Arakkaparambil Kurian Antony, India’s new defence minister, is not known for his oratory. For that matter, he is not known for much of anything. In the last two-and-a-half decades, he has not been known to articulate any social or political philosophy, except of course his antipathy to Communist ideology and Left politics in general.
Since 1977, he has been the chief minister of Kerala three times, but Antony never passed any landmark legislation, nor did he show much flair for administration. He never made any grand promises of social justice or job creation for everyone through rapid industrialisation.
But all this never came in the way of steady progress in his political career. Now the 67-year-old law graduate, who hails from Cherthala in Alappuzha district, Kerala, is a member of the Union Cabinet, and 50 years after the legendary VK Krishna Menon held the post, the second person from Kerala to become India’s defence minister.
With all his shortcomings, both real and imagined, Antony continues to enjoy considerable goodwill in Kerala and outside. To his supporters and to the upper middle class electorate in Kerala, Antony is political idealism personified.
His image as the “epitome of unpolluted politics” won him supporters at the national level too, cutting across party barriers. He revolted against the Nehru-Gandhi family on many occasions, but Antony is now a close confidant of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
His self-proclaimed “no fascination for titles and no haughtiness of power” line even covered up his failures as a troubleshooter for the Congress high command, the latest instance being the upsetting of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition in Karnataka. His supporters always cite the fact that he resigned from the CM’s post three times, and also quit the Narasimha Rao government, as examples of his indifference to power.
The question on everyone’s lips in Kerala’s political circles is, will “Mr Clean” be able to handle the pressures of the defence ministry? Even his loyalists concede that being “clean” is no substitute for administrative ability. “I see this as a huge challenge for him. However, I am certain that he will come out with flying colours. There is no doubt that he would be tough on those who flout the law,” says TN Prathapan, Congress legislator and Antony fan.
His opponents don’t share this optimism. “He is a very sensitive person. He quit the posts of chief minister and Union civil supplies minister on moral grounds. These resignations on moral grounds might haunt him, especially in the defence ministry where scandals are quite common,” pointed out a cpm leader, who knows Antony well. “The annual budgetary allocation for defence is around Rs 800 billion and there are numerous scandals associated with the ministry.
Middlemen in arms deals would pose a severe threat to Antony.” Antony’s non-political friends share the same concern. Journalist TVR Shenoy, who has known Antony for over four decades, points out that no defence minister, barring YB Chavan and Jagjivan Ram, ever left the post with an enhanced reputation. The demands of the job frustrated even someone with Pranab Mukherjee’s talents, he says.
Born on December 28, 1940, Antony received his political baptism at an early age. When he was in high school in Cherthala, he became an active worker of the Kerala Students’ Union (KSU), the Congress student wing. He along with Vayalar Ravi, the current Union minister for nri affairs, organised the Oru anna samaram (One Anna Strike) in Cherthala taluk, which later merged with the “liberation struggle” unleashed by casteist and communal outfits against EMS Namboodiripad’s Communist government.
The Namboodiripad government in 1957 had irked the powerful Catholic church, the upper-caste Hindu Nair Service Society and the Indian Union Muslim League by introducing bills for radical land reforms and educational reforms. All these elements patronised the Oru anna samaram, the first student protest in Kerala, which employed violent tactics to protest against the government’s decision to raise the student concession rate in public sector boat services in the Ernakulam-Cherthala backwaters from 6 paise (one anna) to 10 paise.
As many as 15 agitators died in the police firing and finally the Centre invoked Article 356 to dismiss the government in 1959. “The struggle created an evil legacy of destructive politics in Kerala, of a brand of politics devoid of the element of sacrifice, of the politics that is a means of livelihood. This self-seeking politics deprived the Congress of the internal strength it had earned during the freedom struggle,” says political observer TK Ramachandran. Antony later expressed regret over his involvement in the anti-Namboodiripad struggle, but his critics still cite it to question his democratic credentials.
When Antony and Ravi joined the ba degree course in Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, the college was already the nerve centre of student politics in Kerala. Antony and his associates Oommen Chandy, AC Jose, PC Chacko, MM Hassan and VM Sudheeran organised agitations on students’ issues and made the KSU the largest students’ union in the Left-dominated state. Even then Antony was projected as a man who believed in modest living and high personal integrity. The state was rocked by KSU agitations, which didn’t even spare the Congress governments. (Ironically, decades later, Antony wielded the sword of party discipline against KSU leaders who criticised his governments.)
Antony comes from a lower middle-class family and had to hold part-time jobs to complete his graduation as well as his law degree. “My father died when I was very young. I had too many responsibilities even while studying in college. I had to work as a Life Insurance Corporation agent. It was a hard life,” he recalls.
In the 1960s, he became the president of the Kerala unit of the Youth Congress. MA John, AC Jose, Chandy and Ravi were the other leaders of the youth wing, which won appreciation even from its rivals for voicing its reservation against the style of functioning of leaders like Indira Gandhi and K. Karunakaran.
They called themselves reformists in the Congress. Congress heavyweights like PG Menon had no option but to make peace with the Youth Congress given their popularity. The radical voice of the Youth Congress managed to outflank the Left’s many organisations in the state.Antony became a powerful voice in the Kerala unit of the party by 1967. By then, EMS Namboodiripad had floated a broader anti-Congress front, which included the Muslim League, to form his second government and to reduce the strength of the Congress to an all-time low of nine MLAs. Antony played a significant role in toppling the second EMS government by roping in the cpi to form a new front floated by the Congress.
Appointed the Kerala pcc secretary in 1970, Antony was youngest person ever to hold the post. The same year, he was elected to the Assembly from Cherthala. His popularity soared when he supported an agitation by private college teachers seeking transparency in college administration.
During the Emergency, Antony never voiced any concerns over the curtailment of fundamental rights. But soon after it was lifted and a non-Congress government was in power at the Centre, he started criticising Indira Gandhi. He became the youngest chief minister of Kerala in 1977, but resigned within a year in protest when Indira Gandhi contested the Lok Sabha bypoll in Chikmagalur, Karnataka.
Ignoring opposition from close confidants like Chandy and Ravi, Antony forged an alliance with the cpm’s Left Democratic Front (ldf) to fight the 1980 Assembly poll. He kept his anti-Communism in check and made EK Nayanar the chief minister and then withdrew support. The ldf government fell. The man who had fulminated against the Emergency and Indira Gandhi, had changed sides again and accepted her leadership. He extended support to K. Karunakaran to form a government, but Indira Gandhi never gave him a party position or a ministerial task till her death. While his associates shared power with Karunakaran, he was in the political wilderness from 1981 to 1985.A few months after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi made him the aicc secretary in-charge of the Northeast. He also became a Rajya Sabha member. Though he has represented Kerala in the Upper House on many occasions since 1985, his performance as a parliamentarian has been below average. He also failed to rise to expectations when he emerged as the Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly in 1996. His rise in national politics began in the early 1990s after he suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of friend-turned-foe Ravi in the Kerala pcc president organisational poll. Ravi had the backing of Karunakaran. Fearing another political exile, he reached an understanding with Arjun Singh and was elected to the Congress Working Committee at the party’s Tirupati conference.
Though he had contested and won the cwc post against the wishes of then party chief Narasimha Rao, Antony became a close confidant of Rao, after defecting from the Arjun Singh camp. Rao made him the Union minister for civil supplies, but he resigned within a year, after media reports highlighted links between his ministry and a sugar scam involving some Union ministers. Antony got his chance again in 1995 when infighting in the Kerala unit forced Rao to replace Chief Minister Karunakaran with “Mr Clean”. Antony banned the manufacture and sale of arrack in Kerala a month ahead of Assembly elections in 1996, hoping to endear himself to women voters, but his combine failed miserably in the elections.
In the meantime, he won Sonia Gandhi’s confidence and this helped him to become the chief minister of Kerala for the third time in 2001. However, he had to resign after all Congress candidates in Kerala were defeated in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
According to his longtime associate and the current chairman of the Kerala Tourism Development Board, Cherian Philip, Antony’s image as a selfless politician needs close scrutiny as he has never allowed any second-line leaders in his group or party to grow. “Great leaders like PG Menon and CK Govindan Nair were instrumental in the growth of Antony. But he never helped any of the young Congress leaders to grow. Instead, he has eclipsed the political future of many. Even people like Vayalar Ravi got party positions after moving out of his shadow,” Philip observes.
Though incorruptible personally, Antony always tried to keep leaders like Karunakaran and PK Kunhalikutty in good humour. He also tends to remain silent during crucial moments like during the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Many feel that Antony has been an abject failure as a chief minister. In one of the worst cases of police atrocity in post-Independence Kerala, he permitted the then dgp KJ Joseph to evict more than 2,000 landless tribals from forest land in Muthanga. One person was killed and several maimed when police opened fire on unarmed agitators. Hundreds of tribal women and children were beaten up.
He liberally allocated schools, colleges, medical colleges and engineering colleges to all hues of caste and community groups during his third tenure as the CM, flouting rules and norms in most cases. He has never had reservations about meeting religious heads, even those with questionable credentials.His recent actions and statements have made him a favourite of the Sangh Parivar. Antony may be the only top Congress leader with whom the bjp and the rss have no disagreement. His advice to minorities to honour the sentiments of the majority community and his allegation that some minority communities in Kerala were making excess money through illegal means has been condemned by secular elements in the Congress.
As chief minister, he prevented the police and electricity departments from taking action against VHP activists who encroached upon a highly sensitive portion of the Idukki reservoir of the state electricity board to construct a temple, violating existing laws. Three years ago, when most Congress chief ministers banned the VHP’s Trishul Diksha, Antony allowed VHP chief Ashok Singhal to conduct the ceremony. Singhal threatened to eliminate minorities at the function. An admirer of Kerala’s “hugging saint” Mata Amritanandamayi, Antony directed the police to prosecute Sreeni Pattathanam, the atheist writer, for his book that took a critical view of the Mata’s activities.
Antony was never bothered by the thriving sex trade involving minor girls in the state and even tried to protect local politicians like Kunhalikutty who were part of the racket. When people from Alappuzha protested against his government’s decision to allow private companies to mine mineral sand from coastal areas, flouting laws and making the life of local people miserable, Antony stood solidly behind the business lobby.
His inept handling of two episodes of communal carnage in the fishing village of Marad in north Kerala is troubling Antony now. After the second carnage resulted in the killing of 14 Hindus, all Muslim families in the area had to vacate their houses, and move to faraway refugee camps fearing attacks by rss men. The Antony government failed to give them the confidence to stay put. He allowed VHP leader Pravin Togadia to visit the village, where he made an inflammatory speech at a mammoth public meeting in nearby Kozhikode. Togadia called Muslims in the village criminals and threatened to pull down the local Juma Masjid. The police just looked on.
The judicial commission appointed by him to probe the sequence of events that led to the tragedy has criticised Antony in its report for ignoring an advance intelligence warning on the communal killings. It has also criticised him for not ordering a cbi probe into the episode. “He claims that he did not see that intelligence report and today he is the defence minister. It could be tough for him,” says a Kerala Congress leader.
Amidst all of this, “St Antony” manages to keep afloat. “His ultimate aim is to become the President of India, with the support of both the Congress and the bjp,” says Philip. In a recent interview, Antony admitted that he had changed a lot.
However some of his personal traits always get universal admiration, even from political opponents. Even during the chilly Delhi winters, he wears a bush shirt and mundu. He never believed in the motorcade of security personnel. A strict vegetarian, Antony maintained a vegetable garden inside his official residence when he was chief minister.
He had to forgo his earlier vow of celibacy and marry Elizabeth, a bank officer, as per the last wishes of his mother. But he still adheres to another vow — to eschew wearing wristwatches. He recently donated all the valuables he received as gifts, including watches, during his chief ministership to a museum. His sons, Anil and Ajith, are now college students. “I have earned nothing for them. My wife’s job is sustaining the entire family,” says the new defence minister.Now that he is the defence minister, his supporters are keeping their fingers crossed hoping that AK Antony lasts a full term in office — for once.