KM Mani is the most experienced elected administrator in Kerala. He has had an illustrious political career. He has been representing the Palai Assembly constituency since its inception in 1965. Besides being the longest serving member and minister of the state Assembly, he also holds the credit for presenting a record 13 budgets in the state.
About a year ago, his stardom as a politician suffered a serious dent. His name was dragged into a bribery case in connection with the budget that followed. A liquor baron in the state alleged that Mani received a bribe of one crore rupees from the bar hotel owners for renewing the licenses of more than 400 bar hotels which were found to be sub-standard.
Following this allegation, Opposition leader VS Achuthanandan filed a complaint to the vigilance bureau which led to an FIR being filed against the minister. Nobody expected the vigilance to conduct a fair probe due to the strong upper hand Mani enjoyed in the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) government. This had two reasons; the foremost reason being Mani's role as minister of an important portfolio in the Oommen Chandy ministry.
The second reason was that Mani's support was a decisive factor in determining the UDF majority in the assembly. As expected, the vigilance submitted a report to the court seeking permission to close the case. But the court observed that there was enough evidence in this case to continue investigation against Mani. The high court observed that "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion", referring to the prima facie evidence against Mani. Until this verdict, the Congress-led UDF had tried every possible option to defend and protect Mani. Earlier this year, the Opposition had threatened it would not allow Mani to present the budget in the assembly. To overcome this, Mani and other key members stayed in the Assembly building overnight and quite dramatically read out a few lines from the budget the next morning and passed it.
A violent Opposition vandalised the house and the Speaker's desk, but no charges were brought against them by the government or the speaker. UDF faced a big blow in the local body elections that concluded last week. Even the BJP made several inroads into the local bodies, where the UDF had to be content with the third position. But Mani's party Kerala Congress (M) won with flying colours. Mani boasted to the media that the thumping win of his party was proof that the people rejected the bar bribery allegations levelled against him outright. But some Congress leaders themselves blamed the continuing presence of Mani in the ministry as one of the reasons for the shocking UDF loss. The Congress-led UDF tried everything it could to give cover for Mani.
As a last attempt, the government brought Kapil Sibal to defend Mani in High Court, but even that couldn't prevent the inevitable. Immediately after the High Court opined that it was leaving the matter of resignation to Mani's conscience, the first and second lines of UDF leadership stood firm and demanded Mani's resignation. In effect, the Congress was waiting for something like this when nothing was working in their advantage. But Mani, who knows how important his support is to the UDF government, resorted to an excuse that he did not feel it was necessary to resign as the court did not say anything about his involvement in the case.
The Congress is as blemished as Mani in this case. Now they have only two options. One, it should demand a resignation from Mani and two, the government should resign and face elections. If the first happens, Mani will be isolated and he will have to withdraw the support to the government, which will expedite the Assembly elections which anyway will happen in a few months from now.
If the second happens, the Opposition and the people will interpret it as the admission of defeat by the Congress and its other allies after defending Mani for over a year. So it is better for the Congress to demand Mani's resignation and then go to polls, telling the people that they did what they could in this matter.
A tainted Mani might not get support from either the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) or the BJP who have been opposing him, although both did show interest in him being their ally not long ago. In any case, the people are watching, and it is not easy to fool them so easily. The writing is on the wall, and Chandy will struggle to change things around once more.