It was past noon when Defence Minister Arakaparambhil Kurian Antony, 68, emerged from the Government Guest House, an imposing white Victorian building, in the heart of Ernakulam, the business hub of God’s Own Country.
Name: Arakaparambhil Kurian Antony,
Born: December 20, 1940
Education: B.A. (Political Science), L.L.B
1954: Joined the student wing of Congress (KSU) at 14.
1984: AICC general secretary
1977-78: CM of Kerala (he has been CM for three terms, the other two were from 1995-96 and 2001-2005).
1993: Became civil supplies minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao Cabinet. 1995: He quit following
allegations of irregularities in a sugar import deal.
Antony had parted ways with the Congress after the Emergency, but returned to its fold in 1980 on the
insistence of senior party leader K. Karunakaran.
Later, he was to emerge as Karunakaran’s main rival within the party in the state.
A grassroots leader, his main strength is his squeaky clean image and proximity to the Congress high command.
It was hot, humid and muggy, but Antony, fresh from a rice-and-fish curry lunch, looked dapper as ever, in a stiffly starched white khadi shirt and mundu (dhoti), as he entered the grey Toyota Innova, one of a dozen-odd vehicles that make up his motorcade, en route to his first rally in the Chalakudy constituency, 40 km away.
“Turn down the air-conditioner,” he instructs his driver in Malayalam. “My spondylitis is playing up,” he said, popping an Ayurvedic pill.
The day’s first meeting is at Angamally, an urban centre, about 30 km from Ernakulam. As the convoy screeched to a halt near the venue, the ear-splitting sound of crackers filled the air. Party workers, mostly middle-aged and elderly men, almost all dressed in crisp white khadi, rushed to greet him, garlands in hand. His security men quickly formed a ring around him.
It took Antony a few minutes to wade through the crowd to the drab white podium, packed with local party notables. The lectern and the microphone were too high for him (he is just about 5 feet 3 inches tall), but he laughed it off.
“My height sometimes creates problems for me,” he said. The crowd bursts into laughter. Antony knows he has broken the ice. He is not a firebrand orator. Rather, he almost talks to them, choosing his words carefully.
“The Centre has pumped Rs 40,000 crore into Kerala over the last five years. Yet, the CPI(M) says the Centre has neglected the state. Do you believe them?” The crowd shakes its head.
The Congress candidate from Chalakudy, a traditional Congress bastion that fell to the Left in 2004, is KP Dhanapalan, a long-time Antony follower. “I don’t have to tell you about the candidate. Even if you scan his dress a hundred times, you won’t find a black spot on it,” he said, and ended with his familiar plea: “So, give him a helping hand.”
The meeting is over. As he walked off the dais, a section of the crowd surged forward to meet him. Antony leant over, graciously shook a few hands and waved as he made his way back to his car.
The next venue is Perumbavoor, 15 km away. On the way, he drank a cup of black tea and exchanged a few notes on with Ernakulam District Congress Committee chief V.J. Paulose, who was in his vehicle.
The sky, by now, had become overcast. It suddenly started raining. As he alighted from his car, the sweet smell of wet earth wafted through the air. “Look, I have brought you rain…” The rest of the message is largely the same:
It’s more of the same in each of the next five meetings he addressed. Despite the heavy rains, there are large crowds at each of them.
By the time he returns to the guest house, it was well past 10. Some local leaders were waiting to meet him. Following a quick and frugal dinner, he spent the next half-an-hour closeted with them, conducting a post-mortem of the day’s proceedings, and planning for the next. Then, he glanced up meaningfully at the big clock on the far wall. The others read the message — their leader was telling them to leave. After the hustle and bustle of the electoral battle, this is how he loves to unwind — alone. Tomorrow, it’ll be back to the battlefield.