History of Kerala politics from 1970 cannot be written without Karunakaran

A political era has come to an end with the death of the veteran Congress leader, K. Karunakaran, but he leaves behind an indelible political legacy.

A bipolar coalition grouped into the Communist and anti-Communist formations, a predominant role for minority communities in Kerala politics, a few novel and unforgettable development initiatives and many more are his enduring contributions. The history of Kerala politics from 1970 cannot be written without Mr. Karunakaran as one of the central characters. In the late 1960s, he stitched up a coalition mobilising parties of divergent ideologies on an anti-Marxist platform, with the Communist Party of India in the front. With just nine MLAs, he brought the Congress back into political power in 1971 riding on the new coalition experiment.

Clout in national politics

An intuitive politician, Mr. Karunakaran revalidated Kerala's bipolar coalition politics in 1982 by regrouping politics around the Left and anti-Left axis, which has stood the test of time. There is no other Kerala leader who wielded as much clout in national politics as he had. But, in a late twist to the political script, the hardcore anti-Communist nearly dismantled the edifice he had built when he formed the Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) in an attempt to get into the Left camp.

This is, perhaps, the only failed experiment in his rather long political career that made him an undisputed Congress leader, four-time Chief Minister, Leader of the Opposition and kingmaker. The seniormost Congress leader was quick to realise his folly and he returned to the Congress, but the “Bhishmacharya” of Kerala politics had to lie on a bed of political arrows till his death.

Kannoth Karunakaran Marar, born to Kannoth Ramunni Marar and Kannoth Kalyani Marasiyar in Kannur, studied in Raja's High School, Thrissur, and did his diploma in design, geometry and painting in the College of Arts, Thrissur.

The shrewd Karunakaran discovered quite early in his life that his future was in politics. Beginning his career as a political worker in the Cochin Rajya Praja Mandalam, he entered electoral politics as a member of the Trichur Municipal Council (1945-47). He was the founding member of the Indian National Trade Union Congress in Kerala. Mr. Karunakaran was elected to the Assembly eight times between 1965 and 1995. Mala was his favourite constituency. Though he contested from both Nemom and Mala Assembly seats in 1982, he chose to retain his Mala seat.

Mr. Karunakaran was Home Minister in the Achutha Menon Ministry (1971-77). When the entire nation voted against the Congress in the post-Emergency elections in 1977, Kerala was the only State that returned a Congress-led government, with Mr. Karunakaran donning the mantle of Chief Minister.

However, the euphoria of winning 111 seats in the Assembly ended quickly when he had to resign as Chief Minister within a month following court references in the Rajan case that rocked the State. He sprang back into the reckoning after the courts cleared him of the charges, but the Rajan case was a low phase in his political career that he always wanted to forget.

Known as a kingmaker, Mr. Karunakaran had an important role in installing P.V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister in 1991 after the Congress was thrown into uncertainty following the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, during the election campaign. He was made a Rajya Sabha member when his innings as Chief Minister came to an abrupt end in 1995. He became Industries Minister in the Rao Cabinet.

Mr. Karunakaran always found himself on the winning side during both the 1969 and 1978 splits in the Congress. He drew his political strength from his long-lasting loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family. A new phase in this relationship began in 1969, when Mr. Karunakaran stood steadfastly with Indira Gandhi, and lasted till 2006 when he chose to form his own party following differences with the present Congress president, Sonia Gandhi. The torn ties were patched up only late in 2007 with his return to the Congress in a no-win situation.

Mr. Karunakaran seemed to be doing everything right until his burning ambition to anoint his son, K. Muraleedharan, as his successor blurred his amazing political vision. He misread the undercurrents of events while navigating volatile factional politics. He used his clout to create a political passage for his son, making him MP first and later Pradesh Congress Committee president. Till the end of his life, Mr. Karunakaran sought to cut a path for his son's return to the Congress, acknowledging in a way that there was no political scope outside bipolar coalitions.

Mr. Karunakaran always believed that factional politics provided strength to the Congress and was its unabashed practitioner. He was loved by his supporters, who endearingly called him “Leader,” hated by his foes and held in high esteem by his peers.

A Congressman till the end

When all is said and done, Mr. Karunakaran remained a Congressman till the end. Never did he think of jettisoning his left-of-centre and secular positions. At a time when Congress leaders in other States chose to team up with the Bharatiya Janata Party once they quit the party, Mr. Karunakaran did not dilute his secular stand even when he was politically cornered. This fact alone makes his political legacy more valuable for the Congress leadership in the State to uphold.