidate. As Karunakaran locked horns with the party high command, he asked Govindan Nair not to withdraw his candidature. The rebel candidate was promptly suspended from the party.

Meanwhile, in an impulsive reaction, Muraleedharan wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi offering his resignation from the post of KPCC(I) president, suggesting that the Antony camp had betrayed him and protesting against the high command's failure to inform him about the decision to field Balakrishna Pillai.

Leaders of the three other factions told Frontline that the high command had decided to field Balakrishna Pillai only after Karunakaran came up with an "unacceptable" alternative plan to field former Union Minister P.J. Kurien instead of Vayalar Ravi. According to them, as per Karunakaran's plan, Kurien would then be the Antony group's representative, and Kodoth Govindan Nair would be the I group's nominee, and both Ravi and Chacko, candidates decided without consulting him, would be dropped.

Chief Minister A.K. Antony congratulating Tennala Balakrishna Pillai and Vayalar Ravi after the elections. Looking on are Ministers P.K. Kunhalikutty and Nalakath Sooppy.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

UDF convener and prominent Antony group leader Oommen Chandy told Frontline: "The controversy was the result of Karunakaran and Muraleedharan being unable to decide on a common candidate to represent the `I' group. It was an unfortunate development to hold a party and a government to ransom, on the basis of such a controversy."

However, according to P.C. Chacko, what Antony did to Muraleedharan was "nearly a betrayal". Chacko said: "Once the selection committee entrusts the KPCC(I) president and the Chief Minister the task of deciding the candidates, shouldn't Muraleedharan be informed if the candidate he suggested on behalf of the I group is being changed? Shouldn't Muraleedharan be the best judge on whether Karunakaran would eventually accept his candidate or not? Moreover, if the argument is that the high command was trying to accommodate Karunakaran's wishes, should it not have accepted Karunakaran's nominee as the official candidate?"

Unsurprisingly, Karunakaran's first reaction to the defeat of his candidate was that the votes that Govindan Nair got meant only one thing: the 26 MLAs, who voted for the rebel candidate, plus the 40 of the LDF meant that the Antony government now had only a wafer-thin majority. In fact the seasoned politician that he is, Karunakaran was not threatening that he would topple the government, but was cautioning the high command against taking action against the MLAs who stood by him.

Chacko alleged that Ambika Soni, the AICC(I) general secretary in charge of party affairs in Kerala, had failed to convey to the high command the intricate dynamics of the Congress politics in Kerala and the basic fact of the delicate balance between the Karunakaran and Antony factions in the party. He said that Karunakaran's objections were taken as a pretext to implement a secret agenda. "The high command's decision was not transparent or fair. Karunakaran was ill-treated and Muraleedharan was used for it deliberately. But the fight has only started," Chacko told Frontline.

But despite immediate demands for the removal of the KPCC(I) president and the two I group Ministers, P. Sankaran and Kadavoor Sivadasan, from their posts and action against the MLAs who had voted against the party's official candidates, the high command seemed to be hesitating to take action against Karunakaran or members of his group at least in the initial days after the election.

Karunakaran with party observers for the Rajya Sabha elections, R.K Dhawan and Ghulam Nabi Azad.-S. GOPAKUMAR

KARUNAKARAN'S political moves have for quite some time revolved around his personal interests: the political future of his children, Muraleedharan and daughter Padmaja Venugopal; the need to seek vengeance on party colleagues who forced him to step down from Chief Ministership in 1995 by raising a smokescreen of allegations, and paved the way for his replacement by Antony; his need to prove, especially to the high command, that he cannot be brushed aside; and the necessity to convince his supporters that he can still deliver. All these factors came into play in the latest episode of factional feud, which pushed the State party and a government with a brute majority to the brink.

Since the early 1990s, when Karunakaran was the Chief Minister, his undue eagerness to promote his son over several young supporters had alienated Karunakaran and Muraleedharan from ordinary party workers and often pushed the party into crises. But, to the surprise of political observers, Muraleedharan suddenly underwent a transformation as a politician, and ever since he became the KPCC(I) president, he had striven to take an independent position on issues. Of late, he had even publicly opposed the I group-centred positions of his father. Many observers believed that it was often a reaction to Karunakaran's attempts to promote Padmaja too within the I group. However, Muraleedharan maintained that as KPCC(I) chief he "had no group, only the best interests of the party in mind".

However, Padmaja's entry into politics as a parallel power centre within the I group was something that Muraleedharan had objected to in public right from the beginning. Others believed that the positioning of Muraleedharan as a leader with an independent political line different from that of Karunakaran was a smart political trick the father-son duo was playing on Congress workers in Kerala. It helped Muraleedharan's coming of age in Kerala politics as no other factor did, and he went much beyond even Karunakaran's ambitions a few years earlier.

Yet, an increasingly independent Muraleedharan proved to be of great help to the Antony camp, especially in its efforts to counter Karunakaran's political moves. Over the months, as Karunakaran shifted his benevolent attention fully to build Padmaja's political career, Muraleedharan went ahead taking strikingly deviant positions, which gained him general acceptance. He also simultaneously tried to build his own support base within the I group. This had the potential to gain him the upper hand within the I group in the long run, above sister Padmaja and, possibly, if the worst comes to worst, Karunakaran, too.

It was such a fast-track game plan that made Muraleedharan suggest Chacko's name, and with remarkable alacrity Karunakaran struck it down. Momentarily at least, it forced Muraleedharan to scurry back to his father's fold, and indicate clearly whether he was more loyal to his father or to his new-found friends.

K. Chandran Pillai, the winning LDF candidate.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

ALTHOUGH he may have lost out to the Antony camp in the numbers game in the Rajya Sabha elections, for Karunakaran it is a victory of sorts in several other respects. For one, he has put the brakes on Muraleedharan's tryst with independent prominence, at least momentarily, tarnishing the latter's carefully nurtured public image as a non-partisan party president. Moreover, by consolidating the support of 26 MLAs for a rebel cause under extremely hostile conditions, where the threat of disciplinary action hung over all of them, Karunakaran has demonstrated to the high command that he is not all that irrelevant in the State party.

No doubt, the current bout of factional feud has affected Muraleedharan more than anybody else, and many of his detractors have started crying for his blood. But, interestingly, for the Antony camp, Muraleedharan remains a key ally, too precious to lose in its defence against Karunakaran's onslaughts.

It is here that a confluence of interests puts a premium on Muraleedharan's success both as KPCC(I) president and as a power centre within the I group. That in a way is what may eventually prevent the high command from being too harsh on the "rebels".

Yet, this delicately balanced political power game may be rudely upset if Muraleedharan develops cold feet and decides to return to his father's fold.

No Congress(I) politician in the State is in any doubt that Karunakaran's ultimate objective is to force a leadership change in the UDF government, if possible, exactly on the same lines as he himself was replaced as Chief Minister in 1995. The Rajya Sabha controversy was for him but one more step in that direction.<90>

Although the support he was able to garner among the Congress(I) MLAs is much less than he had anticipated, it is still a satisfactory number that would allow him to try and counter any disciplinary action. The staunch anti-Communist that he had always been, his overtures towards the CPI(M)-led LDF for a possible alliance to topple the Antony government is to be seen only as a last-resort defensive strategy, to put himself in the party high command's reckoning. The worst thing that could happen to the octogenarian Congress(I) leader is to find himself out of the party he has nurtured all through his political life. There is nobody else who knows this better than Karunakaran.

Eventually, it is this fact that prompts Antony group leaders like Oommen Chandy to react to Karunakaran's calculations. Oommen Chandy said: "No Congress(I) MLA will follow Karunakaran if he is attempting to topple the Antony government and form a new government with the support of 40 LDF MLAs. One plus one may be two, but 40 plus 26 will not become 66."

Yet, even while the high command was contemplating the nature of the action to be taken against those who rebelled, there are chinks in the Antony camp that offer Karunakaran hope. The most exciting of these - as the party hurtles towards a crucial round of Lok Sabha elections in 2004 without any concrete achievement to show in the State - is the growing disaffection among party MLAs and grassroots-level workers. They have started complaining that Antony's "style of functioning" puts too much of a restraining hand on Congress workers from "enjoying the fruits of their own party's rule". Trying to curb political interference in the functioning of the State police, for example, may win public support, but is an unpopular initiative among Congress workers. A senior Congress(I) leader told Frontline: "Antony must stop being a political bureaucrat. He is alienating himself from ordinary workers and MLAs who find that they can't get things done under their own government while coalition partners are having a field day in Antony-ruled Kerala."

This is one among the several important factors that could find Antony perilously alone at the top within the party, and change the very nature of the power struggle within the State Congress(I). That is, if Muraleedharan continues to play his cards well.

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