Can you imagine what life was like back in the early 1920s? Going to the movies meant watching black and white pictures without the benefit of sound. Charles Lindbergh hadn't yet flown across the Atlantic. Alexander Fleming hadn't yet discovered penicillin. And India was ruled in the name of George V, grand-father of Elizabeth II (who would not be born until 1926). And yet it is two men born in that far-off era who are all set to play a major role in the politics of 21st century Kerala.
The assembly polls that are around the corner may well be the last throw of the dice for those sprightly octogenarians, K Karunakaran (born on July 5, 1918) and V S Achuthanandan (born on October 20, 1923). But it is testimony to their own vigour -- as to the pygmies around them -- that they can still pack a punch when it comes to politics.
Did I write 'pygmies'? Only because I am in a very kind mood, take away Karunakaran and Achuthanandan and the rest of Kerala's strutting leaders seem to be participants in some black comedy. And the name of the play seems to be 'I Can Make More Mistakes Than You'.
Achuthanandan's mannerisms, his debating style, and his old-school Marxism may have made the man the delight of television imitators but nobody can deny the man's hold on the popular imagination. He is painfully honest, letting fly his verbal missiles regardless of the consequences.
Achuthanandan would have been chief minister in 1996 -- as a mere stripling of 73 -- had his own party colleagues not sabotaged his election. (Which also subjected Kerala to the second Nayanar ministry.) However, it was generally thought that he would be chief minister after the 2006 polls. It came as a shock when his rivals conspired to deny him even a ticket this time!
The popular outrage was so strong that the mighty CPI-M Politburo wisely beat a retreat. He is now, if I remember correctly, standing from Malampuzha. But the message has gone out that there is no place in the CPI-M of today for a man who, whatever his other faults, will never tolerate corruption.
It was left to the Congress to rescue the CPI-M leadership. The E K Nayanar regime of 1996-2001 proved so wretched that Kerala's voters gave the Congress-led United Democratic Front a whopping majority. The Congress alone won 62 seats, amazingly close to a simple majority in a House of 140. (One-party rule is not, and never has been, an option in Kerala, given its historically fragmented politics.) And what did the Congress do with this truly historic mandate? Fritter it away in truly awesome displays of infighting as Karunakaran and Antony took each other on. By 2004, Keralites were so disgusted that the Congress failed to win any of the 17 Lok Sabha seats it contested in the general election.
I had thought the worst was over in the aftermath of the Lok Sabha polls. Antony resigned the chief ministership and Karunakaran walked out of the Congress to form the DIC(K). The result was a slightly more cohesive unit, if slightly smaller and not particularly efficient. And now it seems the whole farce must be enacted once more.
The Congress 'high command' has decided that the party doesn't have a prayer of putting up a respectable performance unless it woos Karunakaran back into the fold. As I understand, Sonia Gandhi is not looking at the assembly polls -- which have been privately written off as a bad cause -- as at the next general election. She wants to win at least half of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala, something that is simply not possible if Karunakaran insists on putting up his own candidates, thus forcing a split in votes to the benefit of the CPI-M-led front.
Sonia Gandhi's decision has been prompted, I understand, at least partly by the Muslim League, the second largest party in the United Democratic Front. But it clearly undoes all the work put in by Chief Minister Oomen Chandy and Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief Ramesh Chennithala over the past year; the two might not have pulled off any administrative miracles but at least they have made the Congress a better disciplined unit. All of that now goes down the drain as Karunakaran returns.
For the record, there is currently nothing more than an 'electoral understanding' between the Congress and the DIC(K). But this fooled nobody -- even before Muraleedharan, Karunakaran's son and political understudy, let the cat out of the bag, saying that a merger would be discussed after the assembly election. Karunakaran will not be content until Muraleedharan and he rule the Congress roost.
In effect, Sonia Gandhi has once again laid the foundations for the infighting that plagued the party. Yet, private mumbling aside, there is no Congressman who has the gumption to stand up to Sonia Gandhi and announce to her face that she has made a mistake.
If the Congress goes ahead with the plans it will be making the same error that the BJP made back in 1999 in neighbouring Karnataka. The state was then ruled by the Janata Dal, and its administration had become a laughing stock thanks to the ineptitude of the J H Patel ministry. The BJP had won 13 of the state's 28 Lok Sabha seats in 1998 and its ally, Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Janshakti Party, got 3 more.
One year later Hegde and the Samata Party (George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar) decided to join hands with the Janata Dal (Patel in Karnataka, Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar). The BJP leadership in Delhi played along, over the protests of the state unit in Karnataka. The result was that the party's tally fell from 13 Lok Sabha seats to 6 in the general election, which offset any gains in Bihar. The Congress also returned to power in the assembly polls that were held simultaneously.
The party leadership in both the BJP and the Congress have, historically, demonstrated little sensitivity to southern India. I think Sonia Gandhi's decision to bring Karunakaran back into the Congress fold will backfire just as the BJP's eleventh hour alliance did in Karnataka in 1999.
There is, however, one crucial difference. Karnataka got S M Krishna as its chief minister, who went on to become a good administrator. I am afraid that we Keralites are not going to be half as lucky.
If the Left Democratic Front sweeps the polls, as everything indicates, will Achuthanandan be the chief minister? Even assuming that his comrades don't sabotage his election this time, what kind of cooperation can he expect from colleagues who conspired to deny him a ticket in the first place? But if the Congress-led UDF pulls off a miracle, is there anything but a tired repetition of factional squabbles ahead?
An advertising campaign claims that Kerala is 'God's own country'. I pray that this is something better than a copywriter's hyperbole. God had better watch out for Kerala because its leaders are looking out only for themselves!