| Thiruvananthapuram is no stranger to street plays. But even so, the street play staged outside Indira Bhavan, headquarters of the state Congress, made for an unusual sight. For one, all the actors were in khadi shirts and dhoti, the traditional attire of state Congress leaders, and they were tied together with a long rope coiled around their necks. This extraordinary demonstration had been triggered by the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee's (KPCC) decision to field Prathapa Varma Thampan, the incumbent MLA from Chathannur Assembly constituency in Quilon district. A popular KPCC member from the area has now filed nomination papers as a rebel candidate. |
Rebel candidates are something of a novelty in Kerala. But in this election, the malaise seems to have struck with a vengeance, afflicting even the relatively disciplined CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), a party in which rebels were unheard of until now. In the eye of the storm is none other than A. Neelalohitadasan Nadar, secretary general of LDF constituent Janata Dal (s) and a three-time minister. This time, too, the party had fielded 63-year-old Nadar from Kovalam in Thiruvananthapuram, only to withdraw him after the CPI(M) objected to his candidature. The ostensible reason being Nadar's conviction in twin cases relating to sexual harassment of two top women bureaucrats while a minister in the 1996-2001 LDF regime. A subsequent police investigation had found Nadar guilty and now both the cases are pending in courts. "Not one, but two women have said they were victims of his sexual harassment. We cannot have people like him as LDF candidates," said CPI(M)'s V.S. Achuthanandan, who leads the LDF's electoral campaign.
A recalcitrant Nadar, however, refuses to oblige. "The charges against me were cooked up by vested interests who were hurt by my stringent actions as minister. The LDF and my party refuse to see this. But I will fight the elections," said Nadar, who is now contesting as an Independent candidate from Kovalam after his party suspended him. "I was the only LDF candidate from the entire district to win the last election, proof that people have rejected all the charges against me." Hailing from Kovalam, Nadar belongs to the numerically powerful backward Hindu community that goes by the same name.
Meanwhile, the JD(S) has announced a new candidate from Kovalam, giving women's groups cause to celebrate. "We hope the UDF, too, follows this example and keeps out candidates tainted with charges of harassment against women," said K. Ajitha, chairperson of Anveshi, a women's organisation. Though she did not name anyone, the former naxalite seemed to be hinting at the candidature of Muslim League strongman P.K. Kunhalikkutty, an accused in the ice-cream parlour sex racket that had sent shockwaves across the state.
Most of the rebels in the Opposition LDF originate from its constituent, the Kerala Congress (J). Dominated by central Kerala's Christian farmers, the party is peeved with the CPI(M) for allotting it only six seats instead of the 10 it got in 2001. The CPI(M), which had in the last elections contested only 74 seats, is in the fray this time in 91 of the 140 constituencies going to the polls, having pinched some seats from the smaller allies, sparing only the CPI. Needless to say, the constituents are miffed. "This is sheer humiliation," said P.J. Joseph, after whom the KC(J) is named. The party has announced it will contest in at least 16 seats and its Kottayam district secretary, Georgekutty Augusty, has filed nomination papers as a rebel candidate in Kanjirappally constituency where the CPI(M) has fielded K.J. Alphons. A former IAS officer in the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), Alphons had spearheaded a campaign against unauthorised constructions. "It would not have been so bad had the cpi(m) fielded a party man. But why a bureaucrat?" asked Joseph. With or without a cause, rebels ultimately face a dilemma. If they do not withdraw, they risk being thrown out, which may be the fate of the KC(J) candidates if the LDF adopts a tough stance.
On the other hand, in the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) most of the rebels are, not surprisingly, from the Congress. In at least 15 seats, the party is facing dissenting candidates, including key party functionaries. "No rebels will be allowed after the last date for withdrawing nominations. They will be dealt with strongly," warned KPCC president Ramesh Chennithala. The admonition seems to have fallen on deaf ears, with the deviants showing no signs of backing out. Most active are rebels from the Congress in the 18 seats allotted to its enemy-turned-ally, former chief minister K. Karunakaran's Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran).
Even the Muslim League has not been spared its share of dissent and rebellion. The party's high-profile general secretary Kunhalikkutty is facing the toughest battle of his career in Kuttipuram against T.K. Jaleel, a former general secretary of the League's youth wing who was once his closest lieutenant. Making clear its intentions to support Jaleel, a history professor at a local college, the CPI(M) has left no room for doubt that it would do everything within its power to defeat Kunhalikkutty. In neighbouring Koduvally, too, the CPI(M) has fielded a popular League dissident, P.T.A. Rahim, as an Independent candidate. The contest promises all the elements of a keenly fought battle with the UDF fielding K. Muralidharan, president of DIC(K) and Karunakaran's son. Muralidharan has only recently returned to the UDF fold after breaking off from the Congress in mid-2005.
Commenting on the emerging rebellious streak, political science professor in Kerala University N. Gopakumar said, "The rebel phenomenon is bound to grow in all parties. The tradition of a strong leadership and disciplined organisation is fast receding as there is an increasing assertion of rights from below." He cited the instance of the CPI(M) Politburo's being forced to succumb to pressure from the public as well as from within the party to make Achuthanandan its chief ministerial nominee after initially announcing the name of Paloli Mohammed Kutty for the post. All eyes are now glued to the forthcoming ballot bout, shadowed by the rebellion boom.