states KERALA

Fall From Grace

The Congress' rout in Kerala in the Lok Sabha elections spurs the demand for the removal of the chief minister

By M.G. Radhakrishnan

On May 17, the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala completed three years in office but it was an anniversary that went by without any celebrations or anyone noticing it. Just four days earlier, the UDF had been mauled in the Lok Sabha elections in Kerala, where it won just one of the 20 seats. Chief Minister A.K. Antony has been almost on a maunvrat as the Congress for the first time in history drew a complete blank in the state. To rub salt into the wounds, in Muvattupuzha constituency, the Indian Federal Democratic Party (IFDL), an ally of the BJP at the Centre, won.

PERPLEXED LEADERS: L.K Advani campaigning for the NDA ally, IFDL, at Kottayam; (top) rivals Karunakaran (on chair) and Antony together

The debacle has given a fillip to the movement within the Congress against the "bipolar hegemony" of Antony and veteran leader K. Karunakaran, whose brazen attempts to perpetuate family rule led to the poll disaster. In his attempt to appease Karunakaran who himself was given a Rajya Sabha seat, Antony gave Karunakaran's son, Muralidharan, a berth in his Cabinet and his daughter Padmaja Venugopal, a ticket to fight the Lok Sabha polls. The entire list of Congress candidates-all of whom lost-was finalised by Antony and Karunakaran, overlooking proposals from other leaders. Both son and daughter, who contested from Wadakaanchery assembly constituency and Mukundapuram Lok Sabha constituency respectively, were among those soundly thrashed in the polls.

There are now calls for Antony's head to avert an encore in the assembly polls which are less than two years away. Antony has given enough hints that he will not quit the post on his own. "It is a huge verdict against us. But I will not run away from my responsibilities or from the state," says he.

Leaders, who maintain equal distance from Karunakaran and Antony-their numbers are rising-have gone on an offensive. "Antony and Karunakaran have ruined the party. They fight each other in public and corner all positions for themselves," says former Union minister K.P. Unnikrishnan who has proposed Ummen Chandy, UDF convener and former state finance minister, as the new chief minister.

Though a close confidant of Antony, Chandy is sharply opposed to his appeasing of Karunakaran. He had publicly criticised Antony for refusing to take action against Karunakaran's dissident activities. He was also not enthused by the tactical poll-eve burial of hatchets by Karunakaran and Antony after they had fought each other ferociously for three years. He had even kept away from the campaigns where Karunakaran and Antony appeared together. Nevertheless Chandy refuses to discuss replacement of the chief minister. "The verdict is a powerful warning from the people and calls for major changes. But more than changing people what is needed is changing the style of functioning," he says. However, sources close to him reveal that he would agree if the high command asks him to take up the mantle.

Another prominent Congress leader who has come out openly in favour of reining in Antony and Karunakaran is P.C. Chacko, former MP and former state industries minister. "The K-family factor had caused a pervasive negative effort in all constituencies," says Chacko. "Antony and Karunakaran have been quarrelling with each other in the daytime and sharing the booty between themselves in the night for the past 30 years."

It is an irony that the only people who have opposed the removal of Antony are Muralidharan and Padmaja, his critics till recently. They know that all the other groups demanding Antony's head are more hostile to them and their father than to anybody else. "It is wrong to put the blame on Antony and replace him. We all have to share the blame," says Padmaja.

Besides Chandy, many other names unattached to Karunakaran and Antony, are being bandied about for the post of the chief minister. One of them is Vayalar Ravi, aicc general secretary and close confidant of Sonia Gandhi. Ravi, a Rajya Sabha member, is another critic of the Antony-Karunakaran hegemony. Though he has been in both Antony and Karunakaran's camps in the past, he now runs a faction of his own. But Ravi is hopeful of a Union Cabinet berth too as there is no Congress MP from Kerala in the new Lok Sabha. So he has not yet started playing his cards for the chief minister's post. He has the advantage of being an Ezhava, a powerful obc. "I will not shirk any responsibility reposed in me by our leadership," says Ravi.

If the rout caused consternation in the UDF and the Congress, the unexpected windfall has caught the LDF unawares. A beneficiary of the huge anti-incumbency wave, the LDF is a bit perplexed with the happenings in Delhi. Even the usual victory celebrations and triumphant posturings are not visible, perhaps because the bitter enemies in the state appear staunch comrades in Delhi. No wonder the CPI(M) members from the state, along with their comrades from West Bengal, jointly succeeded in the crucial party Central Committee meeting to veto the proposal initiated by Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu to join the new Congress-led government at the Centre. "This party had showed the courage to do this in the past and has done it again now," says a Politburo member from Kerala. However, the rank and file feel the party has let slip another historic opportunity to be in the government and do something for the poor beyond just shouting slogans and organising agitations.