A faction of the regional Christian party Kerala Congress (M), led by Jose K Mani, on Wednesday (October 14) announced its decision to quit the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), and join hands with the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala.
Jose K Mani is a member of Rajya Sabha and son of the late Kerala Congress (M) veteran K M Mani, one of the architects of the Congress-led coalition’s politics in Kerala. Jose’s faction is joining the LDF ahead of the civic body elections, likely within two months, and Assembly elections slated for April-May 2021.
Why has Jose K Mani quit the UDF in Kerala?
After the death of K M Mani in April 2019, a power struggle erupted within the party over Mani’s legacy. Jose wanted to take control of the party, a move that was opposed by senior party leader P J Joseph.
The intra-party tussle reached a flashpoint in September last year, when the bypoll was held to the Pala Assembly segment following the death of K M Mani, who was the sitting MLA. The junior Mani succeeded in fielding his nominee as the party’s candidate in the byelection, but lost the seat, which had been the party’s stronghold for the last 50 years.
Even as the relationship between Jose and Joseph remained strained, a fresh bout of factionalism erupted over the post of the Kottayam district panchayat president.
There had been a pact between Jose and Joseph that the post of the president would be shared between their nominees. Accordingly, Jose’s nominee should have given way for Joseph’s nominee early this year. But Jose refused to honour the pact, which led to an intervention from the state leadership of the Indian National Congress (as the senior partner of the UDF, of which the KC(M) was part). But Jose refused to budge, which triggered displeasure in the Congress party.
As a sequel to these events, in June this year, the UDF announced the ouster of the KC(M) faction led by Jose for its failure to honour the pact with Joseph. Thereafter, the Congress decided to field Joseph’s nominee at the Kuttanad by-election — this bypoll was, however, cancelled by the Election Commission at the end of last month, given the difficulties of holding the election in the middle of the pandemic, and the fact that Assembly elections were only a few months away.
Ever since, Jose has been getting closer to the CPI(M)-led LDF, which sees in the regional party as a bridge with the Christian community, particularly Catholics, in the Central Kerala districts.
How will Jose’s decision impact politics in the state?
Kerala will have elections to three-tier local bodies probably in December, and Assembly elections in April-May. A lot will be at stake for both Jose and Joseph in these elections, as both leaders will seek to demonstrate their support within the Christian votebank.
Jose will seek to establish his claim as the real heir of K M Mani’s legacy, and that a major chunk of the party’s rank and file is with his faction. Jose also has to demonstrate that Mani’s support base is intact with him.
For Joseph, who is more popular than Jose among the cadres, it will be important to prove to the UDF that Jose’s exit has not resulted in an exodus of KC(M) workers to the LDF camp.
Traditionally, KC(M) voters have been pro-Congress. In many Assembly constituencies in Central Kerala, KC(M) candidates have been winning seats mainly on the support of the Congress votebank. These elections will reveal whether voters approve of Jose shifting loyalties and joining hands with the CPI(M).
The stand that the Catholic Church takes in the Kottayam and Idukki districts will also be important in deciding the fate of both Jose and Joseph, and of their politics.
What sort of problems is Jose’s entry likely to cause within the LDF?
Within the LDF, the entry of the Jose faction will likely trigger trouble over seat-sharing. Jose is in no mood to surrender the party’s Pala seat, which his father Mani had represented for 50 years. LDF partner NCP had won the Pala seat in the by-election held in 2019 after Mani’s death. NCP legislator Mani C Kappan has indicated that neither he nor his party is ready to vacate the seat to accommodate Jose in the LDF.
There are indications that the Congress has already held discussions with Kappan. Getting Pala from the LDF is crucial for Jose’s political future. He wants to contest the seat in next Assembly elections, and try to exploit the sentimental attachment that voters have with his late father.
The trouble within the LDF is unlikely to stop there.
The CPI, the second leading ally in the LDF, is not entirely in favour of the entry of Jose. CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran has already stated that Jose’s entry would not bring major gains for the LDF. The CPI has been contesting (as part of the LDF) many seats that have been traditionally won by the KC(M) for the UDF. The CPI fears that if Jose’s faction emerges stronger after the Assembly elections, its own role and standing within the LDF would be curtailed.
What is the history of the Kerala Congress (M) and the LDF?
Jose’s faction joining the LDF will be interesting, because the CPI(M) had led an agitation against his father K M Mani in the alleged bar bribery scandal. As Finance Minister in the previous UDF regime, Mani had been accused of pocketing bribes from liquor barons for renewing bar licences. The CPI(M)-led LDF had raised the matter in the Assembly, and disrupted Mani’s Budget presentation in 2015. As the LDF’s protest continued, Mani was forced to quit later that year.
The bar bribery scandal was one of the key issues highlighted by the LDF during the Assembly elections of 2016. CPI(M) will now have to scout for explanations for accommodating the son of the “tainted Kerala Congress (M) leader”.
Joseph’s faction will raise the issue among party workers, saying that Jose had joined hands with the enemies of K M Mani. That would bring back memories of the CPI(M) agitation against Mani. Jose too, would have to explain to his loyalists the reasons for drifting to the LDF, which had ensured a humiliating exit for his father.
In terms of representation in elected bodies, how strong is the KC(M)?
The KC (M) has two leaders in Parliament — apart from Jose K Mani in Rajya Sabha, the party has a Lok Sabha member in Thomas Chazhikadan, representing Kottayam.
KC (M) has four members in the Kerala Assembly. One member, C F Thomas, died last month and his seat is vacant. Jose has the support of two MLAs.
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