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February 17, 1998


Where the father fears to tread

D Jose in Thiruvananthapuram

Can the son win where the father lost? That is the question being asked throughout Thrissur constituency.

The father is Congress veteran Kunnoth Karunakaran who lost the seat in 1996. And the son is K Muralidharan who, this time around, replaces his father in Thrissur.

Though the circumstances under which Karunakaran lost to Communist Party of India candidate V V Raghavan by just 1,400 votes in May 1996 have undergone some change, the factors that forced the Congress candidate -- Muralidharan -- to shift from Kozhikode have its echo in Thrissur, too. The ire of the Muslim League leadership he earned in Kozhikode has spread to Thrissur as well. Muralidharan's only consolation is that the Muslims in Thrissur do not have the same numerical strength they have in Kozhikode.

However, the disadvantages the Congress have on this count may be offset by the support expended to it by the Indian National League and the People's Democratic Party -- the two together have about 10,000 votes in the Guruvayoor segment alone.

The unity within the Congress is perceived as another advantage Muralidharan has over his CPI adversary. Groupism in the party was one of the major factors that led to Karunakaran's unexpected defeat. If the newfound unity works, the Congress should retrieve the voters it lost in 1996 and win the seat hands down.

CPI leaders, for their part, put the onus of the win on the popularity of their candidate. Raghavan is known as a honest and simple leader committed to the people, whereas Karunakaran was seen as a shrewd and rather corrupt politician. They say with the Congress fielding his son, who is 'not far behind his father in political morality', the LDF's task has become easy.

"Our effort is to improve Raghavan's lead," says CPI leader K P Prabhakaran, who manages the LDF campaign, "Raghavan is a symbol of clean politics which the electorate these days yearn for. His rival has no claim on any such quality."

However, the going for the LDF is not as easy as Prabhakaran puts it. The Hindu Religion Bill and the mishandling of the St Thomas College issue by the government following a strike by the CPI-M students wing has considerably angered the Nair and Christian communities which dominate the constituency. The neutral stand the Nair Service Society has adopted is said to be in favour of the Congress. The NSS had thrown its weight behind the LDF in the last election.

The crash in the prices of agricultural production, the skyrocketing prices of essential commodities, the general slump in the economy and the alienation of the trading community by the government through frequent sales tax raids are strong anti-incumbency factors that the LDF candidate will have to contend with.

As for Muralidharan, the controversial remark which Karunakaran made regarding the numerical strength of the Jacobite Christians in Mukundapuram to justify his refusal to concede the seat to P C Chacko, the sitting MP, has had its reverberations in Thrissur, where the Jacobites have about 70,000 votes.

"Muralidharan is the son of Karunakaran, who sought to undermine our strength. We will show our real strength at the hustings," says an angry Paul K Paul.

The Congress campaign managers are aware of the fallout of Karunakaran's statement. They have sought the help of senior party leaders like A K Antony in the damage control exercise. The attempt by Karunakaran and Muralidharan to appease the community has gone in vain.

However, Congress election committee convenor P P George is not unnerved by the matter. He feels the battle the St Thomas college management had to wage with the LDF government will bring Christian votes into the Congress kitty. Muralidharan, too, oozes confidence. He does not anticipate any problem from the Muslim League which, though personally not happy with him, is 'actively drumming up support' for the party.

Muralidharan said the groups in the Congress which had worked against his father last time were now working for his success. He says he is not bothered about his rival's image.

"People are voting for the party that should rule the country, not individuals," he said.

Muralidharan refused to go into the circumstances that forced him to shift from Kozikode -- which he had won in 1989 and 1991 -- to Thrissur. "I changed my seat because the party asked me to do so," he claimed.

In all, there are seven candidates in Thrissur, including P M Gopinath of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP, which polled 41,139 votes last time, is not in the reckoning. Its campaign for Gopinath is on a very low key.

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