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These are sensitive times for the Congress, gearing up for the big battle in 2004. Rocky sailing, even if it be during an election to Rajya Sabha seats from one state, demands focussed attention and careful handling. Kerala has caused a minor shock wave among the high command, a wave that remained minor simply because the two official nominees of the party did win as expected. The challenge offered by the rebel nominee, Mr Kodoth Govindan Nair, backed by the senior Congress leader, Mr K. Karunakaran, could have spelt disaster. As it is, Mr Nair did poll 26 votes, which would suggest that he, or Mr Karunakaran, has on his side almost one-third of the Congress members of the legislative assembly. It has been suggested that apart from votes from the ranks of the ruling United Democratic Front, Mr Karunakaranís nominee attracted a few votes from the opposition as well. Be that as it may, if Mr Karunakaran draws his loyalists away from the Congress, the UDF would be far from comfortable. There is no doubt that Mr Karunakaran would like to push things further. His discontent has grown since his removal from chief ministership in 1995, and no warmth has ever been wasted between him and the present chief minister, Mr A.K. Antony. And now is an especially good time to embarrass the high command.

The party has always handled Mr Karunakaran with kid gloves. He was met halfway when he upset the equilibrium during the distribution of tickets for the assembly elections of 2001. Also his son, Mr K. Muraleedharan, is the state Congress committee chief. The latter has shown less enthusiasm than his father for confrontationist stances. Care and tact are now the high commandís bywords. Although Mr Nair has been expelled for refusing to withdraw from the electoral contest, the puppeteer in question has not even been admonished. Instead, Ms Ambika Soni, in charge of the state, has been talking of development and cooperation, of working together and resolving differences. No one can underestimate the trouble-making powers of Mr Karunakaran, but no party high command can be seen to be giving way to pressures of individual leaders. The victory of the official nominees, therefore, was a great help. There is trouble yet to come. Already there are murmurs of caste-community discrimination: the defeat of Mr Karunakaranís candidate is being seen as a deliberate ousting of the important Nair faction, in a party led in the state and the Centre by Christians. Given the present ambience of the country, even this can spin out of control. The Congress needs to draw heavily on its wells of wisdom.

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