The Congress looks set to enter the May 10 assembly election virtually as two splinter parties sporting a common nomenclature and symbol. With senior leaders K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony going public with their mutual animosity, faultlines within the party acquired a grim finality in the run-up to the poll. The crisis has spun out of control and the issue facing the Congress in the weeks ahead is not whether unity can be restored, but rather if the warring factions can agree to coexist peacefully and desist from undermining the United Democratic Front (udf) coalition. The coalition, until the latest eruption of hostilities between Karunakaran and Antony, seemed to have an edge over the incumbent Left Democratic Front (ldf) regime led by the cpi(m).
Karunakaran's climbdown after rallying his supporters for a full-scale insurrection against the party high command, though, did bring down temperatures and give peace a chance. But the genie is out of the bottle, and now policing the factional strife isn't going to be easy even for group leaders. Karunakaran is quick to confirm this. "I should not be blamed if rebel candidates are in the fray. What right do I have to ask an eligible person, who's been denied a seat, to withdraw? My strength to put pressure on them is quite reduced."
This sober recognition of his limitations may have dawned too late. At the height of the crisis triggered by his dissatisfaction at the high command's denying a seat to his daughter, Padmaja, Karunakaran acquired the stigma of putting family before party. His objective of securing the Chalakudy seat for Padmaja became the single biggest spoke in the wheel for the AICC in finalising the list of candidates for the 88 seats allotted to the Congress by the udf. When the high command decided to retain the constituency's sitting mla Savithri Lakshmanan, Karunakaran made Lakshmanan hand over a letter consenting to relinquish the seat in favour of Padmaja, who, for good measure, announced her candidature on TV. But the ploy didn't work. Karunakaran then walked out of the Central Election Committee meeting at 10, Janpath and poured his heart out to the media, a move that apparently served to harden the high command's stand. His subsequent resignation as permanent invitee to the Congress Working Committee signalled a declaration of war and a rallying call to his supporters.
AICC president Sonia Gandhi's first response was to depute her confidante Ambika Soni on a fire-fighting mission to Kerala. Apparently, the task was entrusted to her as Ghulam Nabi Azad's—the AICC general secretary in charge of Kerala—effigies were already being burnt by Karunakaran supporters. Neither Soni nor Azad themselves arrived to douse the flames, opting instead to make long-distance calls to Karunakaran. "It doesn't matter to me whom the high command sends as an emissary. What matters is whether that person has the authority to take decisions and the proper attitude to resolve the problems," Karunakaran told Outlook. His tactic at the moment seems to be to shift the focus away from his daughter and turn it towards the high command's partisan attitude in the distribution of seats. "My supporters, those who have stood by me, should be accepted and recognised. It is not a question of a couple of seats. The crisis will not end if a few seats are conceded. The attitude of the high command has to change," he pointed out.
In fact, he may already have forced such a change. A compromise formula worked out to defuse the crisis involves an assurance from the high command to elevate Karunakaran's son K.Muraleedharan as the kpcc chief, provided Padmaja's candidature is not pressed. Karunakaran, bowing to the dictates of realpolitik, okayed the proposal, which in turn cleared the decks for a goodwill visit by Azad. However, the hostility between the two faction chiefs promises to endure. Karunakaran is in no mood to forgive Antony for not proposing Padmaja as a candidate. Antony counters, "I was criticised by colleagues and well-wishers for supporting Muraleedharan's candidature in 1989. I didn't want to repeat the mistake in the case of Padmaja."
If Karunakaran and Antony seem irreconcilable, their supporters too are not ready for any rapprochement. A possible fallout is the group of rebel candidates fouling the field for the udf and raising the morale of the Left front. More than ever before, it seems the udf's fortunes in this election depend on a single handshake between two Congress leaders.
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