Three weeks ago, KM Mani, Kerala's longest serving MLA and the man who presented the maximum number of budgets in the state Assembly, gloated that his party, the Kerala Congress, was like a beautiful young woman that everybody wanted to court; but today he is a political untouchable.
A vigilance court in Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday ordered further probe into his alleged involvement in the sensational bar-bribery scam on a submission by an investigating officer who claimed that the vigilance director of the previous UDF (United Democratic Front) government didn't allow him to probe the case satisfactorily. He said that the then vigilance director didn’t accept his factual report and wanted him to make changes to the case diary. He also said he couldn't "obtain expert scientific analysis of the materials collected during the investigation."
In fact, last year, during the UDF regime, the same investigating officer was in the eye of a storm when his reports, found Mani both guilty and innocent — he was found guilty in June, and clean in July. Now that the officer has told the court that his investigation was meddled with, it’s clear that the then UDF government, in which Mani was the finance minister, had prevented him from running an impartial investigation.
Mani made the sensational “beautiful woman” statement early this month when he quit the UDF (United Democratic Front), alleging that some Congress leaders conspired against him, and said that he would stay alone which in political terms meant that he was open to a rewarding alliance from UDF’s rivals.
Mani is a political fox in Kerala whose cunning to stay in power is legendary and his move to leave the UDF, which was trounced by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the CPM in the recent assembly elections, was in anticipation of getting close to either the Left in the state or the BJP at the centre. The man, who was considered to be partly responsible for the UDF’s disastrous show in the elections because of his alleged involvement in the bar-bribery scam, had no other reason to quit at this time. Left or right didn’t matter to him politically, what he was obviously looking for was the cover of power.
Curiously, the CPM, which had bayed for his blood last year, actively encouraged him to leave the UDF while the BJP sent open signals. Mani appeared cocksure that the doors of the LDF were open to him because CPM party secretary made unambiguous overtures, and in case the terms with them didn’t work, he had the option to move towards the BJP that was desperate for an ally like him to ramp up their vote-share. But with the vigilance investigation now hanging over his head, no sensible party would touch him because nobody knows what’s in his closet. The present vigilance director is a real toughie and will not spare Mani if his hands are really dirty.
It’s not just the bar-bribery case that makes him a suspect, but his overall career as a finance minister (he has presented the state budget a record 13 times). Although the charges are yet to be proved, the left parties have alleged that Mani has always manipulated the budgets to make money. According to a former minister and Mani’s former party-colleague R Balakrishna Pillai, he made money by selling the budget.
It’s possible that Mani’s political folly of leaving the UDF was something that was designed and executed by a wily CPM. While its chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan kept quiet on him, before and after his exit from the UDF, state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan always sent out encouraging signals. There were media reports that Mani, either directly or through his men, had held discussions with the CPM. CPM-proxies too justified his possible entry into the left-fold as a strategy to prevent the BJP from poaching him. But when the vigilance court gave its verdict on Saturday, the CPM instantly distanced itself from him. Vijayan said that the investigation will be impartial while Kodiyeri Balakrishnan found a convenient line that his party would never compromise on corruption.
Now that the CPM and the LDF are out of the equation, Mani may still harbour his hopes of getting closer to the BJP, which has been looking for an ally that will help break the electoral threshold that it’s stuck in. In terms of its vote-share, the BJP along with a newly formed caste-ally in the state - the BDJS - is likely to stagnate and any future breakthrough is possible only through a party with communal influence such as the Kerala Congress. Despite its claims to be a farmers’ party, it’s predominantly an influence-peddler of the Syrian Christians of central and southern Kerala, and is the third most important constituent in the UDF after the Congress and the Muslim League.
Through its network of churches and clergymen, business-houses, planters, quarry-operators and media allies, its writ is quite formidable in the Syrian Christian belt. Tying up with them will help the BJP surmount is present impasse because it will not only shore up its vote-share, but will also deplete the strength of the Congress/UDF. Despite the serious taint of corruption, what will keep Mani hopeful is that his prospects are unlikely to diminish in the Christian belt because he is its interlocutor for power; however, the collateral damage for a party allying with him in the rest of the state will be substantial. The BJP, although desperate, should be worried about that.
For the UDF, it will be impossible to come back to power without the Kerala Congress. With Mani and his Christian block gone, the Congress might be even pushed below the Muslim League within the UDF. Without power, the Muslim League also might ultimately desert the Congress. The CPM is in fact overjoyed about this prospect. It’s salivating on the end of the UDF.
Whether BJP’s predatory instincts will agree or not, keeping Mani and his party out of Kerala’s political mainstream for some time will be good for the state because Kerala Congress has been an epitome of political opportunism - a clannish party that keeps breaking and regrouping solely for power. At any point of time, Kerala Congress has at least six to seven factions that are mostly run by clans backed by various Syrian Christian denominations, churches and men with money.