Bengaluru: In a move that could bring the influential Kerala Congress (Mani) or KC (M) party closer to the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Kerala police on Monday cleared party chief K.M. Mani in a major bribery case.

The vigilance and anti-corruption bureau (VACB) of Kerala police submitted a report at the vigilance court in Thiruvananthapuram, saying there is no evidence against Mani in what is known locally as the “bar bribe scam", reported United News of India news agency.

In his report, vigilance superintendent K.G. Baiju said the agency had been unable to find any evidence so far in the bribery scam, reported UNI.

The VACB report follows directions from the Kerala high court, which is supposed to look into whether the case should be reopened for investigation in a hearing next week.

It comes amid speculation that the CPM is trying to woo Mani, after he attended an event on the sidelines of the CPM state conference last month. Despite the scam, KC (M) remains influential in central Kerala, especially among Christians. Including Mani, the party has six seats in the assembly.

The scam goes back to 2014 when Biju Ramesh, a bar owner and major figure in the hotel industry, alleged on live television that Mani, who was then the finance minister, had demanded a bribe of Rs5 crore from the Kerala Bar Hotel Owners Association and had accepted Rs1 crore for renewing the licences of over 400 bars in the state.

Francis George, leader of Janadhipathya Kerala Congress, a faction that split from the KC (M) in 2016 over the bribery case, alleged a conspiracy over the VACB report, suggesting that it is part of the CPM’s plan to warm up to Mani ahead of assembly bypolls in Chengannur.

The special prosecutor in the case, K.P. Satheeshan, speaking to regional television reporters, also discounted the report’s findings and alleged that it is part of a political conspiracy to save Mani. He said that there is evidence against Mani.

This is the third time Mani has got a clean chit in the case—twice during the rule of the Left front.

By December, the vigilance department filed a first information report against Mani and the investigating officer S. Sukeshan said there is prima facie evidence for corruption. But then vigilance additional director general of police Shaikh Darvesh Saheb, aided with a supporting counsel by the government’s legal advisor, dismissed the investigation’s findings and recommended its closure without charge-sheeting Mani.

The Left Democratic Front (LDF)-led opposition, meanwhile, led a series of protests against Mani, including an attempt to violently thwart his budget presentation in March 2015, resulting in unprecedented unruly scenes in the state assembly.

In July 2015, the vigilance department submitted a report to the high court claiming no evidence against Mani, amid threats from his party to bring down the state government. The government had a razor-thin majority of two seats and KC (M) as the third biggest alliance party in the government had 15 seats.

The report led 11 high profile individuals, including CPM veteran V. S. Achuthanandan, to approach the court asking for a reinvestigation. In November, Mani was forced to quit as finance minister after an adverse court remark.

The LDF, which came to power in 2016, reopened the case against Mani but said there is no evidence to book him in the initial vigilance report. In response, Sukeshan approached the high court for a fresh investigation, claiming that there was pressure on him while filing the initial vigilance report. It is this case that has come to a closure now.

Mani was not available for immediate comment on the development over phone. In a letter to chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Monday evening, Achuthanandan refuted the vigilance report and asked the government to order a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the matter.

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