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Friday, April 23, 2021

AK Antony interview: ‘This time a Cong-led govt in Kerala ..will hasten revival of party, help Rahul throw Modi out’

In an exclusive interview with the Indian Express, Former Kerala CM AK Antony says, "All surveys say there are a large segment of independent voters... Undecided and independent voters will decide the fate of the Kerala election. They don’t want a continuation of the present government..."

Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi |
Updated: April 4, 2021 5:10:45 pm
AK Antony Kerala assembly elections 2021A K Antony, former Kerala CM, CWC member. (Express Archive)

Kerala has traditionally voted the incumbent government out of power. But this time there is talk of the CPM-led LDF continuing in power. What has changed?

There is no question of continuation of the present government. A vast majority of the population of Kerala wants change. They are in a way afraid of the present Pinarayi (Vijayan) government continuing. The UDF will come back under a Congress Chief Minister after this election.

… We don’t believe in the surveys (opinion polls). Even all these surveys say there is a large segment of the population which is undecided. This time, these undecided voters, independent voters and a section of the Left voters… they will vote for the UDF. Even a section of the Leftists feel that if the LDF retains power, the fate of the Communist parties in Kerala, especially the CPM, will be the same as that of the West Bengal CPM. After 35 years of continuous government in West Bengal, the CPM is almost nil there now. A second term for the LDF means the CPM in Kerala will face the same fate…

While you are fighting with the CPM in Kerala, in Bengal, the Congress has tied up with it. And none of your top leaders, especially Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, has gone to Bengal for campaigning in the first two phases.

The CPM in Bengal is no more the old CPM. Their muscle power has gone mainly to the TMC and BJP. That is why our party in Bengal decided to have a truck with the CPM. In Kerala, a second term for the Left means the Kerala CPM will also meet the same fate.

What challenges is the Congress facing in Kerala this time?

It is a straight fight between the Congress-led UDF and CPM-led LDF, the BJP is a marginal force. Last election they got one seat. I don’t think this time they will be able to retain that seat.

Has the message Congress wanted to send by fielding a strong candidate in Nemom (the only BJP seat) gone across the state? Will it benefit Congress?

We debated who could be the best candidate to recapture Nemom from the BJP. We thought of many names. Ultimately, the Kerala party decided that (Lok Sabha MP) K Muraleedharan is the best candidate. He had defeated the same BJP candidate (Kummanam Rajasekharan) in the last Assembly elections from Vattiyoorkavu (an Assembly segment in Thiruvananthapuram).

Rahul Gandhi Kerala elections 2021 Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during an election campaign for Kerala assembly polls, in Mananthavady. (PTI Photo)

Last Parliament elections, we had asked him to contest from Vadakara, a CPM stronghold. He captured that seat. The Nemom seat was once represented by late K Karunakaran, Muraleedharan’s father. And the people of Thiruvananthapuram, especially Nemom, have a soft corner for Karunakaran. Muraleedharan himself is a fighter.

But has that message gone across that the Congress is serious about keeping the BJP out of Kerala? Will it help you attract more minority votes?

I am not a daydreamer. Here and there, there will be BJP pockets. Even before the BJP, the Jan Sangh was strong in certain pockets… in Palakkad, Kasargod, Thiruvananthapuram… But they got one seat and that too only last time. In the last Parliament elections, they got nearly 16% votes. Our aim is to have a new Assembly without a representative of the BJP. That does not mean all over the state the BJP has no workers or sympathisers… but our aim is to see that there is no BJP MLA in the Assembly. As a party, the BJP will exist in Kerala, but as a weak party.

Is the UDF worried about the Christian voters since the Kerala Congress (M) has shifted to the LDF. The BJP’s talk of ‘love jihad’ appears to have some traction in the community.

In the recent local body elections, the CPM divided castes and communities. In the name of Sabarimala, they divided the Hindu community between those who ‘support renaissance’ and those who ‘oppose it’… And they have cleverly created a rift between Christians and Muslims.

Kerala assembly elections 2021 Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi during his Kerala campaign trail in Thirunelli Temple in Wayanad on Sunday. (Twitter/Congress)

(But) Those things are over now. Every community in Kerala realises that, whether they like it or not, unlike north India, in every village in the state, Hindus, Muslims and Christians live together as neighbours. So community leaders realise that they may have some differences… but that should not be allowed to blow up. After local body elections, community leaders themselves took the initiative to sort out issues. Now the communal temperature has cooled down… The Congress also played a role… the party has never tried to win an election by dividing communities. We are an umbrella party… we believe in unifying all castes and communities.

But do you think a party that calls itself progressive, like the Congress, should talk about bringing a law to subvert a Supreme Court order regarding entry of all women into Sabarimala? That’s the same stand as the BJP’s.

There is no conflict in that. Because the Congress as a party believes in the Constitution… which guarantees fundamental rights. Every Indian, irrespective of religion or region, is allowed to follow their beliefs and customs. That is the strength of India. Unity in diversity, pluralism. We want to uphold this pluralism. We want to protect the beliefs, customs, language, culture of all people… In Kerala, there are lakhs and lakhs of temples. Their customs are different. Only the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala has a custom that women above 10 and below 60 years of age are not allowed to enter… We want to protect the custom. That is all.

… Except Sabarimala, in every other temple women are free to enter. In Mookambika temple in Karnataka, even Christians can go. In many temples in Kerala non-Hindus can go… This temple (Sabarimala) alone… there is a custom like that…. Even Hindu women are particular about protecting it… It is not anti-women, it is a custom.

Elections in Kerala and Assam are very significant for the Congress. If the Congress performs badly in these states, how will it impact the party? Similarly, how will a win change the discourse? Particularly as the Congress has to appoint a new president after the elections.

We will do well in Assam. We are in a far, far better position. In Tamil Nadu, our ally DMK will sweep the polls with our support. In Kerala, we feel we can form a Congress-led government and that will help the revival of the party at the national level. In 1970, after the split in the Congress in 1969 between Congress (O) and Congress (I), the first election was in Kerala. That election, the Congress became the single-largest party. From Kerala, Indiraji’s Congress started its forward march. This time also, a Congress-led government… will hasten the process of revival, resurrection of the Congress. And this process will help the Congress under Rahul Gandhi throw the Modi government out of power in 2024. This is our long-term perspective.

Should Congress have projected a Chief Ministerial face in Kerala? Would it have helped?

It was a considered decision by Kerala party leaders. After many days of debate and deliberation, they thought that to garner more votes from all sections of the people of Kerala, to get a better performance… it was better to project collective leadership… There will not be any quarrel on chief ministership after the elections. The Congress high command, after consulting people concerned in Kerala, will choose a CM unanimously.

How do you rate CM Pinarayi Vijayan?

Personally, as an individual, I have nothing against him. But as Chief Minister, I don’t like his style. It is an autocratic style. He is impatient, he is not willing to pay attention to criticism from the Opposition, media, the different social groups of Kerala.

He seems to be very popular.

All surveys say there are a large segment of independent voters… Undecided and independent voters will decide the fate of the Kerala election. They don’t want continuation of the present government…

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