K Sudhakaran took over the reins of the Congress in Kerala when the party was picking up the pieces after the disastrous show in assembly elections. The seasoned leader, however, seems to be at home steering the party through one of its worst phases. Forthright and blunt, Sudhakaran talks to TNIE about his party’s future, Shashi Tharoor, Rahul Gandhi, and his bête noir Pinarayi Vijayan. Excerpts:
You took over as KPCC chief a year ago. How has the last one year been?
I was able to resolve differences of opinion within the party and create an atmosphere of unity. But we need to strengthen the party which has become weak at the grassroots level. Over the next three months, all Congress unit committees will be in place.
K Sudhakaran had this image of a fearless leader...You seem to have mellowed down…
I have not mellowed down. But, through experience, I’ve realised that it’s better to be mild-mannered in a party like Congress. But it has not changed how I make decisions. I will stick to what is right and implement it. Please don’t think that I’ve lost my valour.
You are one of the few Congress leaders in Kerala to have spoken in support of Shashi Tharoor contesting party election. Most were against him. Are they all afraid of him?
There is no need for anyone to be afraid. In a democratic party, the ability to lead is the only criterion. Tharoor is a good man, an erudite person. But in organisational matters, Tharoor does not have a legacy. I became KPCC president after rising from the ranks. Tharoor’s experience in the political sphere is very limited. He is wise and capable but those qualities alone will not be enough to lead a party.
But younger leaders in the party are all for Tharoor…
Age is not a factor, it is the experience that matters. I love and respect him. But experience is a very important factor for a hugely responsible post of national president, especially in a party like Congress.
We all know that Congress is in pretty bad shape, nationally. Don’t you think a charismatic face like Tharoor would have been a better choice than the 80-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge?
Tharoor does not have such a background. There is no doubt Tharoor is wise and capable. But in politics, what we need is experience.
Rahul Gandhi too did not have enough experience when he became AICC chief…
But Rahul Gandhi has now said that he is not taking up the president’s post. He has realised the dangers of being inexperienced.
So you accept that Rahul Gandhi was a failure as AICC president?
I will not say that. The Bharat Jodo Yatra signifies the beginning of Rahul trying to become an experienced politician. He is establishing a connect with all sections of people and the yatra is a huge success. Once he finishes the yatra, you will see a new Rahul Gandhi.
Kharge’s only USP is loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family...
Kharge is a leader who rose from the ranks. You cannot lead a party or understand the psychology of party workers through academic knowledge alone.
Did you try to tell this to Tharoor?
Definitely. I told him that he should accept some other post. But he is a man with a firm resolve. But practically, it is impossible for him to lead the party. It’s like a trainee taking over the operations of a factory.
You are saying Tharoor is still a political trainee?
Organisationally, he is still a trainee. He is capable, there is no doubt. But he has not assumed any organisational role, not even of a booth president.
So whom will you vote for?
I will vote for Kharge if I listen to my conscience.
Do you subscribe to the view that Kharge is the Congress’ official candidate?
No, he is not.
But after filing the nomination, Kharge held his press conference at the AICC headquarters while Tharoor did it privately…
Nobody stopped Tharoor from conducting a press conference. He also could have.
There has been opposition to Tharoor from the moment he joined Congress…
It is true that some people are jealous.
Will Tharoor remain in Congress even after the AICC presidential election?
Tharoor can assume top posts in the party anytime. He too knows it well. So there is no question of him leaving the party. There will be opportunities for him to assume top posts only if he waits a bit longer.
Is it true that the Gandhi family doesn’t trust Tharoor?
Tharoor had told TNIE he has many options before him. And he is correct… Every other party is trying to woo him because he is an asset. It seems only Congress doesn’t value him…
Congress too values him. No outsider has been promoted in Congress the way Tharoor has been. He has been an MP for three terms. He has just been appointed the chairperson of a parliamentary standing committee.
But Tharoor won the Thiruvananthapuram LS constituency thrice on his merit and not due to party support…
Nobody can win a Parliament election in India based only on one’s personality. His personality and party’s support base have contributed to his win. Tharoor minus the party will not reach anywhere.
Tharoor played a crucial role in making you KPCC president. But you seem to have ditched him now.
I was made the KPCC president by the high command. Tharoor did back my candidature. And I will be there for him when he needs me. It’s just about this one post. He has my support when it comes to any other post.
Congress leaders are switching over to BJP across the country. Do you think a similar scenario will emerge here?
When a party is in bad shape, there are always a few in search of greener pastures. It’s due to such flawed perspectives of some leaders that we have an autocratic government in power.
Are there such party leaders in Kerala?
None, as far as I know. If you know anyone, you can sure let us know!
You yourself have said that you will join BJP if you feel like…
I had specifically said, “if I feel like”. It was just a tit-for-tat retort.
But what does that mean?
Isn’t it evident? I have never ever felt like joining BJP. When the media asked me something about which I never ever thought of, I was naturally irked. That’s why I responded the way I did. No Congress worker in the state will ever question my sincerity.
Did you later regret making such a statement?
Never. I didn’t say I will go or that I felt like going. I just said that if I wanted to, I will. Wouldn’t everyone else too have reacted in the same manner?
Do you still maintain the same stance?
My life is dedicated to the party. I will never join a communal party like BJP. Even if they give up communalism, I would not consider leaving Congress.
Did you go to Chennai to meet BJP leaders? There was a talk that you went along with K Muraleedharan to meet them.
Honestly, never! You can ask Muraleedharan. No top BJP leader has approached me. Some of their agents did come to see me. I never officially discussed the same with anyone.
Congress leaders are proving to be an easy catch for BJP. Is it because Congress has no ideology?
Yes. The lack of ideological depth is a strong reason. Secondly, there are many who cannot survive without power. In Kannur, our regional leaders are offered huge money by BJP as they need people to fight CPM.
Ramesh Chennithala’s name was doing rounds as one who is likely to shift to BJP...
As far as I know, he has never thought about it.
Congress seems to be struggling for survival both at state and national levels, especially since it’s not in power. What future do you foresee if it fails to come to power again?
That’s exactly why we have undertaken the Bharat Jodo Yatra. We strongly feel that it will bear fruit. In India, who else can be an alternative?
A section in IUML is keen to join LDF. K M Shaji had told TNIE if IUML decides to join LDF, that space would be occupied by BJP. Does that mean Congress has no future in Kerala without IUML?
The League is a major constituent of UDF but that doesn’t necessarily mean that without IUML, there’s no UDF or Congress. If IUML does part ways with us, there will always be others keen to join us.
Isn’t just CPI that is unhappy within LDF. Even Jose K Mani’s party is not happy being part of the Left front.
Jose K Mani told TNIE that he would not leave LDF.
That’s what they kept saying. We were taken by surprise when they parted ways with UDF.
Isn’t Congress responsible for Kerala Congress leaving UDF?
Yes, I admit there were lapses on our part. I did say that within the party and even told the person responsible for the rift. It was his statement that triggered the whole episode. It was quite insulting.
Are there attempts to bring them back?
Yes, that may happen.
You were put in jail during the Emergency. Now you are heading the party which put you in jail… Do you think Emergency was correct?
I personally don’t think declaring Emergency was the right decision. Violating the democratic rights of people — irrespective of who is in power — cannot be justified.
Pinarayi Vijayan too served a jail term during the Emergency. What’s your equation with him?
He’s my political opponent. Since our college days, we have been on opposite sides politically. That continues.
Don’t you think it’s time to end the ego clash that started during college days?
It’s not an ego issue. Let him do what he can. I’ll do what I can.
Do you see any good qualities in Pinarayi Vijayan?
He has quite a few qualities. For example, he’s very sharp and shrewd. If he takes a decision, he will go to any extent to implement the same. He’s a hard worker. He always leads from the front when there is a crisis. His sincerity to his party is indeed an asset. If he decides to do away with an opponent, he will not rest till he does it — be it within his party or outside.
What are his negative traits?
He’s very cruel, with a complete absence of mercy. Why was K K Shailaja not made a minister this time around? She was praised for her work during her stint as health minister. In what context did the party decide that Shailaja teacher should not accept the Ramon Magsaysay Award? Why did the media not question Pinarayi about this? Even the media is scared of him, as they know he is a ruthless person who will not stop at anything to eliminate those who oppose him.
The CPM did come up with an explanation that the Ramon Magsaysay Award cannot be accepted, as the person it is named after was an anti-Communist.
It is exactly such an anti-Communist award that should have been accepted, as it would have proved the biggest plus point.
Recently both of you clashed openly with tall claims about your student days at Brennen College. Wasn’t that a bit childish?
It is the media that comes up with such queries. If we don’t answer, we will be termed arrogant. Even then, we never had a direct tussle in this regard.
Do you maintain any sort of personal relationship with him?
No. We don’t speak to each other. If he sees me coming, he will look the other way. But when went to pay homage to Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, he stood up seeing me. That is being humane. Again he stood up when I was leaving. I too responded accordingly.
Any chances of a compromise?
That will never happen.
You always imply there’s a conspiracy between CPM and BJP…
The BJP is trying to protect Pinarayi. Look at what happened in the gold smuggling case. Why did the Enforcement Directorate not take a case yet?
For the past three years the ED has been hovering around here...
But, did they take a case? They didn’t take a case against Pinarayi. Can you tell me whether they had filed any case against him?
On what grounds?
Didn’t the gold smuggling case happen?
Do you really believe that gold was smuggled to the Cliff House in biriyani vessels?
I don’t know whether it had entered the Cliff House. But the smuggler who had done it said there is evidence.
Is it true that some IUML leaders will move to the Left camp?
But why has Kunhalikutty become silent, almost hesitant to speak against the LDF Government?
There is this Damocles Sword hanging over his head. But this will not result in a political shift. I know him personally and also the people with him.
Do you have any friends in CPM?
CPM secretary M V Govindan. He is a genuine person. Govindan Maash’s son invited me to his wedding. I told him that I will not attend, but he insisted. I asked him what his father would think. He said Achan is keen. So I asked him to ensure his father calls me. The next morning, Maash called me and invited me to the marriage. Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s two sons come rushing whenever they see me and address me as uncle.
Now that Govindan has taken over the mantle of CPM, how do you assess him?
M V Govindan is level-headed. He is not one to create any unwanted nuisance. Also, he will stay away from needless controversies.
You’re a typical Kannur politician… always blunt and open. Diplomacy has never been your forte…
I don’t have two faces. I speak my mind. If I want to use expletives, I will do that without any qualms.
How different are the politicians from the southern Kerala and Malabar?
Yes, there are historical differences. I will share a story. Lord Rama was returning from Lanka, after killing Ravana, along with his brother Lakshman and wife Sita in Pushpaka Vimanam. When the vimanam was passing through the southern parts of Kerala, Lakshman thought of pushing his brother to the sea and going away with Sita. But by the time he reached Thrissur, there was a change of mind. He felt remorseful. Rama patted him on the shoulder and said, “Yes, I read your mind. It’s not your fault. The fault lies with the land we covered…” (laughs out).
CPM, Congress and BJP have leaders from Malabar at their helm. What could be the reason?
Honesty, straightforwardness and courage. (laughs)