Dealing with dissidence

THE NO-NONSENSE APPROACH of the Congress high command in dealing with factional wars in Kerala seems to have been vindicated by the victory of the official nominees of the party in the Rajya Sabha elections. By acting firmly against the rebel candidate, Kodoth Govindan Nair, and, at the same time, refraining from striking at the leader of the dissident faction, K. Karunakaran, the AICC president, Sonia Gandhi, ended for the moment what could have been a long crisis phase for the Kerala unit of the Congress. But only for the moment. After having cramped the space for inner-party squabbling, Ms. Gandhi still ensured enough room for dissenters to patch up and return to the mainstream, but the past record of Mr. Karunakaran does not raise hopes of any lasting compromise. In the endless battle against his rival in the party, the Chief Minister, A.K. Antony, Mr. Karunakaran has always appeared ready to frontally take on the AICC high command. The Rajya Sabha elections might be out of the way, but Mr. Karunakaran, going by his recent statements, can be expected to find new opportunities to come up with real or imagined grievances.

Ever since he was displaced as the Chief Minister in 1995, he has been on a collision course with the AICC high command, not over questions of ideology, but over issues of accommodating his family members and faction loyalists in the party organisation or in the seat distribution for Assembly, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha elections. Not surprisingly, whatever the political gloss he might put to his actions, Mr. Karunakaran is being seen as putting family and faction above the party. And, ironically, it is Mr. Antony, on the political ascendant with the full backing of the party high command, who is coming through as the victim of the factional wars of the Congress, and not Mr. Karunakaran, the man on the wane. The last time Mr. Karunakaran triggered a similar crisis was over the ticket distribution for the 2001 Assembly election when his daughter, Padmaja Venugopal, did not figure in the candidates list. On that occasion, the party high command, though clearly unhappy with his ways, met him halfway, accommodating many of his supporters but keeping Ms. Padmaja Venugopal out. Even so, after the Assembly elections, she was made chairperson of the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation in apparent recognition of the trouble-creating potential of the Karunakaran faction. Actually, Mr. Karunakaran could not have much to complain about. He managed to make his son, K. Muralidharan, the KPCC president. By repeatedly giving in to the combination of threats and blackmail from the senior leader, the high command would only have engendered indiscipline in the party ranks. In recent months, even his son veered away from the confrontationist politics of Mr. Karunakaran who was turning out to be the voice of the opposition within the ruling party. During the latest crisis, Mr. Muralidharan, despite pushing his own personal agenda in the faction-ridden politics of the State, did his best to stall disciplinary action against his father. But, he could have continued to side with Mr. Karunakaran only at the risk of compromising his own position as KPCC president. It is to the credit of the AICC high command that at least Mr. Muralidharan was made to see the dangers of letting the party be held to ransom by Mr. Karunakaran.

The future course of events would be dictated by the strategy to be adopted by Mr. Karunakaran. But the landslide victory obtained by the United Democratic Front means that even if all the supporters of Mr. Karunakaran in the Assembly, 27 on last count, withdraw support, there would be no real danger to the Antony Government. Another misadventure would not do him or his faction any good. In such a scenario, what might look like a half-measure on the part of the high command — expelling the rebel candidate but sparing the faction leader and the dissident MLAs — could turn out to be good strategy. Keeping the party together without yielding to the pressure tactics of factional leaders.

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