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February 13, 1998


'I am sure Sonia will take up the leadership once the party is in a position to form the government'

Senior Congress leader and former Union minister Kunnoth Karunakaran is virtually sweating it out in Thiruvanathapuram, where he does not fit into the communal line-up of Nadars, Christians and Nairs. Trying to avenge his humiliating 1996 defeat in Thrissur, the Congress veteran has to contend with Communist Party of India's K V Surendranath, a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha and a Nair to boot (the electorate has a strong Nair base).

The poll is crucial for Karunakaran as another defeat could very well spell the end of the road for the 80-year-old politician, who, till he was ousted from chief ministership in 1995, was firmly in saddle. Since then, Karunakaran had been trying to find a niche in national politics. But though he was made the industry minister in the P V Narasimha Rao government, he did not quite enjoy the king-maker status he did earlier.

Karunakaran, who had manoeuvred Rao's election as prime minister after the 1991 poll, is now touting for Sonia Gandhi. Known for his political shrewdness, he is confident that the member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, who has expressed her unwillingness to enter power politics, would change her mind if the party gets adequate seats to form the next government. He is optimistic about his party's chances, too. In a face-to-face with D Jose,he discussed Elections '98. Excerpts:

How would you assess Sonia Gandhi's campaign so far?

She has done well. She has been able to attract good crowds wherever she addressed election meetings. The position of the Congress now is far better than what it was prior to her entry into politics.

Who will be the party's prime ministerial candidate in case it gets a majority?

Our candidate to lead the Congress in Parliament will be Sonia Gandhi. I am sure she will take up the leadership once the party is in a position to form the government.

But Sonia Gandhi has made it clear she is not interested in power.

The Nehru family has the great tradition of leading the nation. As a member of the family she will not be able to run away from the responsibility history has thrust on her. She cannot be treated as a foreigner -- in India we have the tradition of accepting a woman who enters her husband's home as part of the household.

What is the impact of the apologies your party tendered for Operation Bluestar and the Babri Masjid demolition?

The party has done well in expressing regret on these counts. Even Indira Gandhi herself was not happy with the operation. She was forced to take the drastic step for the sake of the country's unity. As regards the Babri issue, the Congress should feel ashamed for its failure to protect the place of worship. I think the minorities will have no doubt about our concern for them after the apologies. They had alienated from the Congress after the outrageous act.

What steps do you propose to strengthen their confidence in the Congress?

We cannot promise to rebuild the mosque at Ayodhya as the matter is now under the Supreme Court's consideration. But we can assure them that we will protect places of worship whenever the Congress is in power.

The unity that you and A K Antony forged in Kerala appears to have suffered a jolt following the controversies over seat sharing. Will it affect the party's prospects in the state?

It will not affect the poll outcome. The unity that we have forged cannot be destroyed by certain differences on candidates.

I had objected to allocating the Mukundapuram seat to P C Chacko because I had definite feedback that he would not be able to retain it. Even some bishops had given it in writing. I had only insisted on shifting Chacko to Idduki and bringing A C Jose to Mukundapuram to increase the party's chances. Antony was not against my perception, but Sharad Pawar raised objections as his protege, Chacko, did not feel inclined to move away from Mukundapuram. Our consideration in selecting candidates is their chances of winning.

In that case, do you think that all the 17 Congress candidates in the state will win?

All cannot win. We had to compromise on certain candidates for the sake of unity. There are some who may lose. They had to be accommodated for various reasons.

What are your chances in Thiruvanathapuram?

I am confident to win this time because I am sure what happened at Thrissur (sabotage) will not be repeated.

You had insisted on the communal background of candidates before allocating seats. Why, then, are you fighting the Thiruvananthapuram seat? The dominant communities here are the Nadars and Nairs, and you don't belong to either...

I am a Nadar, Nair, Muslim and a Christian. The two dominant communities in Thiruvananthapuram has offered their full support to me.

Your candidature was opposed by certain quarters in the party.

Certain leaders felt that Rajya Sabha members should not contest for the Lok Sabha election. Our party president was also worried about the party losing the Rajya Sabha seat. But when I said that a Lok Sabha seat is more important for the party in the present political context, he was impressed.

Karunakaran's last battle?

The Election Interviews

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