After vacillating for days on end, Kerala Congress (M) finally announced last week that they would back the Muslim League/UDF candidate in the Vengara bye-poll scheduled for Thursday. Although this didn’t entirely come as a surprise, it has actually led to some friction between KC Mani and the CPI (M), whose leaders who have been negotiating the entry of the former to the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). Ever since the KC (M) came out of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) grouping in a dramatic fashion, the party has been sending mixed signals but Mani has clear plans.
Although there were initial speculations that Mani came out of the UDF grouping to attempt an ambitious tie-up with the BJP and get a central ministerial portfolio for his son Jose K Mani, that never was the case according to insiders. He reckoned that by staying in the UDF without power and in view of mounting vigilance cases against him, it would end up as a folly and limit his bargaining power.
The first signs of a thaw between the CPI (M) and Mani were witnessed during the occasion to mark his completion of 50 years in the Kerala assembly on March 15 this year. Pinarayi Vijayan paid tributes to “Mani Pramani” quoting poet Pala Narayanan Nair. It was a departure from the kind of abuse hurled at Mani and his party during the election campaign less than a year ago and the LDF hooliganism on the floor of the assembly to try and prevent Mani from presenting the Kerala budget in 2015.
In the last week of April, against the backdrop of many Congress leaders in Kerala (of various factions and part of different fronts) participating in a Farmers’ meeting organised by Infam at Kodungoor, formal discussions were held on the topic of KC (M)’s entry into the LDF and merging of smaller parties like the Skaria Thomas faction and Kerala Congress (J)’s Johnny Nellore into KC (M). On May Day, Skaria Thomas admitted that he would be happy to mediate between the CPI (M) and KC (M).
This sent warning signals to the Congress as the election to the Kottayam District Congress Committee (DCC) President was to be held on May 3. Despite assurances from the party, KC (M) betrayed the Congress and got its candidate Zacharias Kuthiraveli elected as the Kottayam District Panchayat with the support of the CPI (M). The election was necessitated on account of the incumbent, Joshy Philip of Congress, getting named as the Kottayam DCC President. An understanding was reached between the top leaders of Congress and KC (M) to elect Sunny Pampady of the Congress as the new President. This promise was however broken as a deal was struck between the KC (M) and the CPI (M) at the last minute. Although the CPI (M) tried to play it down, this was the first clear indication that KC (M) was on its way to the LDF camp.
The Congress camp had reacted with aggression and all the factions were united in their stinging attack on Mani and son Jose K Mani whom they accused of betrayal and of conniving with the CPI (M). K Muraleedharan declared that Jose K Mani would never contest as a UDF candidate from Kottayam again. Since none of the prominent leaders of the party were taken into confidence on this U-turn, Mani was left to do damage control to avert a rebellion in his party.
In September, after the Vengara bye-election was notified, Jose K Mani indicated to the press that the support extended to PK Kunjalikkutty of the Muslim League in the Malappuram bye-election may not be replicated as the circumstances were different this time round. But after Kunjalikkutty spoke to Mani and convinced him to support the Muslim League candidate, Mani came round and dubbed it as a “natural decision”. This led to some friction between the CPI (M) and KC (M) as the former was expecting the latter’s support as the back channel discussions were at an advanced stage.
A visibly annoyed CPI (M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan quipped that Mani forgot his drill when he met Kunjalikkutty. I spoke to Balakrishnan over the phone yesterday and all he would say was, “No discussions have been initiated within the LDF on KC (M)’s entry.” He is technically right as the back channel negotiations are limited to CPI (M) and KC (M) at the moment, apart from Skaria Thomas.
A program attended by Oommen Chandy, KM Mani, Jose K Mani and Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan in Kottayam on September 15, to devise an action plan for the rejuvenation of the Meenachil river, made news for the friendly banter between Chandy and Mani. When Mani joked that both he and Chandy were expert rowers, Chandy suggested that they should row together if they were rowing in the same direction. This was interpreted by the media as a sign of a thaw between the Congress and KC (M). However, this was just a diversion.
A couple of challenges await the CPI (M) and the KC (M) before the decision would be formally announced by Mani on December 12. For Mani, getting PJ Joseph and his loyalists to agree to join the LDF would be the biggest challenge. Joseph and his faction of the Kerala Congress had quit the LDF in 2010 to unite with Mani’s faction on the insistence of the church which wanted the various factions of the Kerala Congress to unite. Mani would once again be banking on the Catholic Church and Kanjirappilly Bishop Mathew Arackal to mollify Joseph.
The Janadhipathya (Democratic) Kerala Congress led by Francis George, which walked out of KC (M) to join the LDF on the eve of the 2016 assembly polls and lost all the four seats they contested, would also feel threatened if the KC (M) were to join the LDF. I spoke to the party’s vice-Chairman PC Joseph and he contended that it would be left to PJ Joseph to take a call in the event of Mani successfully negotiating the KC (M)’s entry into LDF. On being asked if they would be open to joining hands with their former leader PJ Joseph if he chose to stay back in the UDF, he replied that it was hypothetical.
The biggest impediment for the KC (M)’s entry in the LDF, however, would be the CPI, which has time and again voiced its opinion against trying for this and pre-empted any such move. The CPI had similarly thwarted the attempts of the then-CPI (M) state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan to get the K Karunakaran-led Democratic Indira Congress to join the LDF in 2005 along with VS Achuthananthan.
The CPI (M) would also find it tough to convince the public after winning the assembly election in 2016 on the plank of corruption and targeting Mani in particular. The party hopes that such duplicity would not affect its captive vote bank in Malabar and elsewhere as they hope to sweep the Christian-dominated belt of Central Travancore with KC (M)’s support. And that would be just another switch for KM Mani in his long political innings.