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February 18, 1998


Campaign Trail/D Jose

The Patriarch in Springtime

One thing you have to grant senior Congress leader Kunnoth Karunakaran, is energy.

As always, the middle of the month finds him in the central Kerala district of Thrissur, for his ritual darshan of the presiding deity of the Guruvayoor temple.

From where he returns to Thiruvanthapuram, reaching the Kerala capital at six am after a pre-dawn drive. One hour later, his morning chores -- which include a pooja, a bit of yoga, plus a frugal breakfast of papaya fruit and glass of medicated boiled water -- complete, he is ready for business, looking fresh as the proverbial daisy.

Not bad, for a man who will be 80 in July, most of them in the sapping hurly-burly of politics.

The energy will stand him in good stead, for Karunakaran is locked in a tough battle in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency. Time is running out, as he enters the final phase of his campaign -- thus, he disposes of the hordes of visitors and favour-seekers in a jiffy, and heads off to Parasala, the southernmost tip of his constituency and situated on the border of Tamil Nadu, for a hectic day's campaign.

Interestingly, it was in Thrissur, under the shadow of his favoured deity Guruvayoorappan, that the veteran Congressman suffered his most humiliating defeat, when he went down to the CPI candidate in the 1996 election.

The weight of that defeat sits lightly on Karunakaran's shoulders, and he professes himself confident of making it to the Lok Sabha this time round.

If he does, it will be a first -- in over five decades in active politics, Karunakaran had contented himself with contesting assembly elections. Nineteen ninetysix marked his first bid for a transfer to the Delhi stage, and it ended in a humbling defeat. This time, he says, he is sure of booking his seat in Parliament.

The Thrissur debacle has brought about some marked changes in his style. Gone is the charmed circle of sycophants who previously shadowed him, isolating him from reality. Gone, too, is the aloof arrogance -- instead, the Karunakaran of today is a more approachable, more people-oriented politico.

And the change is bringing positive dividends. When his cavalcade reaches Pozhikunnu at around 9.45 am, he is greeted by a mammoth, slogan-shouting crowd.

A visibly charged-up Karunakaran briskly ascends the podium, waves to the crowd, and launches into a crisp, hard-hitting speech. The scene is repeated, in course of that day, at Chengal, Udiyankulangara, Machavilakam, Manavari, Elluvila, Kunnathukal, Neduvanvila and the PPM junction.

Everywhere, thronging crowds present petitions, talk to him of local-level problems. The response is always the same -- 'The Congress will form the government under Sonia Gandhi, I will have an important position in the ministry, and at that time I promise to find solutions to each of your problems.'

This elicits more slogan-shouting, more cheering. And a broader smile from Karunakaran, whose toothy grin is as much a trademark as say Communist leader E M S Namboodiripad's stammer.

Karunakaran seems in no doubt that in the post-election scenario, Sonia Gandhi will, despite her stated disinclination, step in and take up the reins of governance. "She will do it for the good of the country," he assures the doubters.

He attacks the ruling Left Democratic Front -- the main rival for the Congress in the state -- on grounds of non-performance. "A government which has failed to ensure permanent water supply in the state's capital is no government," he thunders.

For his part, he promises "special attention" to the constituency. "I have big plans for Thiruvananthapuram, plans to improve the airport, plans to develop tourism, for all this I need your support," he harangues the crowd.

In a frenzied first phase of campaigning, Karunakaran had already addressed meetings in every corner of Thiruvananthapuram. True to type, he kicked off with a visit -- this one an unscheduled addition to his monthly agenda -- to Guruvayoor temple.

An integral part of his campaign is a personal visit to the homes of everyone who is anyone at all in the state capital -- starting off with a trip to the palace of the erstwhile Travancore ruling family.

"In Thrissur, Karunakaran lost because of factionalism within the party, because of disunity," says A Charles, the former MP who now manages the Karunakaran campaign. "This time round, the situation is different, everyone is working together, there are no internal wranglings -- I would predict that he will win with an unprecedented majority!"

One of the keys to the Thiruvananthapuram equation, Charles says, is the support extended to Karunakaran by the People's Democratic Party and the Indian National League. "This ensures the full support of the minorities, while Karunakaran's favourable stance towards the Nair Service Society will bring him the support of that dominant community as well."

Is Karunakaran getting the covert support of the BJP, as is alleged by the LDF leaders? No way, says Charles with heat. "In fact, the BJP has stepped up its campaign in recent days -- they know they can't win, they are, however, hell bent on improving their voting share."

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