Kerala's ports minister Kadannappally Ramachandran was studying law at the Kerala Law Academy in Thiruvananthapuram when the 1971 Lok Sabha polls were announced. He was 26, poor and skinny, the state president of the KSU, the Congress's student wing. Forget being a giant killer, even contesting an Assembly election was a distant possibility for him.
When he first heard of the plan, Kadannappally just gave a knowing smile as he knew how good his friends were at coming up with fun scenarios to tease him. Kadannappally as the Congress candidate in Kasaragod, against the mightiest Communist of them all, A K Gopalan. “A guy who had not even developed a moustache taking on AKG! This was utterly crazy,” Kadannappally just cannot help marvel at the audacity of the plan even now.
Joke turned serious
Kadannappally was with his friends under a tree in front of the Ernakulam Law College when the idea cropped up. P C Chacko, Vayalar Ravi, Oommen Chandy, A K Antony - the rising young stars of the Congress then - were there. “It was Vayalar Ravi who first said this. He said a student leader should take on AKG from Kasaragod. Everyone said I would be just right as I belonged to Kasaragod. I laughed as I was sure they were joking,” Kadannappally said.
They were not. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself called him up and asked him to take up the challenge. Nearly half a century later, there is still disbelief in Kadannappally's voice. “Could I have ever thought of it,” he asked in a conspiratorial whisper, seated in his minister's bungalow in Thiruvananthapuram. “How can a frail, wisp of a guy like me, with not enough money to buy even college textbooks, take on someone as towering as AKG. He was the greatest warrior of the working class. He was my icon, too,” Kadannappally said. Moreover, AKG had held the Kasaragod seat without much of a bother since the 1957 Lok Sabha polls. In the previous 1967 Lok Sabha elections, AKG had won Kasaragod with a majority of 1.19 lakh votes.
A king maker's fall and AKG's escape
There was more to Kadannappally's choice than playful banter under a college campus tree. It was inspired by Congress legend K Kamaraj's shock defeat to P Seenivasan, a student leader put up by the DMK in Virudunagar seat during the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in 1967. “If a hugely popular leader like Kamaraj could be felled by a student, why can't one of ours do the same to AKG,” is how former KSU leader Cheriyan Philip described the thinking within the Congress.
The ploy worked. “The Indira Gandhi wave across the country and the rising popularity of young Congress leaders suddenly made AKG vulnerable. The CPM had to shift AKG to a safe seat,” Cheriyan Philip said. In the late sixties, when school and college managements had unbridled control over education and were harassing students, it was the KSU that had stood as the corrective force.
Indira usurps Left agenda
The Congress under Indira Gandhi was also looking more socialist than the Marxists. Indira had nationalised banks and had abolished the Privy Purse that granted special privileges to former princely states. She also had on her side the CPI, which had leaders of almost the same stature as AKG like M N Govindan Nair, C Achutha Menon, T V Thomas and P K Vasudevan Nair. The CPM was virtually isolated. Its only ally was the highly marginalised Samyuktha Socialist Party (SSP), made up of Lohiaites like Sivabharathi and Arangil Sreedharan.
But most of all, Indira's 'Garibi Hatao' slogan had captured the imagination of the nation.
Besides the unfavourable political climate, the CPM had other considerations, too. “AKG was CPM's biggest crowd puller and the party wanted him to campaign all over the state. He was also the party's most efficient collector of funds. With Kadannappally's entry it looked like AKG would be stuck in Kasaragod,” said G Sakthidharan, a former CPM member and editor of Janashakthi.
The party asked its Palakkad sitting MP E K Nayanar (who later went on to become the chief minister of the state) to make way for AKG. Palakkad and Alappuzha, where the trade union movements thrived, were then considered CPM fiefdoms. Thus, Nayanar became Kadannappally's opponent.
“Nayanar was no pushover. He was already one of the tallest CPM leaders, a sitting MP, and had strong connections in Kasaragod,” Kadannappally said. Nayanar was then considered to be one of the Kayyur heroes. Though historians had disputed this later, Nayanar was said to have been one of the leaders who went into hiding after the Kayyur uprising.
Kadannappally said the 1971 campaign was a modest one. “We had just two jeeps, and we had the candidate's poster mounted on a frame on either side of both the vehicles,” he said. This was similar to the way movies were advertised in those days. He still remembers with awe the moment his campaign team entered Kayyur village, the hallowed land where the blood of the Communist martyrs had fallen.
Mothers of Kayyur
“We were three hours late and it had become dark,” Kadannappally said. He was amazed to see the crowd. “This was a village that knew of no other party other than the Communist party. I was sure that more than 99 per cent of those who gathered at the venue were Communists. It might have been out of curiosity that they, mostly women, waited for me,” Kadannappally said.
As he got out of the vehicle and stood before the crowd, the young candidate was asked to stand on top of a bench. There was just a petromax lamp to light up the place. It almost felt like ragging. “We are not able to see you properly. Get on the bench fast, we need to go home,” a woman shouted. Another woman wanted the petromax kept closer to the candidate. He quickly got on top of a bench and said his usual few words. “I don't speak more than 10 minutes, and I have a standard speech. I just tell the crowd to vote for Congress to strengthen the hands of Indira Gandhi,” Kadannappally said.
After the speech, he got down from the bench, took the petromax from the person who was holding it and waded into the crowd. “The light from the petromax gave them a better view of my face. “Isn't this Krishnan Gurukkal's son. He is such a small boy”, I could hear many of the women say. I told them to consider me as their own son and vote for me,” Kadannappally said. His father P V Krishnan Gurukkal was a respected Sanskrit teacher in the area.
Night Ramachandran was born
His last stop that day was Cheruvathoor village. By then it was too late, nearing 11 pm. After he made his usual “Vote for me to strengthen Indira Gandhi's hands” speech in the feeble yellow light of the petromax, Kadannappally came to know that a pregnant lady who had been waiting for him had to be quickly taken back home after her labour pain started. Kadannappally expressed his wish to visit the house that night itself. By the time he reached, the woman had given birth. The boy was later named Ramachandran. “I still keep in touch with the family,” Kadannappally said.
In AKG's embrace
In the elections that took place a week later, he defeated Nayanar by over 28,000 votes and entered the Parliament at 26. AKG won comfortably from Palakkad. “As I came down from the Speaker's podium after the swearing in, Indira Gandhi asked me to go and meet AKG. I went across to AKG. He stood up, smiled and embraced me. I cried,” Kadannappally said.
It is one of the strange quirks of fate that Kadannappally, along with A K Antony and his other KSU friends, questioned Indira Gandhi's abuse of power and switched over to the Left in 1978. Antony and his other friends went back to the Congress in quick time but Kadannapally still stands by his hero AKG's party.