The battles within

Print edition : April 28, 2001

K. Karunakaran's dramatic revolt against the party high command on the issue of the party ticket may prove to be a setback for the Congress(I)-led United Democratic Front in Kerala.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

IT took octogenarian Congress(I) leader K. Karunakaran just a week to wreck the electoral ambitions of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the chaotic coalition in Kerala that has been in the wilderness for five years. He announced a truce in the State Congress(I), which leads the UDF, only after party president Sonia Gandhi bent over backwards to accommodate his demands. A day after this, Opposition leader and Karunakaran's arch rival within the party A.K. Antony told the media that it was only "two weeks, a week" that the UDF would need to recover. Antony, ever to emerge from such frequent party squabbles as the better loser, was hardly convincing. With elections scheduled for May 10, "two weeks, a week" may just not be enough to reverse the setback.

CPI(M) leaders (from right) V.S. Achuthanandan, E.K. Nayanar, and Pinarayi Vijayan.-K.G. SANTHOSH

Before trouble started for the State Congress(I), UDF leaders had declared at public meetings their virtual return to power. Significantly, this had drawn only mild sniggers from the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), given the load of incumbency on its shoulders and the Kerala electorate's tendency to alternate between the two coalitions. But by stomping out of the seat-sharing talks convened in New Delhi and setting off a bout of factional fighting back home in Kerala, Karunakaran would seem to have swept away the UDF's advantages.

What followed was a week of vintage Karunakaran at his "slighted" best - snide remarks, open intimidation, angry outbursts and cheeky defiance. Much to the consternation of the party's candidates and supporters and coalition partners, Karunakaran described Antony as "an enemy of the people" and Sonia Gandhi as "Indira Gandhi's son's wife". In her case he found a potentially boomeranging relevance to the Malayalam proverb which meant, "Would the scar show on the son's backside because his father rode an elephant?" The references were retracted or described as a "slip of the tongue" once they had their desired impact. "In war, you should adopt any strategy that would bring you the maximum benefit. That is what the Mahabharata teaches," Karunakaran told presspersons later when it was known that his immediate demands would be met.

Karunakaran alleged that there was a conspiracy to annihilate politically him, his family members and the 'I' group that he led in the State party, and that at the national level he was being pushed out of the reckoning by the high command (the latest instance being Sonia Gandhi's refusal to give him an audience when the seat-sharing exercise was going up in smoke). All this, he said, was done to one who had been a Congressman for life, to the advantage of deserters (meaning Antony, who had left the party for a brief period in the late 1970s).

The 'revolt' ended with Sonia Gandhi recalling party candidates belonging to the 'A' group led by Antony in the three constituencies of Peravoor in Kannur district, Vadakkekkara in Ernakulam district and Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district) and replacing them with 'I' group nominees. The 'I' and 'A' groups will now contest 37 seats each out of the 88 seats the Congress(I) has been allotted. The other two groups in the State Congress(I) will share the rest of the seats.

'I' group loyalists were feeling insulted and ignored. By giving the 'I' group the same number of seats as the 'A' group, it was made to feel more respectable, Karunakaran said.

Antony accepted the compromise "painfully", pointing out that it would be wrong to replace officially declared candidates when the party was already into two weeks of campaigning.

Even as Karunakaran's drama began unfolding, the 'I' group threatened to field rebel candidates in key Assembly constituencies (some of them even announced their candidature) and burnt effigies of party observer Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Karunakaran's justification for the specific demands was that the 'I' group had no "fighting seat" in the entire Kannur district, hence Peravoor; that by party tradition a sitting member of Parliament could nominate at least two candidates to the Assembly from his Lok Sabha constituency, hence Vadakkekkara (but all the Congress(I) candidates in the area of Karunakaran's Mukundapuram Lok Sabha constituency are from the 'I' group); and that, Sonia Gandhi has been insisting on more representation for women, hence Aranmula for a woman supporter of Karunakaran.

K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony.-S. GOPAKUMAR

There was turmoil in all the three constituencies as the 'A' group candidates refused to withdraw from the contest and party workers refused to campaign for the new candidates. Party offices were attacked and the trouble threatened to spill over to all constituencies where Congress(I) candidates were in the fray.

At the press conference on April 16, convened to announce his "partial satisfaction" over the high command's decision, Karunakaran, aware of what was in store for the Congress(I) and the UDF, cautioned "all" party workers against back-stabbing, "as had happened extensively during the 1996 elections".

Antony too has described the events following the selection of candidates as a "closed chapter", while admitting that both Karunakaran and himself were responsible for the setback to the election campaign.

There was trouble elsewhere too in the UDF. The Kerala Congress (Mani) was on the verge of splitting when party supremo K.M. Mani expressed his inclination to induct his businessman son Jose K. Mani in place of party MLA Thomas Chazhikadan. Mani's efforts to deny the ticket to some senior leaders too caused a lot of heartburn, and for the first time in its history the KC(M) announced its list of candidates through a press release. The party also had a face-off with the Kerala Congress faction led by T.M. Jacob on seat sharing. In the 1996 elections the two factions were at each other's throat, with the Jacob group officially allotted the Kaduthuruthi constituency, where the KC(M) fielded a rebel in a "friendly contest". (Finally, it was a nominee of the Kerala Congress(Joseph), a constituent of the LDF, who won here.) This time the KC(M) nominee is the official UDF candidate there. Jacob demanded the Idukki seat instead but he had to be satisfied with Kuttanad.

THE well-oiled LDF machinery was a study in contrast. The LDF campaign was launched even before the election date was announced. The seat-sharing exercise and the selection of candidates were over as early as March 24. The ruling coalition came out with its first list of 97 candidates on March 25. Only four of its 14 Ministers, including K. Radhakrishnan, the young CPI(M) Minister for Welfare of Backward and Scheduled Communities, have been fielded again. There are 40 new faces in the LDF list, and there are 12 women candidates. The CPI(M) has replaced 30 sitting MLAs. Its list of 77 candidates consists mostly of youth and new faces. V.S. Achuthanandan, CPI(M) leader and LDF convener, widely believed to be the LDF's chief ministerial candidate, is contesting from the CPI(M) stronghold of Malampuzha in Palakkad district.

Karunakaran's "revolt" left no one in doubt that he pushed the UDF to the brink in order to get his daughter K. Padmaja, a novice in politics, nominated for a seat and his son K. Muraleedharan chosen KPCC(I) president. Padmaja was not nominated and Karunakaran later denied ever having demanded the ticket for his daughter. In the same breath he said Antony could have suggested her name without much ado. Later Padmaja announced that she was entering politics in a big way and would campaign for party candidates. As per the compromise formula, if the chief ministership goes to the 'A' group the PCC(I) president will be chosen from the 'I' group (read Muraleedharan).

After announcing the truce, Karunakaran said he was "satisfied, but not fully," that the peace was only temporary. Obviously, not all demands listed by him have been taken up.

The intrigue, the revolt and the rather indecent haggling for a handful of seats, despite the debilitating effect all this would have on the party's prospects, were resorted to by the Karunakaran group with the single-minded objective of winning the maximum number of Congress legislators to its side.

Karunakaran maintains that the party will not project anyone as Chief Minister and that the Congress Legislature Party leader would be "elected" by party MLAs after the elections. Antony agrees that the Congress(I) does not have a chief minister nominee. But he said that the chief ministership would be "decided" later by the high command, based on "earlier agreements". The significance of these statements lies in their subtlety.

Karunakaran's triumph may turn out to be the undoing of the Congress(I) in Kerala and the coalition it leads, even in case of an electoral victory.

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