In the tiny town of Pala, nestled in the rubber heartland of central Kerala, almost everyone has a ‘KM Mani story’ to tell. After all, when an entire generation of people here have grown up getting accustomed to a single MLA over the last five decades, there are bound to be back-stories that go beyond the usual dynamics of a relationship between a resident and her public representative.
In the demise of Mani or ‘Mani sir’, as he preferred to be called by his supporters, Pala and it’s adjoining regions have lost not just a long-serving MLA or a regional chieftain. Locals here would have you believe that he was so much more than political and legislative achievements. To them, he was what one would call a ‘vikaram’ (sentiment), that went back five decades.
Born into a lower-middle-class farmer family, Mani’s organisational agility and fierce oratory got him noticed among the leading lights of the Congress party, where began his politics. An accomplished lawyer, his colleagues watched him as he feverishly climbed up the political ladder and carving a niche for himself in the agrarian set-up of central Kerala. By the time he became the Kottayam district secretary of the party, he had begun to wield extraordinary influence among the farmers, especially those who owned rubber plantations, the principal cash crop of the region. He expanded his authority in the region by developing a close rapport with the priests and bishops of the Catholic Church, to which he himself belonged, and making inroads into the community. In the mid-60s however, disenchanted with the style and functioning of the Congress, he and KM George founded the Kerala Congress as an alternative to his parent party and modelled as a protector of farmers and Catholic interests. The platform generated huge interest, thanks to his ‘mass leader’ image and his uncanny ability to find the right human resources for each job. Within no time, it grew into a deeply-established party and becoming a counter to Congress and Marxist politics in the region.
From the 70s, Mani’s personal rise was meteoric even as his party suffered turbulent times. With his colleagues all vying for prized leadership positions and their personal egos clashing against each other, the party went through innumerable splits. In Mani’s own words, the Kerala Congress had the tendency to ‘split as it grew and grow as it split.’ Initial setbacks notwithstanding, the faction led by Mani would always come out on top, thanks in large part to his appeal among the public and a certain kind of connivance he displayed in politics. As much as he played a unifier in getting people together, analysts say he showed no qualms whatsoever in ditching allies and finding new friends. He was a hard taskmaster too and was always able to extract the maximum from his allies in return for his loyalty. The Congress party, it’s longest friend, has had to bow down to the interests of Mani several times with a section of it’s leadership openly showing displeasure at such attempts. Just last year, after the Congress party gave a Rajya Sabha berth to Mani’s faction out of it’s own share, a livid supporter put out an ad claiming the Congress headquarter in Kerala was on sale. Such is Mani’s bargaining power that even as he wielded influence among a small region of the state, he made national parties like the Congress work hard for his support.
“He was a political Chanakya,” said J Prabhash, an author and political analyst.
“He knows which side of the bread is buttered. He’s unscrupulous that way. He has no qualms about ditching allies and joining hands with the Opposition. And once he gets power, he will work for the people and launch welfare schemes.”
Thousands mourn for him
The small towns and villages in Kottayam district of Kerala, known as the ‘karmabhoomi’ of KM Mani, came together over the last 48 hours to mourn him. His last journey from the private hospital in Kochi where he breathed his last to his home town of Pala 100 kilometres away was set to take just four hours according to the internal calculations of party leaders. However, astounded by the outpouring of public sentiment on the streets of Kerala, the cavalcade carrying his mortal remains took over 20 hours to make the trip. With his body carried in an air-conditioned state government bus, the convoy couldn’t travel more than five kilometres in an hour as endless crowds along the streets waited to get a last glimpse of the leader.
Thousands gathered in front of his residence in Pala by the time the convoy reached in the early morning hours of Thursday. Prominent leaders including former chief minister Oommen Chandy, KPCC president Mullappally Ramachandran, senior Congress leaders Mukul Wasnik and KC Venugopal paid their tributes at his residence. Mani’s wife, Kuttiyamma, to whom he was extremely close, sat and wept by his body.
“Illa, illa marikkunnila, jeevikkunnu njangalilude’ (No, no, he’s not dead. He lives through us),” slogans rang out at the procession.
Cheriyan Srambickal, 86, was among those who sat under a white canopy raised at Mani’s residence as long queues snaked into the neighbourhood. He described himself as a close friend of Mani who was there when the latter walked out of the Congress.
“Even when several of my close friends left the party, I did not leave his side. Today. he’s gone,” he murmured.
“In the 1970 election in Pala, the one he won by 300-odd votes, I helped him out. I campaigned extensively in my area of influence to canvass votes for him. If not for me, he would have lost that election,” he said.
Mani’s string of 13 successive victories in Pala since 1965 is recorded in history books and is unlikely to be broken by anyone in the country.
What happens to his party?
The demise of the KC(M) strongman leaves his party in deep uncertainty. Even under his leadership, it’s an open secret that the party is not what it used to be. Once the unquestioned leader in central Kerala, the party has had to contend with stiff opposition from the CPI(M) over the years and has lost significant favour even among the core Catholic voters.
Who will be Mani’s successor in the party has been a question that has long roiled the organisation. While he built up his son and currently the Rajya Sabha MP Jose K Mani, a strong section of the leadership led by MLA PJ Joseph is not in the mood. Infamous for it’s factional tussles, the party was on the verge of a vertical split just a month ago on the eve of ticket distribution for the Lok Sabha elections. While Joseph wanted him to be the consensus candidate from the Kottayam Lok Sabha seat, Jose K Mani was not interested in the idea. Eventually, a close aide of Mani was projected as the candidate and Joseph had to back away.
With Mani’s passing away, Joseph, currently the party’s working chairman, will aspire for the leadership mantle.
“The immediate concern is that a new chairman will have to be appointed. If Jose K Mani is elevated, the party will split. I have heard that there are some influential leaders who will jump ship if that happens. In time, the party will lose it’s bargaining capacity in the strongholds of Kottayam district,” said Sunnykutty Abraham, a leading political analyst in the state.
Moreover, Jose K Mani is not said to be as popular as his father was. According to local accounts, he speaks very less and does not enjoy the charm of unifying the party like his father did.
“Mani was a mass leader. The rest of the party consists of an artificially created or top-down leadership. The next generation of leaders are no match to Mani’s organic leadership. In such a scenario, the mass base of the party that he cultivated is likely to deplete,” said Prabhash.
Repercussions in central Kerala
Analysts say the politics of central Kerala, revolving around the interests of the Catholic community and rubber planters, will change considerably with the passing away of Mani. He is certain to leave a wide vacuum, the extent of which no leader can fill.
Antony, a retired bank employee, told indianexpress.com about the time when the Kerala Congress was a potent force in the state’s politics with 20-25 MLAs. In those years, he said, the party’s concluding session before an Assembly or General election used to witness a sea of people, unheard of in any other party.
“Now, there’s no such crowds at their rallies. The party has shrunk,” he said.
Prabhash said the likely diminishing factor of the KC(M) will lead to the CPI(M) increasingly making inroads into the belt where it was once considered organisationally weak.
“In the past two elections, we have seen how the indifference the minorities once had toward the CPI(M) is vanishing. The party has also made concerted efforts to bring in minority leaders into it’s ranks. So, the gap left by the Kerala Congress is likely to be filled by the Left to a large extent. To a small extent, it will help the Congress also,” he said.
Even as Mani strode around Kerala’s political arena with enormous weight and power, many say he’s failed to strengthen an organisation that realistically doesn’t know what to do without him.
“Kerala Congress will end up like the AIADMK. It will break into a thousand pieces,” a rickshaw driver put it bluntly.