In March this year, the Kerala state assembly saw unprecedented scenes of violence. As opposition MLAs spent the night in the assembly and formed barricades at every entrance, the ruling coalition put its might behind one man- Kerala’s controversial Finance Minister K M Mani.
The scenes from that assembly session are a grim reminder of how far the Congress was ready to go to protect veteran politician KM Mani, leader of the factional group Kerala Congress (M). But today, the same Congress party has put its foot down asking for Mani's resignation.
The controversy started last year with allegations leveled by Kerala Bar Association's Working President Biju Ramesh, who claimed that KM Mani had been given Rs 1 crore as the first installment of a bribe to reopen closed bars in the state. From then on, it has been a cat and mouse game, with the opposition gunning for Mani, but Mani deftly escaped each time, claiming an investigation was not equal to a conviction.
On Monday, the Kerala High Court upheld the state vigilance court’s order seeking a probe against the Finance Minister for allegedly taking a bribe. The court’s comment that a minister needs to be like Caesar’s wife is something the opposition and people of Kerala have been chanting for months.
With the Kerala High Court coming down heavily on KM Mani, the Congress party in the state has found a convenient reason to distance themselves from him. Leaders have been queuing up to speak to the media, on and off the record, demanding KM Mani resignation.
Many Congress leaders now claim that the HC’s observation that it was not right for a minister to continue as his own department was conducting the probe has made Mani indefensible. Did the Congress not know this bit of political propriety before a court pointed it out?
There have been protests, rallies, social media campaigns and even hartals demanding Mani’s resignation. The vigilance director in the state was criticised by the court, but Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, senior Congress leaders and allies were never queasy about supporting Mani. Though the vigilance court’s order came in the midst of campaigning for the local polls, the UDF brazened it out.
Even on the day the local polls results were announced, Oommen Chandy justified his decision to not ask for Mani’s resignation. Then, why this change of heart today?
The reason stated is the HC observation. But the vigilance court had made the same scathing observations earlier. Does the Congress really believe that Kerala’s electorate is so naïve that they will believe their reasoning?
The Congress’ change of stance is not because of what the Kerala High Court said; the reason quite obviously is the party’s desperation to regain some lost ground before 2016 assembly polls.
Chandy’s political dilemma has been obvious over the months. Leading a government with just 72 members, of whom 34 are from various allied partners, acting against Mani was not easy.
Mani is no pushover, and has eight other MLAs with him. He has been around in Kerala’s politics for more than five decades, and wields much power. Like a senior Left leader commented on TV, it is only recently that the politician is being addressed as KM Mani by even media, till then it was always Mani sir.
In spite of Mani’s political clout, the UDF should have taken a decisive call. The UPA saw its downfall at the centre after a barrage of corruption scandals, and more importantly as the Congress party was being seen as complacent, not taking action against corrupt ministers.
But the Congress in Kerala seems to have learnt no lesson from this, allowing the opposition to make Mani the focal point of their campaign. Mani’s candidates in the local polls won from his constituency Pala, but the Congress suffered a setback in many pockets.
If Oommen Chandy, his party and government had shown an iota of decisiveness earlier, the damage would not have been so severe. And now, it is perhaps too late to convince the electorate that they won't tolerate corruption.