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Friday, December 24, 2010

Kerala mourns as ’Leader’ departs, cremation Saturday

Thiruvananthapuram: Veteran Congress leader K. Karunakaran, a four-time chief minister of Kerala who was a pale shadow of his original self in his final days, died here Thursday evening of old age and illness, enveloping the entire state in sorrow.

Despite rains, thousands poured on to the streets as the body of the 92-year-old was taken from the Ananthapuri Hospital, where he was admitted Dec 10, to his home less than 10 km away in a closed ambulance as news of his death spread rapidly.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi will visit Kerala Friday to pay homage to a man who once rubbed shoulders with Jawaharlal Nehru and was a confidant of Indira Gandhi, a closeness that made him Kerala's undisputed Congress leader. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will attend the cremation Saturday.

The Marxist-led Kerala government announced a public holiday Friday. The cremation will take place in his hometown Thrissur Christmas day Saturday, the event expected to draw a mass of people from all over Kerala.

Karunakaran's condition deteriorated last week and he was put on the ventilator. His condition improved in a few days but he suffered a stroke Wednesday. He died at 5.30 p.m. Thursday. He is survived by his politician son K. Muraleedharan and daughter Padmaja Venugopal.

As Congress leaders described his death as a huge loss to the party, Marxist Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan rushed to the hospital to salute a man he had politically opposed all his life.

"He was a leader who relentlessly worked for the development of Kerala, and his attachment to the ordinary worker was something that was unique to him," Achuthanandan said.

So thick was the rush of mourners that the chief minister had to struggle to enter the hospital. Later, as the body was taken to his home, the rains began to batter the city, drenching everyone.

K.M. Mani, who served in all his four cabinets, said it was amazing to see Karunakaran handle crisis moments.

"It was a thing that made him a great leader because at times of crisis he always appeared to be a man of great determination," said Mani, who heads the Kerala Congress (Mani).

On Friday, his body would be taken to the Congress office and kept at the Durbar Hall at the State Secretariat for people to pay homage.

Born in Kannur July 5, 1918, Karunakaran tasted his first electoral victory in in 1945 when he was elected to the Trissur Municipal Council on a Congress ticket.

He was elected to the Kerala assembly seven times consecutively from Mala in Trissur, from 1967 to 1991. He was a minister, leader of the opposition thrice, chief minister four times, and was elected to the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha thrice and twice respectively.

Karunakaran survived two serious road accidents in the 1990s, one of which needed treatment in the US.

But even as he built up the Congress in Kerala, making it a formidable opponent of the well-entrenched Communists, no party leader could rise in the state unless minus Karunakaran's blessings.

His main rival in the Congress was A.K. Antony, now the defence minister.
He groomed more than three dozen Congress leaders including the present state party president, Ramesh Chennithala.

His first major setback came when he had to resign as chief minister a month after taking charge following a judicial stricture over the death of a young man accused of being a Maoist, post-Emergency.

The disappearance of Rajan, the engineering college student, haunted Karunakaran for the rest of his life.

He had to quit as chief minister again in March 1995 when his name was linked to a police official in what was known as the "ISRO spy scandal".

Karunakaran was the industry minister in the cabinet of P.V. Narasimha Rao.

It was his undisguised love for his son Muraleedharan, who took to politics after failing in business and was elected to the Lok Sabha, that began to turn many Congress members against him.

As rival Antony grew in strength, in New Delhi and Kerala, Karunakaran made political mistakes.

To hurt Antony, he did the unthinkable and supported the Left in a Lok Sabha election. Then, he dramatically dumped the Congress and formed his own party in 2005, with the intention of crossing over to the Left.

That did not happen and he returned to the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). He later merged his party with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), a Left ally.

Finally, Karunakaran returned to the Congress. But his son refused to follow suit and, to his shock, renounced all ties with his father.

From then on, Karunakaran was a broken man. He occasionally visited the Congress office but was no more the giant of a leader that he was for four long decades.

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