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Cong vs Cong in Kerala poll

Kochi, Sept. 21: When Ernakulam parliamentary seat goes to polls on Tuesday, the contest will be a proxy war between Congress rivals K. Karunakaran and chief minister A.K. Antony though there are four candidates in the fray.

As the cacophony of the fortnight-long campaign died down at 5 pm today, Karunakaran sent out a message to his party’s leadership against general secretary Ahmed Patel’s warning of “harsh action against those who violate party discipline”.

“If anyone thinks he can threaten the cadre into inaction through disciplinary action, we have the resources to fight it,” the veteran leader said at a news conference in Kochi.

His displeasure was directed at Antony’s candidate M.. John, the Aluva municipal council chairman, who will take on the Communist-backed Independent, Sebastian Paul. Former finance minister V. Viswanatha Menon and Poonthura Siraj round out the rectangular contest.

Menon was virtually pulled out of political hibernation by Communist dissidents and Siraj is the protege of Muslim cleric Abdul Nasser Madhany, who is facing trial for allegedly masterminding the Coimbatore blasts.

In a seat where the Congress has romped home in 11 of the 14 polls held so far, the stakes for the party are high. The Latin Church, a solid bedrock of support for the party, has this time asked the faithful to vote according to conscience.

Siraj played on Muslim discontent at Antony’s “slow-footed” rehabilitation in the fishing hamlet of Marad, in Kozhikode, after the violence in which eight Hindu fishermen were killed on May 2. He might just end up garnering Muslim negative votes.

Even Muslim organisations, especially the fundamentalist National Development Front, are working towards John’s defeat.

NDA convener George Fernandes came out in support of Menon, proclaiming a new political experiment in Kochi between the BJP and the Communist dissidents.

He urged the predominantly Latin Catholic voters to back Menon, the radical Communist who could not raise his hands in support of the “Italian lady” in Delhi. BJP chief M. Venkaiah Naidu was there, too.

Added to the Opposition campaign and an apathetic 1.1 million voters in the commercial hub of Kerala is Karunakaran, working out of daughter Padmaja Venugopal’s Kochi home to ensure maximum abstention.

This tactic is backed by a bid to ensure a certain number of sure votes in favour of Paul in each of the 1,200 polling booths.

As a result, the air is thick with rumours that an electoral reverse to John might be the beginning of the end for the Antony regime. If he loses, the Congress high command will be compelled to act against Karunakaran and team.

After meeting Patel today, Karunakaran would only say: “All that after September 23 (poll day).”

“The I group (the Congress’ Karunakaran faction),” he said “will meet after the polling to decide on the future course. My position (opposition to official candidate) remains unchanged”.

The diehard anti-Marxist has of late even discovered virtues in the CPM, calling it a worthy ally of his party in the fight against BJP-led communal forces.

“On this, I am one with the Congress leadership,” said 86-year-old Karunakaran, taking an obvious dig at party chief Sonia Gandhi.

Even if John wins, the high command will very likely use the opportunity to snipe at Karunakaran, his son K. Muraleedharan, who is the state unit chief, and Venugopal, the Kerala Tourism development Corporation chairperson.

The Antony camp was bent on mobilising the maximum voter turnout in a constituency that has usually witnessed an average polling of 70 per cent. State party general secretary M.I. Shanavas said he expected John to win by over 20,000 votes at 60 per cent polling. Anything less would be dangerous, he said.

The rationale behind his assessment was that the committed Left voter would surely cast his vote while the lazy Congress voter might just stay put at home.

Antony was clearly angry as he told reporters that his detractors lacked political morality. He said he was seeking a mandate –- from 380,000 Latin Catholic Christians, 100,000 other Christians, 220,000 Muslims, 180,000 Nairs and 160,000 Ezhavas -- to carry on with his development agenda without distractions.

He might just get some help from the Congress leadership that might set the process of disciplinary action in motion well before the electronically cast votes are counted on September 29.

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