K Muraleedharan, at one point in time, was one of the most powerful Congress leaders in Kerala. But the decision to form DIC(K) and subsequent return to Congress changed his political career. Though he is someone who the Congress still looks up to when it needs a strong candidate to field in tough constituencies, Muraleedharan gets to sit only on the sidelines. Now, with Shashi Tharoor emerging as a frontrunner in the party, Muraleedharan seems to have found his voice again. He talks to TNIE about his reasons for backing Tharoor, and how Karunakaran died as a sad man. Excerpts:
Shashi Tharoor seems to be the flavour of the times... Would you like us to start with that topic?
Why not? (chuckles)
You had opposed Tharoor during the Congress presidential polls. But now you are one of his staunch supporters...
Some people say that I did a volte-face. That is not true. I opposed Tharoor then because I believed that a person holding the Congress president post should be a seasoned leader with adequate organisational experience. Now, I support Tharoor because he will be very good at attracting all sections of people to the party.
The other day you came out against Leader of Opposition V D Satheesan while defending Tharoor. Why are you unhappy with Satheesan?
I agree with what Satheesan said about the Congress, that it does not have the strength to survive another bout of factionalism. But, the ‘balloon’ statement had an ulterior motive behind it. That is why I replied to him. Tharoor is one who dared to take the step to prove that there is democracy in Congress. It is wrong to sideline him.
What you said about utilising Tharoor’s charisma to Congress’s advantage is political common sense. Do some people feel insecure about this?
I don’t understand. Why should a leader be sidelined because he makes some people insecure?
You criticise state leaders publicly. That is an allegation against you...
They say issues should be raised in party forums. But it’s been five months since the political affairs committee meeting has been convened. Similarly, the KPCC executive committee, which the former presidents can attend, has not been convened in the past five to eight months. So, where will we raise our concerns? Hence, we were forced to come up with public statements.
Has there been a change of heart among the people who initially opposed Tharoor?
Some leaders have backtracked after seeing the acceptance Tharoor has been getting. That explains why Tharoor’s remaining programmes have not been banned.
Tharoor is going to inaugurate NSS’ Mannam Jayanti observance. A few days ago, NSS chief G Sukumaran Nair came out with a scathing attack against Satheesan...
I don’t see any connection between both. But I believe it is wrong to seek votes during elections and then repudiate them publicly. I am someone who believes that we should maintain a good equation with all community leaders.
Is Satheesan insecure about Tharoor?
Why should he be scared? Satheesan has his own style and influence. He has won four times from his constituency (Paravoor), which was once a Left bastion.
Could it be because Satheesan has no clout beyond his constituency?
It is the people who should evaluate that. He is the Congress Legislative Party leader.
The general criticism against Tharoor is that he lacks experience, that he is being airdropped...
People will not approve if a leader is airdropped. If he had come six months before the election, then we could have said that he was airdropped. But there are three-and-a-half years left for the election. Tharoor is willing to work at the ground level now, and that is what he had lacked. We should appreciate that.
So you think Tharoor will be eligible to be the Congress CM candidate after working at the ground level for three-and-a-half years?
That will be decided then.
Earlier, it was mostly either K Karunakaran vs A K Antony or Ramesh Chennithala vs Oommen Chandy. Now, there are at least five chief minister hopefuls. Do you think this situation would work well for the party?
While Karunakaran was interested in the assembly, Antony focused at the organisational level. And the other leaders remained as satellites around them. But now, things are different.
Has Satheesan been sidelined on the Tharoor issue?
No. Satheesan will remain as the leader of the opposition until the end of the LDF government’s tenure. Chennithala is currently concentrating at the national level. So there is no scope for a change in the leadership for the next three-and-a-half years.
Will Sudhakaran continue as the state Congress chief?
The general decision taken by the party is that Sudhakaran will continue as the PCC chief until the Lok Sabha elections. That is why he said he would not contest in the next election, considering his responsibilities as the party chief.
The new leadership had decided to evolve the Congress into a semi-cadre party. Was that needed? Each party has got its own DNA and character… What was the need for making the Congress look like an inferior copy of a cadre party like the CPM?
Congress has got a traditional style of functioning. It’s difficult to bring about these changes overnight.
You recently said that those criticising Tharoor were chief minister aspirants. Does that mean that you are not in the fray?
There were reports that some incumbent Lok Sabha MPs do not want to contest again and are eyeing assembly seats. This will create a thought among people that Congress does not have the hope of winning Parliament elections. I do not want to contribute to that thinking. Hence, my wish is to continue in the Lok Sabha.
The formation of DIC(K) was deemed a political game-changer. Lakhs had assembled at Putharikandam maidan during the formation of the party. Where are they now?
I was forced to form DIC(K) after being ousted from the Congress. We tried to establish a Left secular forum. But the Left Front backed out. Then we had to return to the Congress, our principal ‘opposition’ till then. The party thus lost its ideals. I had to wait for a long time to be accepted back. By then, many followers withered away. My father died without fulfilling his dream of seeing me return to the party. This attitude shown towards DIC(K) workers is one of the reasons for the party’s weakness at the grassroots level.
Who made the decision to return to the Congress?
My father. The decision to leave Congress was the third most painful moment in his life. The other two were the deaths of Indira Gandhi and my mother. He was always a staunch Congressman at the core of his heart.
You were a powerful KPCC president, No. 2 in Kerala politics back then. Was the decision to quit the PCC president post and join the cabinet the beginning of your downfall?
That was a bad decision.
Karunakaran is still a revered name among a large section of Congress workers. Have you been able to emerge as their leader?
There are several people who admire me for having that lineage. But the party leadership does not recognise that. Some leaders are against Muraleedharan coming to the mainstream. Hence, many workers who admire me are afraid of showing it in the open.
Your relationship with the Gandhi family...
I maintain a good equation with Sonia Gandhi. She cares for me. I attended the Bharat Jodo Yatra throughout Kerala because of my warm relationship with Rahul Gandhi.
There are several leaders who backstabbed Karunakaran. Chennithala had told us in one of the Express Dialogues sessions that he felt guilty about it and that he goes to Guruvayur temple every month as penance…
I am glad that he repented.
As a son, have you forgiven others?
Some others have been punished by God. Moreover, let bygones be bygones. I’m not interested in flashbacks.
How do you assess the current state leadership of Congress?
The complaint against the present leadership is that it does not have consistency. It does not stick to an issue and come up with a focussed fight against the government. If Swapna’s allegation were against a UDF government, it would have been out of power by now.
Does Tharoor have the ‘A’ group’s backing?
No. People from all groups, and even those who do not have party affiliations admire him.
Why is Tharoor shying away from criticising the CPM? He has supported CPM on many occasions…
Tharoor always considers the national picture of a joint fight against the Sangh Parivar. It is right in the national scenario, but not practical in Kerala. Congress workers admire only leaders with an anti-Marxist agenda. Whoever wants to become the chief minister of Kerala should position himself as an anti-Marxist. I have criticised Tharoor whenever he spoke in favour of the CPM.
Has the Tharoor issue benefitted the CPM?
Of course. Tharoor issue and Sudhakaran’s slip of the tongue have given a month-long relief to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Sudhakaran had said Congress would survive even if the IUML leaves UDF. Do you think so?
IUML has a major role. There is no future for the Congress without IUML. I have no qualms about accepting reality.
But the IUML has a history of intervening in power struggles within Congress. Their support to the ‘A’ group led to the ouster of Karunakaran from the post of chief minister in 1995…
We must wait and watch over the next three and a half years.
Is it true that you got offers from other parties?
No one has dared to invite me. When I retire, I would be grateful to the party for the opportunities I had.
Do you think the Congress considers you an insider, considering that you left the party once?
When I look up, I see a lot of undeserving people at the top slots. When I look down, I see a lot of deserving people at the bottom. So now I look only downward.
What was the biggest mistake in your political career?
Leaving the party.
The opposition looks helpless before the governor as he is acting as the opposition...
There is no connection between what he says and does. The governor has no powers. He has to function by understanding the limitations of his powers. I do not support sabotaging state governments using governors.
Sudhakaran’s frequent controversial remarks often put the party in a fix. As a former party president, do you have any advice for the current chief?
I told him not to look at flashbacks and just look ahead. His quality is that he is willing to listen. Ramesh made a mistake, he did not listen when I told him not to focus on the anti-incumbency factor alone to win the last assembly election. That is why he suffered the setback.
Do you advise Satheesan as well?
No. He is way too intelligent than I am… (chuckles).
Is he better than Chennithala as leader of the opposition?
Both are different. Ramesh has a sway across the state, while Satheesan performs well in the assembly.
Is Congress hit by the absence of an active strategist like Chandy? He was the last crowd-puller for the Congress…
Yes, we feel his absence.
How do you rate Pinarayi Vijayan as a chief minister?
He is not able to comprehend issues completely. No one has the guts to speak about the real situation on the ground to him. So he always thinks he is right. That is his drawback. His ability to stand by his decision and willpower are his major qualities.
Many compare Pinarayi with Karunakaran, as both had good grip over administration…
Yes. There are many similarities. But Pinarayi has faltered now. While he takes a strong stand on some issues, he seems to have lost control over the police.
You and Rahul Gandhi come from political families. Both were ridiculed in the early days. But we did not see a political evolution from Rahul as in your case...
Many questioned Rahul Gandhi’s yatra in the midst of state elections. For Rahul, the party’s aim is to come back to power in 2024, and there should be an alternative mechanism within the party to take care of state elections. The yatra gained so much attention as it was a padayatra.
Congress was once a pro-development party. But now, it is opposing all development initiatives and aspires to be the ‘real Left’…
Congress cannot be ‘Left’. It has its own path. Such an argument is meaningless. We should examine our party’s culture before saying we are left or right. Congress has never been anti-development.
Nobody doubts your secular credentials. But Satheesan and Sudhakaran courted controversies due to their alleged association with RSS...
We can’t be secular only by rendering lip service. We should show it through our actions. Secularism is our party’s policy, and I have never allowed it to be diluted.
Will you attend an RSS event if you get an invite?
Never. I can never agree with its ways.
Do you see a future for BJP in Kerala?
Even if Narendra Modi rules for 100 years, BJP is not going to grow in the state. BJP leaders K Surendran and V Muraleedharan will ensure their party’s downfall.
But the BJP won a seat in 2016...
Had the UDF put up a strong fight, BJP would have lost (in Nemom).
Had you been the KPCC president now, how would you have handled the Tharoor issue?
I don’t know why there is an issue in the first place. Every leader visits Thangal when in Malappuram.
But Tharoor also visited a few bishops and got the NSS’ invite. Don’t you think there is a pattern to it?
Tharoor was lucky enough to get the invite to inaugurate the NSS meet. Only K Karunakaran and A K Antony inaugurated the meeting. Now, Tharoor has joined their league.
Isn’t it a strong indication of where Tharoor is headed?
We need not read too much into it. Let him come. Isn’t it good for the party after all?
You can say that as you are not in the race for CM post. But Satheesan cannot take such an issue lightly as he has many things to lose if Tharoor gets the centre stage...
If we trust people and if party workers trust us, there is no need to be afraid of anyone. But if anyone thinks they will lose their chair if someone else comes, it will only lead to high blood pressure and affect one’s health. There is space for everyone in Congress.
Shouldn’t you have advised Satheesan about this?
We don’t get to see each other often these days as party meetings are not convened.
K Muraleedharan seems to have matured a lot politically over the years...
I have... Even if you are born into a political family, it is experience that matters.