The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Kerala casts cloud on Sonia team revamp
Clash stokes caste embers

Thiruvananthapuram, April 15: A day after the Rajya Sabha election that exposed the deep divisions within the ruling Congress in Kerala, the debate within the party has started acquiring a distinct caste and communal undertone.

The proponents of the debate seek to paint the poll-related developments in the party as a clear manifestation of the ejection of a Hindu, particularly upper-caste Nair, leadership in the state Congress.

This debate has menacing portents for the party high command and the state government, particularly because they are led by two Christians — Sonia Gandhi and A.K. Antony, respectively.

This caste-communal line of reasoning is being put forward essentially by a clutch of MLAs in the rebel group led by veteran leader K. Karunakaran, whose candidate Kodoth Govindan Nair was defeated in the poll on Monday. The Karunakaran camp has been for long viewed as the “Nair lobby” within the Congress in Kerala.

“The message given by the manner in which Leader (that is how Karunakaran’s supporters refer to him) was treated during the candidate-selection process and the vile strategy that was employed to defeat his nominee is that the high command sees no use in him or the community. This cannot be seen merely as an individual insult, it is the humiliation of the entire community,” said a legislator belonging to his group.

Throughout Tuesday, journalists and political observers in the state capital became witness to the advancement of similar theories by several others in the group, including several MLAs.

The suggestion that one of the victorious official candidates — former state unit president Thennala Balakrishna Pillai — also belongs to the Nair community was treated with derision by the advocates of this theory.

“Karunakaran represented the true strength of the Nair community in the state’s social and political spheres. A political has-been like Pillai cannot claim to represent the community,” said another MLA, who is also a leader of the Nair Service Society, a social organisation of the Nairs.

Though the debate has caught on in the internal circles of the Congress, the overt political climate in Kerala on Tuesday was one of relative calm.

There was no concrete move from the warring Congress factions or from the Opposition CPM, barring a statement from Karunakaran alleging the involvement of a particular liquor lobby in “threatening and buying over several MLAs” who would have otherwise voted for his nominee.

Karunakaran did not name the liquor lobby but the general impression is that his comment was aimed at relatives of AICC general secretary Vayalar Ravi, who was one of the official candidates who emerged victorious in the Rajya Sabha election.

This comment also had a caste angle, because Ravi belongs to backward class Ezhava community, which has traditionally locked horns with the Nairs in societal interaction.

The voting pattern in Monday’s polls also came in for some speculation.

One theory that did the rounds was that five MLAs of the Karunakaran group had crossed over to the official side while two partners in the United Democratic Front (UDF) — the Kerala Congress factions led by K. Balakrishna Pillai and T.M. Jacob — had voted for Karunakaran’s nominee.

Karunakaran’s demand that the MLAs of his group be treated as a separate Opposition block would take some time to acquire concrete political dimensions because the next session of the Assembly would be convened only in June-July.

However, indications are that the Karunakaran group would ultimately end up with 18 to 20 MLAs in its fold. The official Congress leadership is apparently “working on” five to seven MLAs of the group and has reportedly succeeded in turning them around.

But even the departure of 18 MLAs from the Congress to the Opposition ranks will make life difficult for the UDF and particularly for chief minister Antony. For, the reduced majority in the Assembly would make Antony more dependant on the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani), two parties with a strong minority base.

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