`Leader' returns

Leader In A Spot

Former Kerala CM K. Karunakaran had to swallow his pride before he could return to the Congress. But his love for son Muraleedharan promises to give him a hard time, writes KA SHAJI

TWENTY-TWO MONTHS have gone by since the death of a former college teacher who waged a tireless war for about 30 years against veteran Congress leader Kannoth Karunakaran and senior police officers allegedly responsible for the “disappearance” of his only son at the peak of the Emergency. TV Eachara Varier, a Hindi professor at Thrissur Government College in Kerala, believed till he died that the arrest and custodial death of his son Rajan had occurred with the consent and knowledge of Karunakaran, then the state home minister and an iron-willed proponent of the Emergency. Though some judges found Karunakaran and his trusted police officers responsible for the “disappearance” of Rajan, who was arrested for yet-to-be proven Naxalite connections, the judicial process finally exonerated them for want of evidence. But till his end, Varier kept a plantain leaf and a bowl of rice waiting for his beloved son.
If love for his son led Varier to became a powerful symbol of resistance against extra-judicial killings, Karunakaran’s career started grinding to a halt as he began to shower favours on his son, K. Muraleedharan.
Known as a king in Kerala politics and a king-maker at the national level, Karunakaran used his best wiles to ensure Muraleedharan became a minister, the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief and an MP. A novice, Muraleedharan had nothing except his father’s backing to help him up the power ladder. In his attempts to install Muraleedharan as his successor in Kerala politics, however, Karunakaran had to lose much, including his relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family, his bargaining power within the party, the political growth of his daughter Padmaja, and the support of a number of second-rung leaders who had once kept his faction in the party alive and kicking. But, finally, the son let him down. Having left the Congress in 2005 with his father to form the Democratic Indira Congress- Karunakaran (DIC-K), he merged the party with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in November 2006 without consulting his father. The NCP, which was till then part of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), began to stare at political wilderness soon as the LDF and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan decided to exclude it from the front due to its association with Karunakaran and Muraleedharan, against whom a series of corruption charges are still pending.
Realising that there would be no future without being in either the LDF or the Congress-led United Democratic Front, Karunakaran, referred to as Leader by his followers, recently ended his honeymoon with the NCP and returned to the parent party. But as the NCP’s state unit chief, Muraleedharan is now turning into an ardent critic of his father. In his often vociferous opposition to Karunakaran, Muraleedharan has outsmarted Achuthanandan and other political opponents. Today, Karunakaran has to plead for mercy at 10 Janpath for an honourable existence in the party. Until recently, Sonia Gandhi was to him just a madamma (a derogatory term in Malayalam used to describe a foreign woman). He had also once remarked that no one could gain the skill needed to ride an elephant without training, even if they were married into a family of mahouts.
For her part, Sonia Gandhi is also well-aware of the need to keep Karunakaran well reined in. Though there was a press statement from Delhi on revoking his party membership, Karunakaran is yet to get any position in the party or in the government. The Congress high command was also lukewarm to his request to hold a rally and a merger conference. Though he has been permitted to hold a small meeting, none of the party’s heavyweights is going to attend it. Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala, the Congress’ top leaders in Kerala, are lobbying in Delhi against making Karunakaran yet another power centre in the state unit. Age-related ailments and lack of popular support are making survival difficult for him.
Now let down by his son, the veteran politician stands humbled. Once famed as a master-tactician, who used to wear opponents down to exhaustion before proceeding to have his way, Karunakaran now himself feels tired. For about two months, he was seen standing at the doors of 10 Janpath with folded hands. Mark his words: “A close analysis of the Indian political scene would reveal that only the Congress can carry all sections along. The Congress and India are not different. If the Congress weakens, India will become weak too. I have no difficulty in admitting my mistake in criticising the Congress.”
Karunakaran’s unabashed promotion of his offspring was on full display on the eve of the 2004 general elections. He not only ensured that Padmaja got a ticket but managed a seat for himself in the Rajya Sabha and a berth in the Kerala Cabinet, then headed by AK Antony, to Muraleedharan. Later, Muraleedharan was a candidate in an election to the Assembly. The situation forced octogenarian CPI leader Veliyam Bhargavan to say: “Be thankful that Karunakaran has only two children. What would happen if he had a dozen children and 100 grand children? Kerala has only 20 Lok Sabha seats and 140 Assembly seats.”
Sections within the Congress view Karunakaran’s weakness for his progeny with tongue-in-cheek sympathy. “Why are you blaming him? At least in this respect, he is following the Nehru-Gandhi tradition. Those who are against Muraleedharan and Padmaja are silent on Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka,” said a prominent Congress leader, who wishes to be anonymous. But even Muraleedharan opposes Padmaja’s political career. A former chairperson of the Kerala Tourism Development Board, Padmaja has taken a temporary break from active politics, unable to withstand her brother’s verbal attacks.
Over half-a-century of Karunakaran’s political career is proof that he thrived on controversies and never backed down from a fight once a challenge was thrown at him. An autocratic administrator and a four-time chief minister, he was accused of corruption in several scandals. A probe is still on into alleged kickbacks in the import of palm oil from Malaysia in the early 90s when he was in power. Apart from the Rajan case, Karunakaran had to face allegations of involvement in two other murder cases. The first is related to the infamous Thattil estate murder case in which a plantation owner was murdered in the 60s; the second one was related to the fatal stabbing of Azhikodan Raghavan, a former CPM state secretary. After the Emergency, he had to resign from the CM’s post following adverse remarks by the Kerala High Court in the Rajan case.
IN THE 90S, there were attempts to link Karunakaran to the alleged espionage case involving an official of the Indian Space Research Organisation. While a CBI probe found the entire case a fake. dissidents in the party used the controversy to defame him and to unseat him with the support of the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao.
An extremely religious man, Karunakaran drives on the first of every Malayalam month to the famed Guruvayur temple to pay his respects to Guruvayurappan (Lord Krishna). He firmly believes that Guruvayurappan comes to his rescue whenever he faces a grim situation. His penchant for fast driving once almost cost him his life. He has always preferred a Mercedes Benz and a few years back the Benz could have taken his life. It was dawn, the road was empty, and the Benz was racing at breakneck speed towards Thiruvananthapuram. It skidded, rolled over and turned over thrice. The VIP passenger in the back seat lay crumpled when he was pulled out, so badly hurt that he had to be taken to the United States for treatment. He was in bad shape when he returned and nobody thought that he would be the same Karunakaran again. But he went on to show an astonishing recovery by sticking to an ayurvedic regimen.
Though he is extremely religious, his detractors accuse him of telling lies when in political crisis. The state High Court has blasted him for claiming that his police never arrested Rajan. Years after, when newsmen approached him to comment on the demise of Varier, he shouted: “Who is this Varier? I don’t know him. What was his contribution to the country? Had he won any Padmasree award?”
Born on July 5, 1918, Karunakaran studied up to his matriculation, learned drawing and became a professional artist. He was initiated into politics through the Kochi Rajya Prajamandalam and he became part of the freedom struggle. A member of the Congress working committee since 1964, he preferred to remain in the rival camp of AK Antony. While breaking way from the Congress around three years ago, he somehow managed an assurance from the CPM’s controversial state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan that there would be room for him and his son in the LDF. Little was Karunakaran to know that the man who gave the guarantee would not be able to circumvent his rivals in the LDF, Achuthanandan and Veliyam Bhargavan, when he knocked on Pinarayi’s doors again.

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