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Published in the 16-28 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Muslim League after Kunhalikkutty

By AP Muhammed Afsal

The Milli Gazette Online

Apparently frustrated and unable to face the public ire anymore, PK Kunhalikkutty finally resigned as cabinet minister for industries and IT from the Oommen Chandy government of Kerala on January 5. It took two-month-long campaign by the CPM-led opposition to fetch this result. Resigned over his alleged involvement in the Kozhikkode 'ice cream parlour' sex scandal, Kunhalikkutty is still enjoying the same clout as he had earlier at the helm of affairs in the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) as its state general secretary. It is reported that he may establish party headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram, so that he could control affairs of MLAs, IUML ministers and the party more efectively. Till now, Kozhikode, a major city of predominantly Muslim region of Malabar is the party headquarters. 

IUML state committee on January 1, which approved the resignation of Kunhalikkutty, asked other IUML ministers to consult with Kunhalikkutty before taking any major policy decisions. Moreover, VK Ebrahim Kunhu, a political novice, conveniently handpicked by Kunhalikkutty himself, would fill the vacancy left by him. Kunhalikkutty was all in full broad smiles during the press conference in which party state president Syed Mohammed Ali Shihab Thangal announced his resignation. But in the realignment of portfolios, IUML lost IT, a clear signal from chief minister Oommen Chandy that he is not ready to depend on the first time MLA and minister Ebrahim Kunhu. 

While it was clear beyond doubt that it was the volte-face of Rejina, the prime witness in the ice cream parlour sex scandal, and the related violent incidents it sparked off in the state, ultimately led to the resignation, but Kunhalikkutty gave more stunning reason. In a letter to Shihab Thangal on 24 December 2004, which was made public four days later, he said: "I had communicated my difficulties earlier to you about holding the two positions of the minister and the party general secretary simultaneously. But the party council meeting convened in Kozhikkode later asked me to continue with both responsibilities and now I am requesting you to reconsider that decision once again." Incidentally, the witness in the sex scandal turned hostile in favour of Kunhalikkutty earlier due to the allurement of money by the minister's relatives, it was alleged.

Even his bitter opponents would admit the fact that Kunhalikkutty was a talented administrator. A king-maker and political manipulator, his rise in the party from a small-time municipal councilor to a political force, was meteoric. Of course, he exploited the weakness of the party machinery for this. This time, as a minister, one of his dream projects, Global Investors Meet (GIM), did not take-off as he miserably failed to secure the desired level of investment. 

Forget the double morality standard of Keralites in similar cases of ministers involved in the sex scandals. Does Muslim League still enjoy the credibility it had earlier? Clearly, there are signs of Muslim League in a new height, which it had never even dreamt of, in terms of power and position. For the first time, an IUML man is here in the union ministry. Despite strong resentment from CPM quarters, its general secretary E. Ahamed became minister of state in the high profile external affairs ministry, becoming a blue-eyed boy of Sonia Gandhi. The party could claim that it has removed the stigma of being a party founded by the man who divided India, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. And, in Kerala government now it has four powerful portfolios, which control more than half of the total budgetary allocation of the state. With 17 MLAs, it is the second largest party in the 99-member strong UDF, and in power in good number of local three tier panchayats.

But, for the first time in its history, as a harbinger of subsequent setbacks including Kunhalikkutty incident, IUML lost its citadel of Manjery in the 2004 Lok Sabha poll, where the party had earlier managed to win even in troubled situations. With left, with Congress, and even alone, the party had kept winning Manjery. Even Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait after his split had failed to break the Manjery's itch towards Muslim League. While the exact reasons for the newfound disillusionment are unclear, one of the reasons can be the arrogant body language of the candidate KPA Majeed (a commoner brought to the scene as part of a damage control exercise after allocating a Rajya Sabha seat to millionaire PV Abdul Wahab). But a tricky question remains unanswered. How E Ahmed came to know this situation and shifted to the nearby safer seat of Ponnani, denying the seat to GM Banatwalla, the sole pan Indian face of the IUML and a committed parliamentarian. 

The party has been a failure in understanding the sectarian differences among the community for sometime, IUML watchers claim. On several occasions it failed to be a neutral entity which has nothing to do with such matters. While morality remained an issue of least concern, IUML always either echoed or remained an onlooker when the EK faction of Samastha Kerala Jamiatul Ulama, to which Shihab Thangal himself belongs, handled the party affairs in a brazen manner. The hue and cry over wearing tilak on forehead by it's former minister Cherkkalam Abdullah while he was attending a function in a mutt, was a case in point. He was called kafir, forced to resign and apologise, on that tiny issue. That too by a group running durgahs in which un-Islamic practices are rampant. All along, Shihab Thangal, the neutral man stood bystander, allowing his brother Umerali, youth wing leader of EK Samastha, who released the fatwa against the minister, to intervene in party affairs. After giving media a spectacular show to celebrate, the issue died down. When there were several charges levelled against Cherkkalam, including corruption, there was a deafening silence. 

In order to get around the democratic practices and debates within, what the leaders with vested interest have cultivated in the party is a spiritual leadership, something unheard of or unseen in any political party in India. Neither in the party constitution nor in precedent, was there any such practice. Thus, unlike Panakkad Pookkoya Thangal and Abdurahiman Bafaqi Thangal, earlier leaders of IUML who belonged to the cleric families, Shihab Thangal became an unquestionable spiritual leader. In case you are a leader of the party with any reformist background which does not agree with such leadership, it would be a politically correct step if you show restraint on such issues. Otherwise you will face the same experience KT Jaleel of Youth League had. Once before the media, Jaleel had a tongue slip that Shihab Thangal is nothing more than a political leader. Then too an angry Samastha came to the stage and forced Jaleel to tender apology. 

These incidents do not even constitute the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Corruption, sycophancy, dynasty, contractor raj all is rampant at all levels of party mechanism as if it were required to be the fittest political party. Despite all the negataive points and inherent drawbacks of being a political party, IUML still remains the only outfit which could bring a wider section of Muslims of Kerala under one umbrella. Even though there were people who are always against the party within and without, broadly the Muslim League is considered to be the representative of the community in Kerala. The biggest beneficiary has always been the community whenever Muslim League came to power. The initiatives it provided for the creation of a community that has strong belief in Constitution and without a great deal of feeling of injustice was all the more important. Future of Muslim League lies in a thorough course-correction and introspection. Will the Muslim League leadership pay heed?

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