AI : The End Of an Era
Fridays were judgment days for state correspondents at the India Today magazine. The top jury at the Delhi desk would decide every Friday the fate of the ideas proposed from each state for the following week. It was eons before Covid and Zoom and so we used to join the proceedings through telecon. And at one such session, perusing my proposals, our tough-talking editor Prabhu Chawla told me; 'For god's sake, don't ever send any story on the fight between Karunakaran and Antony. We've been doing this since the time the magazine started. We are bored to death. You may in future send a story on the topic only if one of them stabs the other!'
The more than four-decades-old rivalry in Congress between A (Antony) and I (Indira) factions belonging to AK Antony and K Karunakaran respectively appears to have come to an end. This follows High Command's recent nomination of VD Satheesan and K Sudhakaran as the Opposition Leader and KPCC President respectively. It was the most enduring saga journalists of my generation followed for most of our professional careers. How could one forget the endless conclaves with the group leaders of both camps at different secret venues? Or Karunakaran, pleasant as always, even if we wrote nasty about him and Antony who was all sullen if we did that to him? I began journalism in 1982 the year 'Mr Clean' ended his short stint with the Left and his anti-Emergency bravado to return to Indiraji with folded hands. Yet, Karunakaran continued to ride roughshod over the 'renegades', thanks to his clout with the High Command.
By late 1990s with Sonia taking over, the patriarch's autumn had begun. He went out of Congress of which he was the synonym for long, made futile attempts to sleep with his arch enemy, the CPI(M) and finally returned to Congress hurt and humbled. The two factions continued to be known after Karunakaran and Antony - even long after the former was no more alive and the latter no more active - as C & C (Chennithala and Chandy) had carried on the mutual war and also shared the booty.
But everything changed with UDF's second successive rout in recent elections. This made the High Command ignore the C&C's bitter opposition and handed the party reins to the Satheesan-Sudhakaran (S&S) duo. Now the nomination (again by High Command, of course) of the new DCC Presidents has added salt to injury. C&C could bear it no longer and publicly expressed anger after a long time. They slammed S&S for not consulting them on the names. Their followers targeted Tariq Anwar, AICC Secretary with Kerala's charge, for shortchanging C&C. But the S&S have firmly stood the ground indicating the 17 year-long C&C reign was over. Calling Chandy's charges untrue, Sudhakaran held up a diary showing the names the veteran gave. 'Sudhakaran is the last word in Kerala's Congress' reminded Satheesan unequivocally. High Command too warned against any revolt perhaps recalling how the C&C had jointly thwarted Rahul's last experiment appointing Sudheeran as KPCC boss seven years ago.
Soon began the somersaults in line with shifting power politics everywhere. Many old sentinels reversed their roles overnight. Life-long foes appeared on the same side while bosom friends were seen daggers drawn. Those who have followed the A-I war for long couldn't imagine Chandy and Chennithala on the same side! Chandy's comrades from the KSU times like Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, MM Hassan or his trusted warriors PT Thomas, Kodikkunnil Suresh or his protégé T Siddique (for whom he had fought many wars) left their Captain accepting new positions. Since Chennithala had long been bereft of confidantes ever since the disintegration of I group, there weren't many left even to desert him! Former I champions like K Muraleedharan, Rajmohan Unnithan, KV Thomas etc threw their lot with the new team and KC Venugopal, the new powerhouse or Shashi Tharoor, a possible wildcard entry soon to the top. Mullappalli, Sudheeran and PJ Kurien are cross with S&S but have no love lost for C&C either. Surviving seniors of the Antony-Chandy generation like Vayalar Ravi, KP Unnikrishnan or Vakkom are aged and ailing while the active PC Chacko has left the party.
Be it nationally or in states, Congress has always lived with factionalism. It was not Karunakaran and Antony who introduced it to Kerala's Congress. Most of their stalwart predecessors like Pattom Thanu Pillai, Kumbalath Sanku Pillai, R Shankar, Panampilli Govinda Menon, Paravoor TK Narayana Pillai etc had merrily engaged in plotting against each other. So much so that all of Kerala's Congress-led governments of the 20th century - except the Karunakaran ministry of 1982-87- were toppled by internal factions much before they reached full term.
But what was unique about Karunakaran-Antony spat was its enduring nature as the longest factional battle inside Congress -either nationally or in states- with its origin in the 1970s. There is something unique for the ongoing war too. Seldom has the party witnessed such internal spats even when it is sitting in opposition and that too for a second time in succession.
Fracas may continue in Congress but it would no more be around the A-I poles. That an era has passed in Kerala's politics is the big writing on the wall. It may look graceless the way High Command and the S&S humbled old warhorses like C&C. It may also be right that they can't be written off, just yet. But no organization can ignore that they summarily failed in two successive assembly elections, lost a key partner like Kerala Congress and couldn't prevent LDF creating history doing an encore. No leader survives in democracies if they can't win votes. (only exception is the Nehru family). So it's quite legitimate for the S&S to seek a chance to salvage the Congress especially since Kerala remains one of its last outposts even when it sits in opposition and when BJP dreams of a Congress Mukt Bharath.
It doesn't mean the new 'group-free' DCC list has no flaws. Besides having resorted to the undemocratic nomination process once again, it has not a single woman or Dalit, ringing hollow all its big talk of inclusivity. The new S&S leadership too has some inherent problems. Congress's traditional Nair-Christian balance is missing at the apex. PT Thomas can hardly substitute for Antony or Chandy who had counterbalanced Karunakaran and Chennithala. Congress lost Muslims to the League long ago and now appears losing Christians to Kerala Congress. CPI(M)'s recent inroads into minorities is another scare. Nevertheless, if the new leadership is confident enough to cut through traditional religion-caste equations and mobilize masses around their burning issues and checkmate governmental excesses, that would open a new chapter in Congress and Kerala's history.