20080510

Nobody’s Child

Karunakaran and prodigal son

NCP Kerala chief K. Muraleedharan is under fire from both the ruling combine and the Opposition for his boss Sharad Pawar’s decision to slash the state’s rice quota

KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram

HE IS no fall guy. But K. Muraleedharan, the Nationalist Congress Party’s Kerala chief, is finding himself to be fair game for both the ruling and the opposition combines in the blame game over rising food prices. The NCP in Kerala is not part of either the ruling Left Democratic Front or the opposition United Democratic Front.

Muraleedharan is being painted as the villain behind the Central government’s refusal to restore Kerala’s rice ration quota. Posters denouncing him and Union Agriculture Minister and NCP chief Sharad Pawar, are visible. Rice is Kerala’s staple food and its shortage seems to have dashed Muraleedharan’s hopes of getting the NCP back into the LDF. The party briefly joined the Left alliance during 2005-06.

The son of Machiavellian Congress leader K. Karunakaran, Muraleedharan left the Congress with his father in 2005 to form the Democratic Indira Congress-Karunakaran. The new party had only one agenda: to bash Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. A year later, he found the going tough for the party and merged it with the NCP.

However, the gamble failed to bear fruit with the LDF throwing out the NCP citing the father-son duo’s controversial political careers. Though Muraleedharan had the backing of CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, the faction representing Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and constituents like the CPI and the RSP blocked his entry. Fearing a further loss of followers, Karunakaran rejoined the Congress last year. But Muraleedharan stuck on with Pawar even though the NCP was weakened in Kerala.

Sources close to Muraleedharan say Vijayan offered the NCP a re-entry into the LDF and the Kozhikode Lok Sabha seat to him in the next election. But the rice allocation issue is preventing even Vijayan from taking a pro-Muraleedharan decision. Recent criticisms of Pawar’s decision by CPM leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury went against the NCP leader, who had already said no to joining the UDF.

Kerala Civil Supplies Minister C. Divakaran, who belongs to the CPI, says Pawar’s move is political. “Pawar denied rice to Kerala only because the LDF turned down his request to include the NCP in the alliance,” he says.

PAWAR’S STATEMENT that it wasn’t the Centre’s responsibility to provide rice to Kerala was used by the Achuthanandan camp to further discredit the NCP. The chief minister said Pawar had sabotaged the public distribution system (PDS) by leasing out godowns in Kerala of the Food Corporation of India. By putting the blame for the rice shortage squarely on Pawar and not on the Congress, Achuthanandan has further undermined Muraleedharan’s chances of rejoining the LDF.

State Agriculture Minister Mullakara Ratnakaran says Pawar has been particularly discriminatory against Kerala. “Kerala has been relying heavily on other states, especially Andhra Pradesh, for rice for the past few decades. The situation became severe this year with the Centre slashing the state’s PDS quota by as much as 82 percent,’’ he says.

The Congress leadership in the state is happy with the turn of events. “Pawar has lost the right to continue as minister after his statement,” says KPCC president Ramesh Chennithala.

Muraleedharan’s defence of his boss, meanwhile, is making him more and more unpopular. “Why is Pawar alone being blamed for the denial of rice? He has agreed to help Kerala in whatever possible way. Both the fronts are vilifying him only to destroy NCP’s Kerala unit,” Muraleedharan told TEHELKA. He refused to answer queries on the party’s plans.

Amid the charges and counter-charges, Muraleedharan is planning to launch a television channel to buoy his and his party’s popularity. But others in the party call it a ploy to ensure uninterrupted media coverage for him. Without media attention, they say, Muraleedharan can’t survive.


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