When Sudheeran went on a fast for coastal railway


It is usual to hear Kerala voters celebrated for their political wisdom. But here is the riddle. How could such supposedly wise voters bestow Congress its only triumph in the 1977 general elections held right after the Emergency? Even the mighty Indira Gandhi had fallen. But here in Kerala, the Congress-led United Front swept all the 20 seats on offer.

Was the Kerala voter truly insensitive to the excesses of the Emergency? V M Sudheeran, then a 28-year-old first-time candidate from Alappuzha, has a possible explanation. According to him, all that was wrong about the Emergency in North India came to light only later. Even the death of engineering student Rajan tumbled out into the open after the elections.

Still, how was it possible for a voter to turn a blind eye to the brutalities unleashed by Karunakaran's police on suspected naxallites and CPM workers within Kerala? There were many young casualties. There should have been some sympathy at least. Instead there was a rout. All big CPM names - V S Achuthanandan, K R Gouri, E Balanandan - all were beaten hollow. Balanandan fell to Sudheeran in a then Marxist bastion like Alappuzha for a stunning 64,000 votes.

Sudheeran offers another reason. "Leaders like A K Antony and the Youth Congress did function as a corrective force during the period. Whenever police brutality came to our notice, we were the first to protest," Sudheeran said. Here is what he left unsaid: This was also the beginning of the Karunakaran-Antony rivalry.

The CPI stalwart M N Govindan Nair had also echoed Sudheeran. "A K Antony stood as the massive Vindhya range that prevented the Emergency from reaching Kerala," M N had once said.

Nonetheless, the anti-Indira coalition was taken aback by Kerala's behaviour. Socialist leader George Fernandes, boiling over with revulsion for Kerala, called the result "A twist in the tail". By using the world tail, T-A-I-L, Fernandes was actually dismissing Kerala as one of India's least significant parts."

Retaliation, it seemed, would acquire the form of indifference. Kerala would simply be ignored. First-time MP Sudheeran suffered. He had just one agenda: Get a coastal railway for Alappuzha. His first question and first speech in Parliament was about the coastal railway.

When his words floated inside the Parliament building like unwanted space debris, Sudheeran began writing letters to senior ministers like Madhu Dantawade, Surjit Singh Barnala, H L Bahuguna, Jagjivan Ram, and even George Fernandes. Nothing happened.

So he met the Indian President himself. In fact, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy took a special liking for Sudheeran as he reminded him of his son. Sudheer was the name of the President's son. But this paternal warmth did not extend to Alappuzha as a railway line.

The young Congress MP now realised that he could catch the attention of the Morarji Desai government only with an act of daring. He announced a fast to death in Delhi. Soon enough, it was with some sense of satisfaction that Sudheeran received the news that the Prime Minister was furious. So he met Morarji Desai directly.

The PM was cold to begin with. He said Sudheeran was setting a bad precedent by fasting for a local issue. He even called it inappropriate. Sudheeran heard him out with respect and then told him, "Morarjibhai, the coastal railway was a promise made by Pandit Nehru. But my people are still waiting for it. Haven't you gone on a hunger strike seeking elections in Gujarat in 1975? I am only following in your footsteps."

The moment he said this, there was a hint of a smile on the PM's grave face. Four months later in March 1979, when railway minister Madhu Dantavade presented the railway budget, the coastal railway for Alappuzha was one of the announcements.

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