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September 6, 1999


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Constituency/ Idukki

Miasma of sex scandal confronts P J Kurien's campaign in Idukki

Joseph Alexander in Idukki, Kerala

Professor P J Kurien, the former Union minister and Congress chief whip in the dissolved Lok Sabha, is far from assured of victory in this traditional Congress bastion.

One of party president Sonia Gandhi's close aides, the professor is waging a battle for survival with the Congress fortress showing signs of cracks, and the ghost of the infamous Suryanelli sex scandal haunting him.

This hilly backward constituency has stood firmly behind the Congress since 1977, and Professor Kurien was elected from here in 1984 by 130,624 votes. But this factor does not seem to be in play this time around. Idukki goes to the polls on Saturday, September 11, in the second phase.

Even as the senior Congress leader is accused of fleeing Mavelikkara where he narrowly edged out his rival by just 1,000 votes in 1998, his rival Francis George of the Kerala Congress (Joseph), a partner of the Marxist-led Left Democratic Front, is riding on the crest of a sympathy wave as he approaches the voters for the third consecutive time. He contested the 1996 and 1998 polls, unsuccessfully.

Professor Kurien says he left Idukki in 1989 after the party leadership asked him to move to Mavelikkara. He returns now after sitting MP P C Chacko was shifted to Kottayam as a consequence of Congress strongman K Karunakaran's shift from Thiruvananthapuram to Mukundapuram.

Whether the voters give him another chance or not, his main opponent, Francis George, a bank officer from Moovattupuzha, is confident he will be third time lucky. The son of K M George, the founder of the Kerala Congress, he entered the fray in 1996 as a novice.

In a terrain utterly unfriendly to the Left parties, he made an impact by reducing Congress winner A C Jose's margin to 30,140 votes that year. Again, in 1998, he lost to Chacko, by just 6,380 votes.

It is from this steep cut in the victory margin that the LDF draws its aspiration from, and the UDF combine, its fears.

But history will not prop up the Left spirit. The largest constituency in the state -- covering the assembly segments of Devicolam, Idukki, Peermedu, Thodupuzha and Udumbanchola of Idukki district and Pathanamthitta and Ranni of Pathanamathitta district -- has unfailingly returned Congress-led forces.

It elected then Union minister C M Stephen (Congress) in 1977. However, Marxist M M Lawrence emerged the winner in 1980, thanks to the then political combine in which both the Kerala Congress (Mani) and Antony Congress found a place.

In 1984, riding on the sympathy wave generated after Indira Gandhi's assassination, Professor Kurien set an all-time high victory margin in the state.

While Pala K M Mathew of the Congress romped home victorious in 1989 and 1991, it was the turn of another Congress stalwart A C Jose to enjoy the loyalty of Idukki's voters in 1996. However, the victory margins have dwindled over the years.

Both candidates cannot play the son-of-the-soil card -- they hail from outside Idukki -- so the fight is now on to establish proximity to the voters. Though Professor Kurien, who was earlier district Congress president of Pathanamthitta, feels he is closer to the electorate after his five-year term as representative, George is confident he is a known face, as he is in the fray for a third time.

With no concrete issues to battle it over, it is little wonder that the charges against the Congress of pulling down the Vajpayee government and failing to put up an alternative, thanks to its obstinate stand, have caught the imagination of many in this far-flung place, especially the educated youth. The LDF is pinning its hopes on the new voters, numbering 68,476 who might tread a new political path.

This hilly area, where agricultural produce is the main source of income, has always loved leaders who espouse the causes of rubber, cardamom, pepper, coffee, tea and coconut. It is not known how the ire over the slump in cash crops will influence the swing in votes, and in whose favour.

The UDF is projecting Professor Kurien as a likely minister if the Congress comes to power at the Centre, and is emphasising on his experience as an administrator and leader.

Pitted against the considerable strength of the Left trade unions in the plantations here, his poll managers hope to cash in on the alliance between the AIADMK and Congress in neighbouring Tamil Nadu to woo the Tamil populace here.

They aver that the margin dipped last time due to infighting in the Congress camp, and add that a united party is fighting the election this time.

However, Professor Kurien's cup of woe is full with the trial of the Suryanelli scandal, in which he is an accused, making the headlines. Suryanelli is in Idukki, and the Congressman is fighting an election for the first time after news of the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl rocked the state. Though the LDF says it will not rake up the scandal, the professor's strategists, reluctant to trust their rivals, say they will be unable to suppress a whisper campaign.

Professor Kurien pleads his innocence and says the election is a moral fight to prove his integrity. His supporters won the first round by organising a warm reception at Suryanelli where he delivered an emotion-packed speech. The Congressman now hopes to persuade Sonia to address an election meeting in his constituency.



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