Almost three decades have passed since a division bench of the Kerala High Court pulled up the CBI for lapses in the investigation of the sensational Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) espionage case.
The court had also come down heavily on the central agency for extending a clean chit to controversial IPS officer and the then Inspector General of Police Raman Srivastava, who was accused of misusing his position to help the key accused in the case.
Though the name of the then chief minister and Congress heavyweight K Karunakaran did not figure anywhere in the investigation or the observations by the court, the issue snowballed into a major political controversy that resulted in the veteran leader having to put in his papers.
A sizeable number of Congress leaders had then rallied behind finance minister Oommen Chandy, who openly contended that Srivastava dared to misuse his position only because of his proximity to Karunakaran, who protected and promoted the officer who helped execute the bogus espionage case.
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How ISRO spy case impacted Congress
Looking back, the ISRO spy case, which rocked Kerala in the 1990s, resulted in a long-awaited churn in the state’s Congress politics.
It marked the eclipse of the long and chequered political career of the Machiavellian Karunakaran, known for his totalitarian approach to government as well as party affairs.
On the other hand, it signalled the emergence of the Arackaparambil Kurien (AK) Antony-Oommen Chandy combine in Congress politics, promising an approach markedly different from that of Karunakaran, who invested heavily in his cronies and often used the police to crack down on opponents.
The ISRO case gave Karunakaran’s rivals within the Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF) a much-awaited opportunity to move against his “authoritarian” ways.
Alliance partners such as the Indian Union Muslim League and Kerala Congress (Mani), too, joined hands with anti-Karunakaran Congressmen — the Congress (A) faction — including the No 2 in the Cabinet, Chandy.
As the case snowballed into a major controversy, the AICC chartered a flight to fly down its soft-spoken general secretary Antony to Thiruvananthapuram.
On 21 March, 1995, Karunakaran stepped down.
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The decades of Antony-Oommen
As Antony prepared to take over the reins of the state as chief minister for a second time the next day, Chandy, who had actively led the charge against Karunankaran, did not stake claim to the top spot himself — perhaps due to the fact that he had played second fiddle to Antony since their student politics days in the 1950s.
But few in the Congress could have predicted that the duo would dominate the party in Kerala for the next two decades — holding the chief minister’s chair in the state twice each.
Antony had a brief stint after Karunakaran, being in office for just about 14 months till May 1996. But he returned as chief minister in the May of 2001 and had an over three-and-quarter-year tenure till August 2004, when he was summoned to Delhi for party duties.
He later went on to be India’s longest-serving Union defence minister, from 2006 to 2014.
Antony’s departure for Delhi finally gave Chandy the opportunity to emerge from his shadows. He took over from Antony for a short stint and was back for a full term from May 2011 to May 2016.
A plenary without Antony
At the party’s 85th plenary session at Nava Raipur in Chhattisgarh that concluded on Sunday, 26 February, Sonia Gandhi “declared” her innings with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, raising speculation that she might even quit electoral politics.
For once, Antony, who used to be by Sonia Gandhi’s side whenever such major announcements were made, was not at the session. Nor was Chandy, who of late, had shot into prominence in the AICC.
Both leaders have announced their retirement. While Antony is leading a relaxed life on Thiruvananthapuram’s outskirts, Chandy is under the care of an oncologist in a Bengaluru hospital.
“Despite their political differences, Karunakaran always acknowledged Antony and Chandy’s roles in rebuilding the party in Kerala, which had become organisationally weak in the mid-1960s after a massive split,” recalled senior Congress leader Cherian Philip.
They built a strong network of young and determined leaders, including Vayalar Ravi, VM Sudheeran, and MM Hassan, and infused a new life into the organisation, which faced severe challenges from Left parties,” Philip, who had a two-decade dalliance with the Left and unsuccessfully contested against Chandy at Puthuppally in 2001, told South First.
“They (Antony and Chandy) began Congress politics together and are now retiring together. The party will have to work hard to fill the void they will leave behind,” he added.
In their almost seven-decades-long political careers, Antony and Chandy helped each other stay afloat when Karunakaran continued his efforts to clip their wings. And their political activity was focused more on taking on Karunakaran than fighting political opponents.
The one-anna strike
Antony was an active Kerala Students’ Union (KSU) worker during his school days in Cherthala. In 1958 (a year after the KSU was formed), the then Communist government under EMS Namboodiripad nationalised the Kuttanad waterways and increased the concession boat fare for students from one anna (six paise) to 10 paise.
The KSU launched a strike against the fare hike, the Orana Samaram (one-anna strike).
MA John, Vayalar Ravi, PK Kuriakose, AK Antony and Oommen Chandy were the student leaders who led the strike, which the police tried to suppress with brutal force.
“The Orana Samaram organised by the KSU attracted me to the organisation. I jumped into the protest,” Antony wrote in an article in 2017.
The EMS government eventually surrendered to the students. “The strike spread like wildfire in Kerala. The government had to surrender ultimately. The student concession became a reality. No future government dared to touch the concession issue,” Antony noted.
The Orana Samaram is the first successful student strike in Kerala and shaped the political careers of several future leaders. It was also seen as the precursor for the Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Struggle), which led to the dismissal of the EMS government on 31 July, 1959.
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A dissent to the Emergency
On 25 June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared an internal Emergency in the country. Chandy and Antony were mostly silent during the 21 months that it lasted.
But the latter spoke against Indira at the AICC’s Gauhati (Guwahati) conference.
According to US diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks in 2013, Antony reportedly questioned Sanjay Gandhi’s sacrifices to the party or nation that made the party propel him to a position of power.
The then Kerala unit chief, known to be soft-spoken, also demanded fresh elections in the country.
“Kerala Congress president AK Antony was one of the only leaders to flatly criticise the new Youth Congress and Mr Gandhi,” Wikileaks revealed.
“Predictably, the KPCC faction led by state Home Minister K Karunakaran supports Sanjay, as does one section of the Kerala Youth Congress,” the cable said.
“The wing of KPCC led by AK Antony and the other faction of the Youth Congress do not support him. Antony and those refusing to support Sanjay question his rapid ascent to a position of power, asking themselves, what sacrifices have he made for the party or the country,” it said.
Antony’s first stint as CM
After the resignation of C Achutha Menon and a short stint by Karunakaran, Antony, then 36, was sworn in as the youngest chief minister of the state on 27 April, 1977. Chandy held the labour portfolio in the first Antony ministry.
After the split in the Congress in 1978, he resigned as the chief minister of the Congress (U) faction, protesting against the party’s decision to field Indira Gandhi in the 1978 bypoll.
Antony floated his faction, Congress (A), which later merged with the Indian National Congress in the presence of Indira Gandhi in Kochi.
In 1995, the ISRO case took him back to the Chief Minister’s Office, and he got another term in 2001. In between, he was the state Assembly’s Opposition leader and a Congress Working Committee member.
He was also in the Union Cabinet twice: First in the PV Narasimha Rao-led government as the Minister for Civil Supplies in 1994 and later as the Defence Minister in the Manmohan Singh government.
Chandy, a disciplined follower
All these years, Chandy remained a disciplined follower of Antony and never attempted to grow in national politics.
From 1970, he contested and won continuously from his home constituency, Puthupally, to the state Assembly. Despite being No 2 in the Karunakaran ministry of 1991-1995, he had to wait till 2004 to become the chief minister after Antony had vacated the post after being hit by a strong anti-incumbency wave in the Lok Sabha election.
He got a second term in 2011, a year after Karunakaran’s death. The high command, meanwhile, took Antony to the national capital as a crisis manager.
“These two leaders are without parallel. They influenced generations of party workers through their idealism and dedication,” Opposition leader VD Satheesan told South First.
“They struggled hard to protect the larger interests of the party and maintained grassroots-level rapport with workers,” he added.
Even political rivals believe that Antony and Chandy, with all their shortcomings, played a significant role in building the mass base of Congress in the state.
There was an occasion when the two leaders left the party, formed their outfits, and fought and won elections aligning with the rival Left. Karunakaran always cited it whenever he doubted their loyalty to the party.
But the leaders, who returned to Congress after a short duration, later remained extremely loyal to the Congress high command, especially Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi.
While Antony preferred to project himself as an idealist with “no fascination for titles and no haughtiness of power”, Chandy remained a practical leader who managed the finances of the Kerala unit of the party and filled the gaps created by Antony in whatever areas in which ideology had no major role.
Chandy also achieved a rare feat by completing 50 years in the state Assembly by winning 11 consecutive elections.
According to Thiruvananthapuram-based senior journalist G Sakthidharan, Chandy and Antony have a rare camaraderie.
“The Congress in Kerala has numerous challenges to face now. For the first time in history, Pinarayi Vijayan was able to retain power in the last Assembly election, ending the change of guard happening every five years,” the veteran journalist told South First.
“The party organisation remains weak and requires a huge effort to win seats in the fast-approaching Lok Sabha election. If they fail to win in the next Assembly election, there would not be any Congress politics in the state,” he warned.
“In this larger context, the party will feel the void created by the two senior leaders,” Sakthidharan observed.
Chandy’s son Chandy Oommen is active in Congress politics. He will likely succeed Chandy by contesting from Puthuppally once the father vacates the seat.
Anil Antony, son of Antony, had high political ambitions, but his future in Congress is doubtful after he condemned a BBC documentary on Narendra Modi and portrayed Rahul Gandhi in a poor light.
Who will fill the vacuum?
Who will fill the leadership vacuum created by Antony and Chandy, who never groomed a second line of leaders to take over?
Ramesh Chennithala, an old lieutenant of Karunakaran, is now on the scene, but few in the party think he is a replacement for the two retired veterans.
In the last Assembly election, Chennithala failed to evolve as a unifying force among rival groups in Kerala.
Opposition leader VD Satheesan is young and enthusiastic but lacks ground support.
The million-dollar question then is: Will the high command allow Sashi Tharoor to lead the Kerala unit from the front?
Tharoor clearly wants to be chief minister and has started working in that direction. But moves are afoot in Congress to spoil his chances.
Second Pinarayi Vijayan government has created a favourable condition for Congress to return to power. But the leadership vacuum is enormous and clear.