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A vote for Principles
July 24, 2003
Giving specific dates is as dangerous in politics as it is in war. President Bush declared that hostilities had come to an end in Iraq as of May 1, 2003. Since then Iraqi guerrillas have been killing Americans and Britons at the rate of one a day. I have no idea whether this can continue -- especially after the rumoured deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons -- but the steady drip, drip, drip has already eaten away at the credibility and the popularity of the Bush and Blair administrations. It is a lesson that should not have been -- but was -- ignored by A K Antony's foes in Kerala.
The D-Day set by the anti-Antony forces was Monday, July 21, the day when the Kerala assembly was set to vote on the ministry's financial demands. The Muslim League decided to hold a high-level meeting at Panakkad, some 300 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. Simultaneously, it was said Karunakaran and 22 legislators had decided to break away and sit as a separate group. This pincer movement from within the United Democratic Front would, it was calculated, force the 'high command' in Delhi to ask for the chief minister's resignation. The rumours gathered strength as Antony chose to shun the media.
But setting a deadline, and such a short one at that, was a mistake. The Congress (I) leaders in Delhi decided they could not afford to be seen bending the knee before such a disparate array of forces and throwing out one of India's cleanest politicians. "Enough is enough!" Ahmed Patel, the Congressman deputised by Sonia Gandhi to look after Kerala, told Karunakaran, "Such gross indiscipline cannot be tolerated." With the 'high command' refusing to give way, both Karunakaran and the Muslim League decided that prudent retreat was the order of the day.
Neither faction will admit it openly, but this has been a victory for Antony. Karunakaran has tried to save face by claiming that the Congress (I) central leadership is now willing to discuss the possibility of a change in leadership at some future date. The Muslim League says it has merely postponed taking a final decision. But what was it that led to all this sound and fury in the first place?
Soon after the Shimla brainstorming session, Antony publicly announced that minority communities in Kerala were better organised than the Hindus, and that they were using this to extract concessions from the majority community. I believe this was not a remark made on the spur of the moment but a calculated statement. The chief minister has been under pressure from the Church to retain its rights over educational institutions. Simultaneously, the Muslim League has been unhappy with Antony's handling of the Marad incident (where Hindus were selectively killed by terrorists in a manner eerily reminiscent of Jammu and Kashmir). And the Karunakaran faction in the Congress (I) was only too happy to take advantage of this discontent.
Two things are now clear: there will be no immediate change in leadership as demanded by Karunakaran, and the chief minister will not retract his statement as the Muslim League had asked.
Rather oddly, some say that the Congress 'high command' took the right decision for all the wrong reasons. The major motive for standing behind Antony seems to have been the calculation that it wouldn't pay to remove a chief minister from a minority community. The last non-Hindu chief minister of Kerala of any prominence was C H Mohammed Koya, and his government did not last very long. Given Antony's well-known agnosticism and the opposition to his policies by the Church, it is odd that his status as a 'minority' leader saved him! (Karunakaran's reputation as the most ardent temple visitor in Kerala also helped Antony.)
But a lot of the credit goes to Antony himself. His stubborn stand on principles may have caused him some problems to begin with, but that same integrity also saved him. At the end of the day, the chief minister was willing to be pushed out of office rather than withdraw a statement that represented his sincere sentiments. His foes, on the other hand, decided that they could not afford to take any risk of losing power, even, in an extremity, of facing fresh assembly elections.
There is no need to press home the moral of the story, is there? But I would like to raise a final point: continuing where I left last week, if the Congress (I) can't manage to keep the peace in Kerala, where it has so much experience in coalitions, how will it fare elsewhere in India?
T V R Shenoy