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Last Updated Monday June 26 2017 09:16 AM IST

Congress-IUML: Shifting sands

Sujit Nair
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BJP leaders bicker as RSS tightens its bear hug Image for representation only. File

Not so long ago, Muslim League leader P.K. Kunhalikutty had issued a warning to the leadership of the main constituent of the UDF. Disappointed with the internal bickering in Congress, he threatened that if the party refused to mend their ways, the League would be forced to look for other options and devise ‘new frames of understanding’.

The Congress leadership, however, heaved a sigh of relief when the same Kunhalikutty, at a convention organized by the UDF to declare state-wide agitations against the ‘anti-people’ policies of central and state governments recently, spoke at length about the need to stand together to fight foes.

It was obvious that Kunhalikutty and Panakkad Syed Hyderali Shihab Thangal have given up their earlier tactical stance of adopting a soft approach towards the CPM while being an UDF ally.

Understandably, there were three reasons that led to the sudden change in the League’s position after a period of strain and drift in the relations between the two parties. First, the show of solidarity by Congress president Sonia when controversies surrounded the death of former union minister E. Ahamed. Second, the by-poll in Malappuram Lok Sabha constituency necessitated by his demise, and finally, the poor performance of the eight-month-old Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government.

The League leadership was all praise for the efforts taken by Sonia to ensure that best care was provided to Ahmed. Disregarding her physical ailments, she rushed to the hospital to visit him and lashed out at the NDA government for its highhandedness amid allegations that his family members were not allowed access to the parliamentarian.

Hyderali Shihab Thangal wrote to Sonia expressing his party’s gratitude for the whole-hearted support extended by her. Congress, in turn, made measured moves to convince the League leadership about the 'high regards' the party has for the League and its departed leader. The High Command sent AICC general secretary Mukul Wasnik to Kerala to attend the burial, while Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi was in constant touch with Ahamed’s children. The KPCC convened an emergency meeting to condole the death of the senior leader of the UDF constituent.

In short, the Congress leadership took initiatives to bid adieu to a leader of another party with full honors and that was something unprecedented in its history. Tributes of such magnitude and profundity had been reserved to national-level leaders of the party until then.

Anyway, the ‘homage diplomacy’ has helped the parties to reaffirm and strengthen the bonds, at least for the time being. That could be the reason why Kunhalikutty confidently announced at the convention that the UDF was on the path to re-emerge in Kerala, and Malappuram will provide telling signs of the front’s newly-found strength. Palpably, his target was the CPM.

Following his fiery speech, the rumor mill has been abuzz that Kunhalikutty will be the League candidate in the by-poll.

Kunhalikutty, the national treasure of the League at present, had recently hinted that he was ready to take a break from the 30-year-long career in state politics in order to enter the national political scene. There were unconfirmed reports that he had expressed his desire to Hyderali Shihab Thangal during their return journey from Thiruvananthapuram after the convention.

If sources in the League circles are to be believed, Kunhalikutty’s candidature is more or less confirmed, unless somebody from the Panakkad family emerges to fill the void left by Ahamed.

The Thangal family has always kept a safe distance from active and power politics. When Sayyid Muhammad Ali Shihab Thangal, who eventually led the party for three decades, returned after completing his graduation from Egypt's Al Azhar University, he was offered a Rajya Sabha post, and later the position of ambassador to Egypt. But his father Sayyid Pookoya Thangal did not allow him to take up both the jobs for the very same reason. That is why the League leadership termed the rumors regarding the candidature of Sadique Ali Thangal or Munavvar Ali Thangal as baseless.

If Kunhalikutty contests the Lok Sabha by-poll, it would necessitate another by-election to the Vengara assembly constituency seat currently represented by him. The League leaders are positive about confronting such a challenge, saying that ‘two back-to-back huge election wins’ will do a sea of good for the UDF.

With the Lok Sabha by-poll expected to be held at the earliest, it would not be surprising if the League leadership discuss the proposed candidature of Kunhalikutty at its national working committee meeting scheduled for February 26.

In fact, the participation of the three key members of the Thangal family at the UDF’s big ticket convention held in Thiruvanthapuram came as a morale booster for the Congress. Also, Hyderali Shihab Thangal has confirmed his attendance at the meeting to be held in Chavakkad to accord reception to a UDF’s zonal rally led by V.D. Satheesan.

There were naysayers within the front who criticized the decision to hold zonal marches to expose the anti-people policies of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government saying that it was premature to organize such an agitation against a government, which is just eight-month old.

The series of protest programs, including the zonal jathas, could be seen as a fitting reply from opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala to those who criticized the leadership’s inability to highlight the failures of the LDF government. The indefinite fast launched by K. Muraleedharan MLA, who fired the first salvo at the leadership, in front of the Law Academy Law College in Thiruvananthapuram surprised many in the party, including the opposition leader.

In fact, Muraleedharan did not consult with the leadership before deciding to take up the fast. When some of the leaders proposed Aruvikkara Congress MLA K.S. Sabarinathan to lead an agitation in front of the Law Academy, both Oommen Chandy and Chennithala were not convinced about the strategy.

It was then Muraleedharan took everybody by surprise with his unexpected move. A section of Congress leaders blamed lack of coordination in the leadership for this confusion. However, Congress is relieved that not many have voiced their dissent over this particular issue and blew it out of proportion.

Nevertheless, the party is looking to capitalize on the growing voices of dissent within the LDF over the CPM’s stance on the Law Academy issue.

The Kerala Congress (M), which acts as a separate independent opposition block in the assembly after severing ties with the UDF, is not a force to reckon with in Malappuram. However, the question whether the party will extend electoral support to any of the fronts remains. Let’s wait and see. 

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