Karunakaran leaves behind sterling political legacy (Tribute)

By Aswakumaran Vinod Kumar, IANS
Friday, December 24, 2010

It was at a public rally in March 1995 in Thiruvananthapuram that K. Karunakaran made the famous one-liner that described the murky world of politics. “I was stabbed from the front and from behind.”

With the soreness of being forced out of his cherished chief minister’s chair as a fallout of the “ISRO spy case”, Karunakaran’s ire was directed at an unusual consolidation of many of his Congress party colleagues and constituents of the United Democratic Front (UDF) against his obstinate defence of IG of Police, Ramon Srivastava, who was alleged to have had a role in the spy case, which was later rejected by a CBI investigation.

But by then, Karunakaran had irrecoverably lost his chair, probably the first such instance when a chief minister lost his chair for backing a loyalist. Two things emerged from this episode: (a) Karunakaran always stood by his loyalists and (b) loyalty is an unreliable commodity in the Congress.

These fundamentals plainly describe the political legacy of Karunakaran and Congress in Kerala.

For a leader who salvaged the desolate party from wilderness during the political volatility of 1960s and installed it in power in a largely ‘Communist’ state, perhaps the greatest challenge he could have ever faced was when he was forced to leave the Congress and form his own party in 2005.

The spy case and dethronement were just a momentary phase in his political slide, the origins of which could be traced to the early 1990s when group politics in Kerala’s Congress derived unprecedented belligerence and gained identities.

As his rival group led by A.K. Antony and Oommen Chandy struggled to resist the dominant leader’s autocratic sway over the party, the vast majority of the partymen and leaders heavily consolidated in favour of Karunakaran.

That the leader had total control of the party was best embodied by the identity of his faction, known as the ‘I’ group rather than as ‘K’ like the ‘A’ for the Antony faction.

The twist in the tale started with a serious road accident outside Thiruvananthapuram in 1993 which led of his prolonged indisposition. While the leader recuperated, a realignment of forces happened as a section of his loyalists resisted efforts by a clique to promote his son, K. Muraleedharan, as the faction’s leader.

The exodus of core loyalists was rapid then on, which intensified after he was dethroned from power. However, even when he was losing core supporters among the leadership rung, a dedicated cadre continued to hold allegiance to the leader (and partly to his son) which he sustained till his last days.

A key trait of his during such political turbulence was his ability to cultivate a new generation of leaders even when his trusted lieutenants ditched him.

This was best demonstrated at the launch of his new party, which had a frontline leadership of third and fourth rung Youth Congress leaders who could barely aspire to rise in the faction-ridden Congress, where top leaderships never retired from positions of power.

At least three generations of Kerala’s Congress leaders owed their mentoring to Karunakaran; many of them ditched him at some point or other. There were, however, notable exceptions like Kodoth Govindan Nair, who died early this week, and Pithambara Kurup, who remained loyal till his last breath.

There are very few Indian politicians whose influence spread across caste, religion and ideology. Unlike many national leaders, Karunakaran had no specific caste or religious leanings. Yet, he played the best of communal balancing among various religious and casteist interests.

Even at a time when the national leadership desisted company of parties with communal links, Karunakaran stitched together the UDF with a perfect integration of the Muslim League and the pro-Christian Kerala Congress.

A devout worshipper of Lord Krishna, his dedication to the Guruvayur deity endeared him to the Hindu right, which had tactically backed the UDF at the hustings during his reigns.

A perennial and indomitable nightmare for the Marxists, Karunakaran was the roadblock which impeded Kerala from going the Bengal way. He was revered and dreaded alike by the Leftists.

Interestingly, the first coalition that he created had the Communist Party of India (CPI) as a lead partner. Years later, Karunakaran again aligned with the communists in 2005-06 and facilitated many a major Left victories, though the Left Front refused to adopt him as an ally, thus causing his political bankruptcy and forcing his return to the Congress.

For a leader whose political maneuverings gained him sobriquets like ‘Chanakyan’ and ‘Bheeshmacharyan’, the last years were of political blunders and miscalculations.

Once out of power, the leader never regained full control. Though he managed to elevate his son to the state unit’s presidency, exemplary subversion by his rivals and his own impulsive decisions caused disasters for K. Muraleedharan, who but managed to inherit his father’s legacy and a chunk of the cadre’s support.

Karunakaran leaves behind not just a sterling political legacy, but also an unmatched era of inimitable and determined governance. No Kerala chief minister brought development and prosperity to the state as he could. Many development landmarks of the state today, including the Nedumbassery airport, Technopark and Kaloor international stadium, owe it to the ‘Leader’, whose panache for instant decisions, without fear of consequences, made him one of the best administrators in recent history.

Despite black spots like the Rajan and Varghese cases, Karunakaran’s deft handling of Naxalism in 1970s with minimal collateral is unrivalled in India’s anti-Naxal campaign record. Interestingly, as the case with such vibrant leaders, charges of corruption and nepotism refused to leave the leader till his last.

As the Congress faces turbulence amid scandals and scams, it could miss the political skills and adroitness of the ‘Leader’. Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president and former protg, Ramesh Chennithala, rightly summed it up: the Leader’s demise is the end of an era - both for the Congress and Kerala.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based political analyst. He can be contacted at avinukum@gmail.com)

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