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Antony bows out of Kerala

Antony arrives to cast his vote at a polling booth in Thiruvananthapuram on April 10. (PTI)

In the frantic quest for Lok Sabha seats as the gateway to power in New Delhi, politicians in Kerala and their followers have suspended disbelief in what amounts to a political miracle.

In the rarest of rare acts for a politician, A.K. Antony, the Congress’s star campaigner in this state, has abdicated potential power in Kerala. The longest-serving defence minister of India declared earlier this month, as he took the Congress-led United Democratic Front’s Lok Sabha campaign to a crescendo, that he would never again run for any leadership post in this state.

There have been few instances in India of politicians volunteering to abdicate their quest for power or for leadership. Antony has done so when he is at the height of acceptability among his people and has emerged as the tallest incumbent leader of Kerala across the political spectrum.

In fact, this is the first election since Kerala was formed in 1956 in which there are no major rivalries within the Congress. The party is facing the electorate with a united face with Antony guiding it from an elevated plane rising above that of a run-of-the-mill politician.

Antony’s decision not to seek a leadership role is in marked contrast to the trend among Congress leaders: at the age of 88, Narayan Dutt Tiwari, in spite of being discredited on account of personal failings, sought a ticket for himself and would not be averse to leading his faction-ridden party in Uttarakhand. In the BJP, Jaswant Singh preferred to break with his party rather than give up his quest for the Barmer Lok Sabha seat.

Antony’s announcement is yet to register with his people amid the din and fervour of elections in a state where politics is ingrained in the popular DNA. Politics is like a sport here and there is no apathy to it: indeed, everyone has an opinion on the issues in an election campaign.

It is likely that Keralites will wake up to the import of Antony’s sacrifice only after the poll results are out and a new government is formed at the Centre, in which, as predictions go now, Antony will no longer be a minister. That is when, as the defence minister has declared, he will assume the role of a political grey eminence in Kerala without seeking office.

When that happens, Antony will be like American Presidents, who are term-limited under law, and unlike in the defence minister’s case, forced to retire. But many of them don the mantle of America’s conscience-keepers or become elder statesmen like Jimmy Carter. Some former Presidents emerge as their party’s strategists albeit without power, as in the case of Bill Clinton.

But then, Antony’s entire political career has been synonymous with the concept of renunciation. The post of defence minister is the only appointed office from which he has not resigned before the completion of a term.

In the past, he has quit office at the mere whiff of a scandal even when he is in no way responsible for any wrongdoing. In interviews, Antony has often been asked about his record in the defence ministry of not having resigned, which is an aberration for those who have followed his career. But Antony merely says that circumstances have changed from what they were in his political past.

Antony admitted earlier this month that he actually took a decision not to seek his party’s leadership in the state in 2004. The following year he moved to the Centre and became a member of the Rajya Sabha.

But a formal announcement came only during this election, possibly to squelch any speculation on that account on the prediction that he will be out of power soon if the Congress does not form the next government.

His current Rajya Sabha term ends in 2016. The freedom from not having to aggressively seek office has made it possible for Antony not to be a spin doctor for his party in this election. His statements possibly offer the best indication of the outcome of the contest for the Lok Sabha.

Needless to say, as defence minister he has access to intelligence reports, which he can combine with his own insights into the popular mood and his long experience as a campaigner for more than half a century.

Without shouting from the rooftops, Antony has made it clear that he does not expect the UPA to get a majority in this election. But he does not expect the BJP to form the next government, either. Antony believes that the Modi phenomenon is a bubble created by an alliance of event organisers, corporate enterprises and sections of the media.

He has immeasurably annoyed the CPM by telling them that they will have no option but to support the Congress if his party is able to cobble together the next government. That assertion has put the CPM on the back foot here among voters who think a vote for the party is a vote for the “B” team of the Congress at the Centre.

In his new role, Antony has been very free with the media, granting interviews and speaking introspectively. Until now he has never patronised the media or spoken out of turn.

With perhaps a tinge of regret, he gave an inkling the other day of his own mind on the often repeated idea that Antony ought to have made it to Rashtrapati Bhavan. The time for that is over now, he said. He also made the rare admission from a politician of his own limitations. Antony said he would never aspire to go beyond limits imposed by those.

Antony admitted without going into details that he had made efforts to get Irom Sharmila to end her hunger strike. It would appear from between his lines that the defence minister was thwarted in his desire by the security establishment.