Kerala’s political landscape is dotted with regional and sub-regional parties that merge and split according to the electoral winds that keep changing every five years. Over the decades, many of these factions have lost their relevance in the electoral pandemonium, but the Kerala Congress (M), led by former minister KM Mani, has stood its ground.
Mani and his party have carved a niche for themselves in the Christian belt in the districts of Kottayam and Idduki in central Kerala. This election, Mani approaches the electorate for a record 13th time after winning from Pala, in Kottayam district, since 1965.
In an interview to the Hindustan Times, Mani speaks about retirement in politics, the UDF government’s achievements and the controversial bar bribery case. Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Over the decades you’ve handled the revenue, finance, home affairs, law and irrigation ministries. What is the highlight of the current UDF government?
A: The highlight is the setting up of the Karunya Benevolent Fund, through which an estimated Rs 1,500 crore has been given to 150,000 patients to meet their medical expenses. Also, the setting up of the self-employment mission has helped a lot of entrepreneurs realise their dreams.
We’ve sanctioned up to Rs 20 lakh as interest-free loans for entrepreneurs, and through this about 10,000 new enterprises have come up in the state. For women entrepreneurs, in addition to interest-free loans, the government looks at capital participation.
Q: The Opposition is targeting the UDF on corruption charges levelled against the government. How would you react to it?
A: They are baseless and misleading campaigns. Since the Opposition cannot say that the government is not performing, they’ve come up with these trumped up charges.
Q: What is your opinion of the UDF government’s liquor policy?
A: As the finance minister, everyone expected me to oppose it because closing bars would bring a revenue loss of Rs 800 crore to the state exchequer but I welcomed it. Because I welcomed it, bar owners turned against me and I became a victim. However, for me the health of the people is important.
Q: How was it possible to balance the exchequer with a loss of Rs 800 crore from liquor revenue?
A: We reduced wasteful expenditure and increased earnings by about 140%. The Opposition was threatening that the treasury would shut down but not even a single day did we run an overdraft.
Q: Your name has been associated with the bar bribery case and the Opposition is highlighting this.
A: There were two inquiry commissions and both could not find any proof against me. If the Opposition is still sticking to it, it shows their political dishonesty and intellectual beggary.
Q: If the UDF comes back to power, what are the two schemes you would want to see implemented?
A: We need a scheme where the higher/professional education of students from economically weaker sections is taken care by the government. We need to do more on this front. I would also want to see more schemes to increase employment opportunities.
Q: During seat-sharing talks in the UDF, your party, Kerala Congress (M), had asked for more seats but had to settle for 15. Do you think the party deserved more?
A: I have no complaints about what we got and there is no problem among UDF allies because of that. But, yes, my party deserved more seats.
Q: Will the BJP open an account in the Kerala assembly this election?
A: It has no chance. It’s not as simple as opening a bank account.
Q: You are 83 years old. How do you keep up with the rigours of politics and what is your answer to people who say that there should be a retirement age for politicians?
A: Mentally I am very strong. Government officials retire at 55, but the same cannot be asked from politicians, because politics is service to the people and nation. As long as someone is physically fit and the people want that person there is no question of retirement.
Q: In Pala, the constituency you’ve been representing for more than 50 years, the LDF candidate gave a tough fight last time. How do you see it this time?
A: I am sure to win this time as well. Never in the past has Pala seen so much progress in a short period of time. In the past four-and-a-half years Pala has received an investment of Rs 3,000 crore.
As for the LDF candidate (Mani C Kappan), he appears during election time and disappears for the next five years. I am always there for the people of my constituency.