Will India’s longest serving legislator KM Mani bite the dust in Kerala's Pala?
The veteran Kerala leader has managed to represent the constituency for 51 years and 12 elections running.
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On my last visit home, roughly a month back in April, I happened to visit my grandmother’s home in Pala. While spending some time in the idyllic settings of Edamattom, located on the banks of the Meenachil river, I managed to venture out often enough and was witness to the undercurrents of what could be the single biggest upset of the 2016 Assembly elections in Kerala.
Karingozhakkal Mani Mani or KM Mani has been representing Pala ever since the constituency came into existence in 1965. There are many popular jokes on social media, like the absence of an ex-MLA in the constituency or the plight of generations of voters in every family in the constituency left to vote for "Mani Saar", election after election.
KM Mani has been a phenomenal politician. He is shrewd, calculated and blessed with an elephantine memory. There is a reason why he has managed to represent the constituency of Pala for 51 years and 12 elections running.
Mani knows most of his electorate by name. You would be pleasantly shocked when he would make enquiries about the well-being of a family member just on the mention of your house name. He is accessible 24X7, doesn’t discriminate between his constituents and seldom turns down an invite to a function in his constituency.KM Mani (left) with Kerala CM Oomen Chandy.
Mani is also a consummate politician. Early in his life, he made tactical decisions that took him places in Kerala politics. Born into a lower middle-class family in Marangattupilly, he was a successful lawyer, when he married Kuttiyamma, the cousin of Congress leade PT Chacko. Mani’s rise in the Congress ranks was swift thereafter and he became the DCC secretary of Kottayam in 1960, remaining in that position till 1965.
Mani's ascent in Kerala's political landscape
In 1964, after the sudden demise of PT Chacko, on the back of his resignation as the home minister in the wake of the Peechi incident (PT Chacko was forced to resign after he was discovered on a vacation, travelling to Peechi, with a woman party worker), his followers split the Congress party and formed "Kerala Pradesh Congress Samudharana Samiti" which later adopted the name "Kerala Congress" on October 10, 1964.
Incidentally, KM Mani chose to remain in the Congress. When the Assembly election of 1965 was notified, Mani failed to secure a nomination from the Congress while Kerala Congress was on the look out for a suitable candidate for the newly carved out constituency of Pala.
When Kulathunkal Pothen agreed to finance his election, Mani jumped at the opportunity and joined Kerala Congress overnight. Mani won the 1965 election as a Kerala Congress candidate and defeated the Congress, CPI and CPM (all of which contested separately), and the rest is history.
The 1970 Assembly elections in Kerala saw a triangular contest as the parties formed three separate fronts. The Kerala Congress formed a front with the Congress (O) and was routed by the front led by the Congress (R), CPI and the Muslim League. So much so that Kerala Congress managed to win merely 12 seats. When internal Emergency was declared in the country in 1975, Kerala Congress was therefore in the opposition.
The apocryphal story goes that Indira Gandhi famously asked KM George, the chairman of the Kerala Congress, if he would rather be a minister in the government or prefer to be in jail. George chose the former and just as he was about to take oath as the finance minister, Mani, the crafty politician that he is, made an issue of dual positions in the party constitution, thereby thwarting George’s candidature.
KM Mani was sworn in as the finance minister of Kerala in December 1975 and went on to become the home minister in the governments headed by AK Antony and PK Vasudevan Nair.
How chief ministership eluded Mani in 1979
It was in December 1979 that chief ministership escaped Mani. After the Congress had split once again in Kerala, soon after the 1978 split at the national level, both Congress (I) and Congress (U) had come together to support a government led by CH Mohammed Koya of the Muslim League. But the Congress (U) led by AK Antony withdrew support to the government as they decided to join forces with the Left parties and form a front.
The Congress (U), CPI, CPI (M), KC (M) and RSP elected KM Mani as their leader and staked claim to form the government soon after Koya’s resignation. But it was too late as the governor, Jothi Venkatachalam, decided to accept the advice of the outgoing chief minister and dissolved the Assembly. Mani never quite recovered from that setback. And he never got as close to the chair that he badly wanted to occupy ever after.
Kerala Congress: Splitting to grow, growing to split
Like the Janata Party factions in national politics, the Kerala Congress has split 21 times at last count (the last one just on the eve of the Assembly elections when founder chairman KM George’s son Francis George walked out with his supporters to form the "Democratic Kerala Congress") since 1977.
Mani has survived and while all the factions merged once under the chairmanship of PJ Joseph in 1985, that unity also lasted a mere two years.
The party that used to represent all the sections of the society till it first split came to be branded as the representative of Syrian Christians in Central Travancore gradually. In 2009, the Catholic church mediated to get all the factions of the Kerala Congress to merge once again and while that didn’t happen, as not everyone was willing to accept the leadership of Mani, the two biggest factions led by KM Mani and PJ Joseph merged.
In the 2011 Assembly election in Kerala, the UDF defeated the LDF with a narrow margin of 72-68. Despite many predicting the government to not last for long, the constituents stuck together and did rather well in the first couple of years.
When the solar scam emerged in 2013, there were many rumours doing the rounds that the Communist parties were wooing Mani to jump fronts and that he was offered the chief minister’s post in the bargain.
The CPI general secretary, Pannian Ravindran, and their legislature party leader, C Divakaran gave credence to such theories when they gave favourable statements to the press.
Another constituent in the LDF, the RSP too reportedly favoured the idea. But in the end, due to the disinclination of the CPI (M) and even the JD(S) among other constituents, that never materialised, despite the back channel talks.
The bar bribery scam
But just a year and a couple of months later, on October 31, 2014, when the UDF government had almost weathered the solar scam, the bar bribery scandal broke out. A prominent bar owner alleged that finance minister KM Mani had demanded a bribe of Rs 5 crore and had already accepted one crore in advance to facilitate the renewal of licences of the bars which were closed that April on the grounds of poor quality and facilities.
Despite what seemed like a farcical enquiry and a request for closure citing lack of evidence, the high court refusal to grant stay against a vigilance court directive to conduct further probe forced Mani to step down as the finance and law minister.
But once again, Mani wasn’t easily convinced. He asked fellow party minister, PJ Joseph to step down with him as well to mount some pressure on the Chandy government. After a day of huge drama and suspense that played out in the glare of the media, he announced on November 10, 2015 that he was stepping down. PJ Joseph didn’t step down and that day’s manoeuvres ensured that the party, sticking to its tradition, would split once again soon.
Despite clean chits by the investigating agencies under the state government, the general public, it seems are not convinced. Namesake Mani C Kappan of the NCP, a constituent of the LDF, lost to KM Mani not by a long shot in 2011 with the difference being less than 6,000 votes. In his third outing in Pala against KM Mani, Mani C Kappan is hoping to emerge as the giant-killer.
Another factor giving hope to the LDF would be the contours of the constituency getting redrawn due to delimitation ahead of the 2011 polls that left pockets of influence of PC George in the Pala constituency. PC George, once the only vice-chairman of Mani’s party, is now his arch-rival and fighting for his own survival in next door Poonjar.
On my second visit to Pala within a month just the other day, I came back more convinced than the previous trip that a change was impending. We will know in a couple of days if that would indeed happen.