I am fairly certain that Sonia Gandhi would never have been able to identify S Ramachandran Pillai, J Chitharanjan or C O Paulose by face. Yet little did she know that the retirement of these three Left Democratic Front gentlemen from the Rajya Sabha would lead to the biggest crisis in the Congress (I) since Sharad Pawar and Purno Sangma raised the banner of revolt in 1999.
Come to think of it, 1999, the year that the Congress (I) registered its worst performance ever in a general election, was not a particularly happy 12 month period for Sonia Gandhi. Arguably, its high point came when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee ministry lost a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha by the narrowest of margins -- one vote. It was downhill all the way since that happy hour for the Congress (I) boss as she failed spectacularly to demonstrate that she had the backing of 272 Lok Sabha MPs (as she had promised to do from the vantage point of Rashtrapati Bhavan).
(To digress a little, that upset victory over Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not so much Sonia Gandhi's handiwork as that of two other ladies -- Jayalalithaa and Mayawati. Of these, the first has now gone on record to state that a 'foreigner' like Sonia Gandhi can never be the prime minister, and the second is now leading a coalition ministry in Uttar Pradesh with the Bharatiya Janata Party. So much for the Congress (I)'s record in winning -- and keeping -- partners!)
But let us return to the three gentlemen named above. Their retirement on the completion of their six-year term led to three vacancies in Kerala's contingent to the Rajya Sabha. K Karunakaran seized the opportunity to get his own back at the Congress (I) high command (whom he accuses of pampering the [Kerala Chief Minister] A K Antony faction). Given the arithmetic of the current Kerala assembly, the United Democratic Front could win two of the three seats. The Congress (I) put up Vayalar Ravi and Thennala Balakrishna Pillai. In a clear breach of discipline, a defiant Karunakaran ordered Kodoth Govindan Nair to enter the fray.
On the face of it, the high command has got its own way. Vayalar Ravi has been elected with 38 votes and Balakrishna Pillai won 36 votes -- enough to see both men into the Rajya Sabha. Govindan Nair could win 'only' 26 votes. (The Left Democratic Front candidate, K Chandran Pillai, polled 39 votes.) But the margin of victory is misleading. Believe it or not, the high command was saved from embarrassment by just one vote!
To understand that, you must delve into the complicated rules that govern elections to the Rajya Sabha. The total number of votes -- meaning the number of legislators in the concerned assembly -- is divided by the number of vacancies plus one. Then, one is added to the result. The final figure represents the number of first preference votes a candidate must win if the election is not to go into the counting of second preference votes.
Kerala has a 140-strong assembly. There were three vacancies. Dividing 140 by four -- as per the formula above -- we get 35. And so the final answer would be 36. This means that Balakrishna Pillai just about scraped through. Who knows what might have happened had the second preference votes been counted? At the very least, it would have sent out the signal that the Congress (I) high command was unable to maintain discipline.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the high command shall dare to initiate disciplinary action against Karunakaran. Sonia Gandhi must be aware that her advisors in Delhi led her to the very edge of the pit. She was told that the 'old man' would never succeed in winning more than 20 votes at the most. One 'expert' on Kerala politics went about confidently predicting that only 18 MLAs would stand by Karunakaran.
Judging by the results, one of the 26 votes polled by Govindan Nair came from the Left Democratic Front's kitty. (K Chandran Pillai should have got 40 votes had everyone in his camp voted as directed.) But it is the other 25 who are keeping the high command on its toes. The number represents a quarter of the United Democratic Front strength in the Kerala assembly. More to the point, it probably accounts for a third of the Congress (I) itself in the assembly.
So, what happens if the high command decides to 'discipline' Karunakaran? In a worst-case scenario, one could be looking at a split in the Congress (I)'s Kerala unit. Realising this, the Antony wing has already asked its bosses in Delhi to take it easy. (According to one account, Antony himself was even willing to accept Govindan Nair as an official candidate.) But others are less foresighted; Joseph Vazhakkan, K C Abu and Ajay Tharayil -- all general secretaries of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee -- have asked Sonia Gandhi to remove K Muraleedharan from his post as Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president. (He just happens to be Karunakaran's son.) I can't think of anything that would aggravate the situation more.
Where would Karunakaran move if he is expelled from the Congress (I)? One option could be the Nationalist Congress Party, whose leader Sharad Pawar has been dropping broad hints about 'senior' Congress leaders joining him. (V C Shukla has already done so.) But will Sonia Gandhi actually be foolish enough to precipitate matters? She is caught between the need to assert her authority and the necessity of maintaining unity in Kerala.
The Congress (I) president won the day by a single vote in 1999. Today, her party was saved from embarrassment in Kerala by a single vote. But the lesson of 1999 is that these triumphs in the council chamber do not necessarily translate into victories in the field.