The decision of the Kerala Congress (Mani) group to quit the United Democratic Front has opened a new tragic-comic chapter in the over three-decade-old coalition politics in the southern state. The irony is that the parting, though not too painful, happened on Friendship Day. It is still baffling why Mani chose this time, three months after the disastrous elections and why not before the polls. It appears to be a divine call as Mani’s outburst against the Congress came a day after returning from a four-day retreat in a Catholic Retreat Centre in Kottayam in central Kerala where there are restrictions on visitors and interactions over phone. Kerala Congress claims to get such awakening calls especially during election time. Accusing a certain section of Congressmen of working overtime against his party, Mani said enough was enough and that he and his party colleagues had reached the end of their tethers. He added that his party has unanimously decided to tread a middle path henceforth, meaning not aligning with either the ruling Left Democratic Front or the BJP-led NDA and would sit as a separate bloc in the Assembly. However, the catch lies somewhere else, as he kept the door for reconciliation ajar by saying that the prevailing understanding with the UDF in local bodies where they share power with the Congress will not be affected by the decision.

Though Mani, cunning as he is, refused to reveal his next stopover, the politics played out in the next few days is intriguing. On paper, the LDF is not in need of any more allies as their ranks are already swelling and it has a more than a comfortable majority in the state Assembly. The state   leadership, which was at a meeting in Kochi when the drama started, kept a studied silence and sought time to consult its central leadership on its next moves. But enough vibes were sent out to Mani through state president Kummanom Rajasekharan that his party would be welcome in the NDA fold if he was willing to mend some of his ways. This is despite the fact that many from the BJP had moved court against Mani on corruption charges and the party had launched many an agitation against him in the past. The Ezhavas’ Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, which is very much a part of the NDA, openly invited Mani to its fold. It is well known that Mani and BDJS protagonist Vellappalli Natesan have a good rapport. For the past 32 years, the UDF, though a conglomeration of many one-man parties, has been built around the three pillars of Congress, Kerala Congress (Mani) and the Muslim League. There is no doubt that Mani’s departure will leave a dent in the Front, already weakened by the dismal performance in the Assembly elections and the bitter intra-party bickering in the Congress. Without Mani and his six MLAs, the UDF strength is reduced to a mere 41 in the 140-member Assembly. As it is, Congressmen, rather factions led by former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala, are eagerly waiting for a signal, “white smoke” as one senior leader put it, from 12 Tughlak Lane in New Delhi (Rahul Gandhi’s residence) to kick out state party president V.M. Sudheeran and share the spoils. As the leaders’ first priority is to shuttle between Thiruvananthapuram and New Delhi, disparate elements in the party have been freely airing their views on political developments in the state, adding to the confusion.

Political rivals see a sinister move in Mani’s attempt to cosy up to the NDA. No one can blame them as parties such as the Kerala Congresses and the Muslim League have no qualms in changing partners just for power, which they use for the betterment of the communities they represent and for themselves. Even a child in Kerala knows that Mani, who swears by the name of farmers, especially rubber, is only interested in himself and his son and MP from Kottayam, Jose K. Mani. Time is running out for Mani, who is 83. The general public believes that it is his attempt to cross over to the LDF while being in the UDF to fulfil his cherished ambition of becoming the Chief Minister of the state that led to the bar bribery case and his subsequent resignation as Finance Minister in the Chandy government. Now there is no chance of him coming to power in the state for the next five years, by when he will be past 88. Elections to the Lok Sabha are over three years away and it is too early to forecast on which shore Mani will anchor his boat. The only hope now lies in his son and it is quite natural for fathers to achieve what they could not through their progeny. So there is no harm in hoping to make Jose K. Mani at least a Minister of State in the Union Council of Ministers. This may sound too far-fetched, but you never know, anything can happen in politics. Already there is talk of a meeting with Amit Shah in Delhi. More than his followers, the Church may turn out to be the biggest stumbling block for Mani to take his party to the NDA camp. Everything else fits the script.

However, the class political act so far has come from the CPM. The comrades were at the forefront of baying for Mani’s blood at the height of the bar bribery case, demanding his resignation. Initially, the party, which was soft peddling on the issue, was put in a tight corner by V.S. Achuthanandan, the then Leader of the Opposition and a thorn in the flesh of state party leadership, then led by the present Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, by demanding a CBI inquiry into the case. So the CPM went one step forward by accusing Mani of selling state budgets over the years. Mani, has to his credit, a dozen state budgets he presented as Finance Minister in various dispensations. The party had even laid siege on the secretariat demanding Mani’s scalp. That the siege turned out to be a titanic flop is another matter. They then turned their attention to the Assembly, with the present party secretary and the then Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, threatening a bloodbath if Mani was allowed to present the state budget. What happened on budget day remains a black mark in the history of the state legislature.

The same Marxists are now playing a different tune. They have promised to accommodate Mani in communist coated language that the common man finds difficult to swallow, let alone understand. The CPM has invited Kerala Congress (Mani) to join the proposed trade union strike on 2 September across the country to protest against various Central government policies. As one comrade bluntly put it: “We won’t allow Kerala Congress (Mani) to become Kerala Congress (Modi). It will not happen.” That is the catch. It will be quite interesting to see how the CPI, one of the constituents of the LDF, takes this. They have reservations about Mani and his party. Their state secretary Kanom Rajendran has gone on record to question how a tainted leader like Mani can become a saint overnight by crossing over. But then Pinarayi Vijayan and his Kannur lobby will easily ride roughshod over others as was the case many times in the past. CPI certainly will be forced to fall in line.

Mani has very subtly explained his position when questioned by the media. “A beautiful woman will have many suitors,” he said. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, they say. In this case politicians of various hues waiting in the wings to court Mani.

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