If he had ever worn a cowl, he would have been passed for a sanyasin—such was his composure, with a beard that mellowed and turned grey over the years and along with the events in Kerala politics. But even then, one could hardly miss the glint of fire in his eyes.
A two-time minister and six-time Member of Legislative Assembly, G Karthikeyan was the personification of a fine balance between fire and ice.
Speaker of Kerala Assembly, G Karthikeyan, GK as he was called by all, was an unalloyed “political animal”, as he himself had defined him, quoting Aristotle. GK passed away on March 7, 2015, at a private hospital in Bengaluru, succumbing to cancer in his liver. He was 66.
In a political career spanning over four decades, GK stood firm as a Congress loyalist, even at times when he had to question and lead a three-member dissidents’ group against his mentor and veteran Congress leader K Karunakaran. GK never minced words nor did he grow cold when situations demanded him to speak out. Well-read and with a sound understanding of the socio-cultural underpinnings of Kerala, GK did speak his mind, often packing his statements with quotes from literature.
GK walked alone, reflecting Nehruvian ideals, which his party has practically abandoned. His politics was a combination of pragmatism and idealism, a rare thing in the current Congress politics in Kerala. Often challenged with tricky political situations, it was perhaps his integrity and firm personality that helped him survive them all.
If not for his dislike for people “who stared at him” in Assam, where his father worked with ONGC, he would have ended up working in oil sector somewhere. After a brief stay with his father in Assam, GK left for his hometown, Varkala, in Thiruvananthapuram district.
GK cut his political teeth while he was active in KSU at Sree Narayana College in Kollam, which was a Left citadel, and later at Varkala. Though he came to the political fore as a KSU leader, the influence of social democratic ideals remained etched in his political life.
It was in 1992 that three young Congress leaders—GK, Ramesh Chennithala (current home minister) and MI Shanavas (sitting Member of Parliament from Wayanadu)—turned dissidents against the alleged nepotism of K Karunakaran when “Leader” tried to bring his son, K Muraleedharan, to party leadership sidelining many senior youth leaders. GK spoke out in public against the so-called “step-motherly” attitude meted out to some leaders.
The “Thiruthalvadi” (dissident) movement kindled new hopes in Congress rank and file, especially among the youth, at a time when the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee had two groups—the Indira group, led by Karunakaran, and the Antony group, led by AK Antony. The movement led to the whittling away of the Karunakaran’s era in Kerala’s Congress party. GK with his eloquence influenced the young Congress leaders and workers to redraw power equation within the party.
Even while he was a staunch supporter of Karunkaran, GK maintained a good rapport with Antony. “When the party was going through difficult times, it was G Karthikeyan who acted like a bridge between Karunakaran and myself, thus averting many crisis at that time,” writes Antony. Though he came across a tough nut to crack, GK at heart was soft and compassionate. “Though he maintained a tough exterior, GK was jovial and affable,” says Cherian Philip, one GK’s onetime close associates.
GK was one of the rare politicians who had a keen interest in art and culture, especially in literature. An avid reader, GK was instrumental in setting up a fund by which each member of the Assembly can buy books worth Rs 15,000 a year. He was also quick to respond to issues and ready to voice his opinion. The latest example was his retort against Arundhati Roy when she criticised Mahatma Gandhi. A lover of Malayalam, GK made sure that the Speaker’s arrival at the Assembly was announced in the mother-tongue, not in English as was the practice.