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In a career spanning 51 years, Kerala Congress (Mani) chief K.M. Mani has switched sides from the Congress to the Left front, and vice-versa. Photo: PTI
In a career spanning 51 years, Kerala Congress (Mani) chief K.M. Mani has switched sides from the Congress to the Left front, and vice-versa. Photo: PTI

What makes K.M. Mani so important in Kerala politics?

K. M. Mani has become the most sought after leader for upcoming bypolls to Kerala's Chengannur assembly seat with Congress-led UDF, BJP as well as CPM seeking his support

Bengaluru: “We are like a pretty girl in the town. Everyone is interested in us," K. M. Mani, leader of Kerala Congress (Mani) or KC(M), had said when he walked away from Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala in 2016, ending his decades-long association with the front.

At the time, political observers dismissed Mani. While his own party split, he was seen as a politician whose career had come to an end.

Two years down the line, ahead of the upcoming bypolls to Kerala’s Chengannur assembly seat, Mani is the most sought after leader.

Last week, all three major fronts in Kerala—the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM-led Left Democratic Front, the UDF and Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance—intensified their efforts to rope in Mani as an alliance partner.

The support of KC(M) MLAs is crucial in Kerala, where the balance of power has shifted in the past on the basis of a few seats. For instance, the former UDF government came to power in 2011 with a majority of two seats and KC(M) was the third-largest ally with nine MLAs.

The KC(M) was the third largest ally of Congress in Kerala before it left the alliance in August 2016. Ever since, the Congress has been trying to woo back the regional party. Congress’s political affairs committee, a high-level decision-making body in the state, had decided in January to bring back Mani, or at least a section of his party that is close to its working chairman P.J. Joseph, before the bypoll. Last week, its leaders reached out to Mani with the demand. However, Mani has shown little interest in Congress so far.

The BJP, although with some internal bickering, has also reached out to Mani. A day after its national executive member P.K. Krishnadas visited Mani at the latter’s house on 17 March, state president Kummanam Rajashekaran extended an open invitation for Mani to join the NDA. The BJP candidate in Chengannur and a national executive member, Sreedharan Pillai, told Press Trust of India on the same day that the party “do not consider anyone untouchable". In fact, when senior leader V. Muraleedharan objected to the invitation to Mani on 20 March, saying “no corrupt persons would be made part of NDA", the party immediately issued warnings to him, making him take a U-turn on the issue in a day.

The most curious of all is CPM’s position. In 2015, when Mani was accused of taking a bribe from bar owners in Kerala for undue favours, the CPM made Thiruvananthapuram a battleground while seeking Mani’s resignation. At that time, CPM leaders tried to physically prevent Mani, then finance minister, from presenting the budget. In the ruckus, some members of the treasury benches were injured, while CPM leaders did not let the speaker enter the house, flung the speaker’s chair and mike in the well of the house, damaged computers and set afire a police van outside the house. The agitation, coupled with an adverse remark from Kerala high court, forced Mani to quit in disgrace as finance minister in November 2015.

That hostility seems to have evaporated in thin air now. Speculation is rife about CPM leaders trying to woo Mani, after Mani was seen attending an event on the sidelines of the CPM state conference last month. Mani was also given a clean chit in the bribery case earlier this month, a move that many see could take him closer to the CPM camp, Mint reported on 6 March.

CPM leaders also met with Communist Party of India or CPI leaders in Delhi last week to iron out the latter’s reservations against the move. The LDF candidate in Chengannur election, CPM leader Saji Cheriyan, too reached out to Mani seeking his support for the bypoll.

In a career spanning 51 years, he has switched sides from the Congress to the Left front, and vice-versa. Besides, he remains an influential leader among Christians in central Kerala districts, including Chengannur assembly.

The seat fell vacant following the sudden demise of CPM legislator K.K. Ramachandran Nair on 14 January. The poll date is yet to be declared.

Buoyed by its recent success in Tripura, the BJP is claiming the by-election will be its launching pad in Kerala, while the CPM is putting all its might to prevent a saffron surge in the state, the last Left bastion, reported Hindustan Times on 11 March. All three fronts have a strong presence in the constituency, making it sort of a curtain raiser ahead of 2019 general elections.

“For us, this is all about deepening the depth of Congress’s break-down in Kerala. Mani was a Congress ally for a long time. The strength of Congress in Kerala is the strength of its allies like Mani. When a constituency of their is removed, it will shake them off balance," said a senior leader of the CPM, requesting not to be named.

“The foundation of anti-CPM votes in Kerala is in Christian communism, with Mani on our side we don’t have to worry about that too," the person added.

On Sunday, Mani said he is not opting for any temporary alliance but claimed that only the candidate he supports will win in Chengannur, The Hindu reported on Monday. Mint could not get a response from Mani till the filing of this report, despite a phone call to his office.

“Everything depends upon this man," said the CPM leader mentioned earlier. “He is making vigilant, calculated moves. We can only wait and watch his play."

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