A challenging job ahead for Antony


Mr. A.K. Antony's assumption as Chief Minister last week is significant for several reasons. He is heading this century's first elected Government of Kerala amid high expectations that he would be able to provide a clean and efficient Government in tune with his reputation. Expectations are high because Mr. Antony stands apart in the cloak-and-dagger world of contemporary politics. He has rarely gone after political office. And all the major positions he has held, both in the party and Government, were ones which came in search of him.

In fact, he has rarely hesitated to throw off high office to uphold his convictions. In 1979, he quit as Chief Minister in protest against his then party, the Congress(U)'s decision to support Indira Gandhi in the Chickmangalur by election. In the Nineties, he promptly resigned as the Union Civil Supplies Minister from the Narasimha Rao Cabinet in protest against the `sugar scandal'.

He has held several party responsibilities, including that of AICC general secretary, KPCC president, and head of the party's ethics committee.

This diminutive politician has never found his height to be a hindrance in scaling great heights in public life, which is

marked by probity. One of Mr. Antony's striking characteristics is his democratic ways of functioning and his Gandhian-like obstinacy on some issues like the liquor ban and the latest one, austerity in governance. Even though many of his detractors consider his stance as a sheen to conceal his ambition, there is no denying the fact that he is one of the most secular leaders in the country, who practises what he preaches.

The UDF's spectacular show is a personal victory for him as it establishes his credentials as a popular elected leader of the State. This is not the first time he is becoming Chief Minister. But it is for the first time that he is becoming Chief Minister through an election. He became Chief Minister on two occasions, in 1977 and 1995, but these were `backdoor' entries, opportunities he capitalised on when it came by owing to the peculiar political situation prevailing at that time. During the last five years, he had to silently suffer the ignominy of being a Chief Minister who let power go out of the hands of the Congress.

The two-thirds majority that the UDF has got is nothing but spectacular. The Congress party's 62 seats is quite enviable because this is for the first time in 40 years that the Congress has won with such a huge margin, the last occasion being in 1960 when it won 63 seats. The Congress-led UDF's victory was however secured at the cost of a lot of personal insults from his opponents and resistance from his own supporters, mainly against many of his decisions giving the senior Congress leader, Mr.K. Karunakaran more political room space.

The victory notwithstanding, Mr. Antony assumes office under a difficult situation. He has already had difficulty in selecting a convincing team installed in the Government Secretariat. He would have to navigate through the difficult waters of coalition politics. How difficult it would be has been proved during the seat-sharing and Cabinet formation dialogues with UDF partners, forcing him to concede major concessions to them. The pressures of coalition politics have left him with few options in installing a dream Cabinet.

On the administrative side, his Government would have

to tackle several major issues. Some of the problems like the financial crunch the State faces can be overcome gradually through hard and unpopular decisions. But the real challenges are likely to come from elsewhere.

Mr. Antony assumes office at a time when the old consensus among political parties on development politics in Kerala has ended. The Left parties, led by the CPI(M) are on a warpath against opening up the economy. Mr. Antony himself has been a hesitant supporter of economic liberalization, always cautioning against liberalization without a human face. He headed the party committee which suggested jettisoning of its economic reforms.

Mr. Antony would have to overcome his personal predilections to take on the challenges posed by new imports and WTO policy regimes, avoiding the pitfalls, warding off political opposition besides seizing the opportunities. He needs to revive almost all sectors of the State economy which has fallen behind other

States, that too without losing sight of the imperatives of good relations with the NDA-ruled Government at the Centre. His friends and foes would hardly able to resist the temptation of comparing him with his predecessor, Mr. K. Karunakaran, or with his counter-part in Karnataka, Mr. S.M. Krishna. His Chief Ministership is sure to be compared with that of Mr. Karunakaran in terms of its styles of functioning, administrative decisiveness, legislative acumen, developmental farsightedness and political adroitness.

He would be compared with Mr. Krishna, who represents the post- economic liberalization generation of Congress Chief Ministers, who are technology savvy enough to carry conviction with industrial investors.

As far as Mr. Antony is concerned, he would have to seriously consider whether he needs to reinvent his persona to suit contemporary India. The actual challenges for Mr. Antony is from within, rather than outside, it appears.