In the passing away of MI Shanavas, Congress party has lost an indefatigable politician. Despite tasting defeats in five consecutive elections, Shanavas never gave up and went on to rewrite electoral records by recording the biggest ever victory margin in the 2009 Lok Sabha Elections from Wayanad. Just a year into this victory, he was taken ill and doctors nearly gave up on him following complications. But Shanavas was back on his feet despite this debilitating episode and won yet again in the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections.
Shanavas or Shaji as he was fondly called, was among the â€˜Thiruthalvadiâ€™ (Correctionist) trio of (the late) G Karthikeyan and Ramesh Chennithala in the early 1990s rebelling against their â€˜leaderâ€™ and then Kerala Chief Minister K Karunakaran. The rebellion was prompted by Karunakaranâ€™s attempts to effect dynastic succession by undue promotion of his son K Muralidharan. Back in the day, many of the younger leaders in Congress didnâ€™t hesitate to take a stand. It was perhaps this episode which eventually unseated Karunakaran and marked these young rebels for leadership positions in the future.
Born in Thiruvalla in 1951, Shanavas was a Kerala Students Union (KSU) leader during his college days in Kozhikode and was elected the Chairman of the Calicut University Union in 1972. Later, he would rise up the ranks in Youth Congress and the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC). Shanavas was a part of the KPCC in many official capacities (Joint Secretary, General Secretary, Vice-President, official Spokesperson) for nearly three decades, till VM Sudheeranâ€™s appointment as PCC Chief in 2014. He had made a comeback as the Working President of the KPCC only weeks ago, taking everyone by surprise.
Shanavas was for long known as an unfortunate politician for his near-misses in successive elections. His maiden foray into electoral politics was in the 1987 Assembly Elections, contesting from Vadakkekkara (now Vypeen) after shifting his base to Kochi but he lost a close election to CPI(M)â€™s S Sharma by less than 500 votes. Shanavas couldnâ€™t bridge this gap in the next Assembly Election in 1991 as Sharma held on to his seat in another tight election. In 1996, post his rebellion against Karunakaran, Shanavas contested from Pattambi in Palakkad but lost to CPIâ€™s KE Ismail.
In the 1999 Lok Sabha Election, Shanavas contested from the Chirayinkil (now Attingal) seat from Thiruvananthapuram but lost to CPI (M)â€™s Varkala Radhakrishnan in another close race. Although Shanavas tried his luck again in 2004, Radhakrishnan had only widened the gap in an election that saw none of the Congress candidates winning from Kerala.
Back then, Shanavas was a regular fixture on TV panel debates on the nascent 24-hour Malayalam news channels in Kerala and this made him a well-recognised figure in the state. His interventions during the Indo-US nuclear deal are still fresh among the viewers. In 2009, Shanavas got the Congress ticket from the newly-drawn up Wayanad constituency and he created history by winning with the biggest ever margin in Kerala and polling 50% of the votes. In what was dubbed to be a tight three-cornered election, he relegated K Muralidharan (contesting on a Nationalist Congress Party ticket) to third place.
Shanavas took ill during the Ramzan month of 2010, even before the shine of his victory had worn off. After a prolonged absence following a surgery, Shanavas was back defying all odds and won the seat again in 2014, albeit with a lower margin. With health issues not letting him serve his constituents as well as he would have wanted, Shanavas was expected to bow out of contesting again in 2019.
Shanavas was among the few Muslim faces in Congress party in Kerala but he never wore that identity on his sleeve. Nevertheless, he maintained good relations with all the sects of Muslims including the Jamaat-e-Islami and the AP Sunnis (Kanthapuram faction) without alienating the EK Sunnis and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).
Unlike many of the younger leaders within Congress today, Shanavas was ever-accessible and always willing to communicate on the phone. He was with Karunakaran-led Indira faction till 1993 and then with the Antony faction for a decade but following Chennithalaâ€™s appointment as the PCC chief in 2005, Shanavas was back in the wider I faction. However, Shanavas remained close to AK Antony nevertheless and was acceptable to all factions.
Shanavasâ€™ appointment as the Working President of the KPCC under Mullappally Ramachandran took many by surprise as he was not seen to be a contender. It was the result of intense politicking and back and forth between Delhi and Kerala to evolve a consensus on the change of guard. Shanavas certainly deserved the role but his health was always going to be a concern for such a challenging job. Although he took charge in Indira Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram last month, he was taken ill soon after.
For someone who had to really struggle hard to carve his own space in Keralaâ€™s political landscape, it was perhaps fitting that he bid adieu as the Working President of Congress.
And, with the Congress facing an existential crisis in Kerala following the Sabarimala judgement with the Pinarayi Vijayan-led CPI (M) on one side and BJP on the other, it would be fitting to askâ€”Where are the â€˜Thiruthalvadisâ€™ of this generation?