This May, on a hot Saturday morning, I was one among the hundreds of people standing outside the residence of Kerala Congress (M) leader KM Mani, in Pala. The previous night the former finance minister had agreed to give me an interview. The octogenarian leader has been representing Pala since its formation in 1965, and the big crowd was waiting to see their MLA.
In the run-up to the polls, speculation was rife that Mani would break ties with the UDF, because he was dropped from the Cabinet after bribery charges were levelled against him. When I asked a young party worker in the crowd about the speculation, he said: “We were hoping that Mani sir would leave the UDF. The CM [Oommen Chandy] and [Ramesh] Chennithala have humiliated him and are trying to break the party.”
On Sunday, Mani announced that the KC(M) was quitting the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) after “Certain quarters in the Congress tried to weaken the KC(M), tried to wound its self-respect and defame it”.
Mani’s decision is unlikely to bring about a major upset in Kerala politics, because: The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic front (LDF) has a comfortable majority in the assembly, fights and splits are a recurring phenomenon in the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), and; KC(M)’s exit was anticipated.
The future of an independent KC(M) mainly depends on two factors: The future leadership of the party and its ability to shed the “corrupt” tag associated with it.
Party patriarch Mani is 83-year-old, but, as is seen in Indian politics, age of the leader is directly proportional to political ambition. Mani’s son, Jose K Mani, is likely to inherit his father’s mantle, but it is to be seen if he will be able to unite and lead the party the way his father has since its inception in 1979. Over the years there have been several mutinies and walkouts from the party, allegedly because of the bias shown by Mani towards his son.
The KC(M) leadership is aging — of the six MLAs in the current assembly, only two are below 60. Moreover, its second-rung leaders lack the charisma many if its rival leaders have, which is a sign of the diminishing hold the party has in its traditional strongholds. The defeat of the KC(M) candidate to PC George, an independent candidate who broke away from the party, points to this.
The KC(M) is largely seen as a corrupt party — a charge that is often exaggerated. After Mani’s name was associated with the bar bribery case, a rumour spread that there were currency counting machines in his house. Though it sounded preposterous, it did immense damage to the party.
The comrades at AKG Centre on Raghavan Road in Thiruvanathapuram will be keenly watching these developments, but will be a mute spectator, at least for now. The LDF might not require a new alliance member now, but four years later it could do better with the KC(M). While the Left front has done exceptionally well throughout the state, with near a clean sweep in at least three districts, its performance in Kottayam and Eranakulam in central Kerala has been poor—the KC(M) is strong in many constituencies here.
Mani’s exit will have its greatest impact on the fortunes and survival of the UDF. The alliance is mainly an amalgamation of the Indian National Congress and its many factions and splinter groups (without counting the IUML). The KC(M)’s exit will not only get the smaller groups ambitious, but also increase rumblings within the alliance.
It is highly unlikely that Mani would turn to the BJP-led NDA. The KC(M)’s traditional vote-bank is among the Christians, and such a move would be counterproductive. As a IUML leader said, it would be suicidal for the KC(M).
Whether the KC(M) stays as an independent one and regains lost relevance, or aligns with either the Left or Right depends on the fate of the vigilance cases against ‘Mani sir’. Jacob Thomas, the vigilance director, recently said that the corruption cases against the Pala MLA were not a “closed chapter”. And that will decide the future of the KC(M).