|HOME | NEWS | COLUMNISTS | T V R SHENOY|
|April 9, 2001||
T V R Shenoy
Bee in Sonia's bonnet
I am a bit surprised that everyone is swallowing the story that K Karunakaran resigned from the Congress Working Committee in a fit of pique. His daughter was denied the ticket to the Chalakkudy assembly seat -- and this, so the tale goes, was enough for the veteran to snap a decades old link!
I have known the former chief minister of Kerala fairly well for several years. His followers never refer to him by name, but by the simple epithet 'Leader.' There is a reason for that -- he does not hunt for small game. In the current instance, it is not Chalakkudy -- however annoying in itself -- but the chief ministership of Kerala that bothers K Karunakaran.
Nor, by the way, is it A K Antony alone who is seen as standing in the way of Karunakaran. No, what he is doing, ever so subtly, is challenging Sonia Gandhi herself. It is, basically, a very simple issue: can the Congress president get away by nominating a chief minister as her husband and mother-in-law used to do?
Of course, despite all the talk of the five states going to the polls, Sonia Gandhi is in no position to dictate terms in the larger states of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. She has been forced to swallow her bile and accept Mamta Banerjee's terms; the Congress can scarcely name one of its own as chief minister given that it is only contesting 28 per cent of the seats. (How many it shall actually win is another matter altogether!)
And the situation is even worse in Tamil Nadu where Jayalalitha has her own agenda -- and isn't inclined to be as polite as Mamta Banerjee...
The AIADMK general-secretary is determined to make Sonia Gandhi swallow a dose of her own medicine. Two years ago, the Congress egged Jayalalitha on to pull down the Vajpayee ministry; once the mission was accomplished, Sonia Gandhi announced that she would form a purely Congress ministry. Today, Jayalalitha has returned the compliment, effectively reducing the mighty Congress to something less than an appendage of G K Moopanar!
No, Sonia Gandhi can have her way only in the states where the Congress has a realistic chance of forming a government -- Kerala and Assam. (If not by itself, then in a coalition where it is the dominant partner.) But does she still have that authority? It is open to question because I believe that K Karunakaran is now challenging that assumption about the 'High Command' having the last word.
K Karunakaran has been quite sophisticated in his approach. It isn't just the resignation from the Congress Working Committee that should be marked, he has openly declared that no 'central' leader needs to campaign in constituencies where his supporters are standing. They, he says, can win on their own strength.
Nobody should be taken in by the fact that K Karunakaran hasn't actually mentioned Sonia Gandhi by name. Does anyone believe that, say, Arjun Singh, or Madhavrao Scindia, or Ghulam Nabi Azad, or anyone else has a role to play in Kerala? No, this is a direct slap in the face for the Congress boss. (And possibly her children!) Sonia Gandhi is being told in no uncertain terms that K Karunakaran and his nominees are confident about winning on their own.
The beauty of this stance is that K Karunakaran has little to lose. If his people lose, then the Congress has no chance of wresting back the Kerala assembly. If they win, then the veteran would have proved his point, and eroded the authority of the 'High Command' to boot. If K Karunakaran holds his nerve, Sonia Gandhi has no choice but to back down.
The Congress is ill-placed to pick up the gauntlet. The party knows what happened when Mamta Banerjee walked out in West Bengal, and then Sharad Pawar followed suit in Maharashtra. Within twenty-four hours of K Karunakaran snubbing the Congress Working Committee, his supporters had started boycotting meetings in Kerala.
The difference between a United Democratic Front victory and a Left Democratic Front victory can be as little as a single percentage point. Given that statistic, it will be suicidal if Sonia Gandhi chooses to press the point. And by all accounts she will not do so -- her disciples are already making soothing sounds about how Karunakaranji is a valued elder in the Congress family!
They have done more. Sundry senior leaders in Delhi are saying that A K Antony will not be projected as the party's candidate for chief ministership. The next step, I assume, will come when K Karunakaran piously raises his eyes to heaven, and declares that he had never raised the issue in the first place! Which, of course, he never did -- being far too intelligent to make such an elementary error...
He is right; actually, the implications of what K Karunakaran is doing will not be confined to Kerala. If one man can challenge Sonia Gandhi's privilege to name chief ministers, then what shall stop someone else from doing so? Other Congressmen too can say that Sonia Gandhi is not a vote-winner, and that she should, therefore, stay away. (In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, the Congress won the last assembly polls -- and then proceeded to be hammered in the general elections. The same thing happened in Rajasthan.)
I do not believe that other Congressmen shall be as open in their display of contempt as K Karunakaran has been. (Kerala politics offers plenty of scope for flexibility!) But the straws in the wind tell a story. Once, it was necessary to leave the Congress to defy the Nehru-Gandhis as Mamta Banerjee and Pawar did. Today, a Congressman can scorn Sonia Gandhi -- and the party has to make soothing noises.
The 'Leader' is telling the 'High Command' that it is not so high and mighty after all!
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