The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Party wary of acting against veteran rebel

New Delhi, Sept. 29: Busy on the campaign trail in Madhya Pradesh, Sonia Gandhi today received news of sabotage in the south that has challenged the authority of the high command and suspicion of betrayal by a restive ally in the west.

The Congress’ Kerala bypoll debacle is a slap in the face of the central leadership which endorsed chief minister A.K. Antony’s nominee despite dissident K. Karunakaran’s objections.

As the party was licking the wound, came another shocker. The Congress lost the prestigious Solapur, held by Sushil Kumar Shinde and vacated only because he moved to Maharashtra to take over as chief minister.

Despite the loss of face, the Congress is putting up a brave front with spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy insisting: “It is not a reflection on the mood of the people.”

But it is hard to deny that the defeat of Antony’s handpicked “winning” candidate M.. John in Ernakulam and the loss of Shinde’s seat has put the Congress high command in a fix.

The high command has no doubt that the faction headed by Karunakaran worked to ensure John’s defeat to prove its strength vis-a-vis the faction headed by chief minister Antony.

The party had contemplated action against Karunakaran and his son and state party unit chief K. Muraleedharan.

Four days ago, it set up an inquiry panel, headed by the chairman of the party’s disciplinary action committee L.P. Sahi, for that purpose.

But the mood has changed dramatically after the results were announced.

The high command is no longer sure if can take tough action against the father-son duo without ruining the Congress’ Kerala prospects during next year’s parliamentary elections.

Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary in charge of Kerala affairs, was on the defensive. The outcome was “unexpected” he said, but refused to blame anyone for it.

A few days ago, Patel might have submitted a report to the Congress chief highlighting the “brazen” support being provided to the victorious CPM-backed Independent candidate Sebastian Paul. But today, the political secretary said Muralidharan had campaigned for John.

Even Reddy would point a finger at anyone. He said “local factors” were to blame and also avoided holding Antony responsible for the setback.

Although Reddy said the Sahi panel will “shortly” submit its report, it appears as if the high command will wait for Karunakaran to make the next move before responding.

The high command is equally upset with the Solapur defeat. Party leaders say Anandrao Devkate probably lost so badly because of the support his BJP-Shiv Sena rival might have got from the Congress’ electoral ally, the Nationalist Congress Party. Devkate’s BJP opponent is the younger brother of Maharashtra minister and NCP senior leader Vijaysingh Mohite-Patil.

The Congress is also worried at reports that the influential Marathas are moving away from it after Vilasrao Deshmukh was removed as chief minister.

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