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What is Karunakaran up to?
January 29, 2004
The Karunakaran versus Antony drama has certainly taken a peculiar turn, becoming one of Karunkaran versus Karunakaran instead. But who are the two Karunakarans? The rift between the Leader and his son, K Muraleedharan, is genuine enough; but if I have read the signs correctly, it is a case of sibling rivalry rather than a battle of the generations. In other words, the actual fight is between Muraleedharan and Padmaja Venugopal.
Karunakaran had made it amply clear that he would not allow any Antony loyalists to win a seat in the Lok Sabha if he could do anything about it. (And the recent by-election in the Ernakulam Lok Sabha constituency proved that Karunakaran could indeed make a difference in a close contest.) The only difference between the situation today and that one week ago is that he is now entitled to do so openly.
How serious is his rift with the Congress (I)?
This is a man whose association with the Congress dates back to the days of the Freedom Struggle, somebody who is more senior than even Narasimha Rao. He never abandoned the party, not even in the dark days immediately after the Emergency. So, if he leaves the parent party in what is definitely the last phase of a long career in politics, Karunakaran must be serious. And to underline that fact he dared to commit the ultimate sin in the Congress -- to mock the head of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. (Karunakaran made merry at Sonia Gandhi¹s expense because she had made a pilgrimage to Ram Vilas Paswan, head of a tiny rump of the old Janata Dal!)
Significantly, Karunakaran also hoped that Muraleedharan would not succumb to the temptations of ministerial office. Karunakaran Junior, who is currently head of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, claims he is still a loyal member of the Congress (I). He has vowed to obey any instruction from the high command, including 'acceptance of ministership.' In other words, he has been offered a post in the A K Antony ministry, and has accepted the bribe.
The chief minister himself piously noted that he had hoped a solution could be found and that he was straining every nerve to avert a split in the party. He was backed up from Delhi by Ahmed Patel, the All India Congress Committee general secretary. All that remains to be seen is what portfolio is given to Muraleedharan. Some say he could be the deputy chief minister!
Cynics say Antony and Patel are being outsmarted because the whole drama was stage-managed by father and son to lever the latter into the Kerala ministry. It is true that Muraleedharan will be seen as a successor to Antony, particularly if he becomes his official deputy. But I doubt Karunakaran would have gone to the extent of defecting had this been all that was required.
I am not sure, however, if giving Muraleedharan a fancier chair will solve the Congress (I)'s problems. He had levelled several charges against Antony, and the chief minister's supporters had thrown some mud right back at him. Are both sides prepared to swallow their words?
Up to a few days ago, Muraleedharan was breathing fire against the chief minister. He had gone to the extent of publicly supporting an electoral alliance between the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front, something that is anathema to Antony. He had even clarified that any talks between the Karunakaran and the Antony camps were a cease-fire in view of the looming general election rather than a genuine move for peace.
More to the point, how much influence does Muraleedharan have on voters? (And his fellow legislators!) Karunakaran, we all know, has had a long innings in politics, and he has gathered a certain amount of power over the years. (The Ernakulam by-election was proof of his potential as a spoiler if nothing else.) It remains to be seen if the son has inherited any of his father's prowess. Quite frankly, his performance as head of the Pradesh Congress Committee was not terribly impressive; he has always been seen as his father's son rather than as a major political figure in his own right.
The Congress (I) high command has been wrestling on and off with the Karunakaran problem for the past twelve months. It sparks little confidence in their political acumen if the best they could do was to gain the son at the cost of losing the father.
T V R Shenoy