Updated: April 9, 2019 9:18:27 pm
KM Mani, widely considered the doyen of modern Kerala politics who led the most popular faction of the Kerala Congress in the state, passed away at the age of 86 at a private hospital in Kochi on Tuesday. He was admitted to the hospital in the first week of April with respiratory-related illnesses.
A medical bulletin said the veteran leader had been suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for many years and had an acute chest infection. READ IN MALAYALAM
Mani served as the chairman of the Kerala Congress (M) which drew its influence mainly among Christian voters in the region of central Travancore, around the areas of Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts.
He held a distinguished political record over the last six decades, becoming the longest member of the state’s Legislative Assembly and representing his hometown constituency of Pala in Kottayam district since 1965 when he won his debut election. Even though he left the Congress party in the 60s due to long-standing differences with it’s leadership, he remained it’s closest ally and was an important constituent of the United Democratic Front (UDF).
Mani first entered the state cabinet in the year 1975, a few months prior to the imposition of the Emergency, in the then government headed by CPI leader C Achutha Menon. It was a ‘United Front’ government, the coalition of which included the CPI, Congress and factions of the Kerala Congress. It was a time when the CPI and the CPI(M) were bitter rivals in the state.
Through the late 70s, Mani remained in the state cabinet handling the portfolios of the home and finance ministries even as the chief ministers kept changing. He is said to have narrowly missed the coveted post of the chief minister when he was overlooked in 1979 in favour of CH Mohammed Koya, the leader of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and an ally of the Congress.
The 80s and 90s were turbulent times for Mani as dissidents in his party kept emerging at regular intervals to split the organisation. Factional feuds were considered a trademark of the Kerala Congress, where leaders did not see eye to eye and consistently fought for power.
At the same time, to Mani’s credit, he single-handedly headed the most popular faction of the party and reaped huge dividends in elections as he remained in close touch with the people. He had a close rapport with senior Congress leaders such as K Karunakaran, AK Antony and Oommen Chandy, all of whom went on to become chief ministers of the state and inducted Mani into their cabinets.
With his organisational skills and close connections with the Church, they could always count on him to shore up important Christian votes in central Kerala and provide the numbers required for the government’s stability.
The veteran leader remained an important cabinet figure in the years 1975-77, 77-79, 80-81, 81-86, 87, 91-96, 2001-06 and 2011-2015 as he handled key portfolios of finance, law, revenue and irrigation. He held the record for presenting the most number of 13 budgets in the state. He also served as chairman of the empowered committee of state finance ministers on Goods & Services Tax (GST) from March-November 2015.
But perhaps his most distressing moment in the state’s politics came in 2015 when he was forced to resign as the finance minister after being accused of taking bribes in exchange for giving licenses to bars and pubs serving alcohol.
The scandal, commonly known as the bar-bribery scam, resulted in a lot of brickbats for Mani and sought to tarnish his otherwise illustrious public life. The scandal also severed his party’s relationship with the Congress and resulted in his walking out of the UDF after three-and-a-half decades. In 2018, however, just before a crucial bypoll in central Kerala, Mani and his party returned to the UDF after failed attempts to join the Opposition Left-led coalition.
Mani’s passing away marks an important indicator of the future of alternate centre-left politics especially in central Kerala. As the most prominent Christian face in the region, Mani was always present to help out the Congress and prevent the CPI(M)’s efforts at making inroads into the region. With his passing away, the UDF will find it hard to find an alternate face to project.
There is also an important question about the future of the Kerala Congress (M) and as to who will take upon the mantle of leadership in the party. While Mani has always favoured his son Jose K Mani, a Rajya Sabha MP and vice-chairman of the party, to take over, the faction led by PJ Joseph is a thorn in the offing.
In the lead up to the Lok Sabha elections, Joseph had vehemently argued for a second seat for the party, either Idukki or Chalakudy, where he himself could contest. He had also hinted that he should be fielded as the consensus candidate of the party in the prestigious Kottayam seat. Eventually, a close aide of Mani was chosen as the candidate for Kottayam with a miffed Joseph backing away. With Mani’s death, this could be the opportune moment for Joseph to make his move and seize control of the party.
Even as corruption allegations battered his image, the octogenarian was always found in the Assembly smiling and having light-hearted talk with his colleagues. His budget speeches were always remembered for delightful humour and poetic references. It is certain that Kerala’s legislative Assembly, where he spent half a century of his life drafting policies that shaped the state’s future, will always miss him.
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