“The mightier they are, the harder they fall”. This idiom rings true to the core in the case of K M Mani, the doyen of Kerala politics. One of the most powerful figures in contemporary Kerala politics, he was admired across the political spectrum. In fact even hardened political opponents used to call him “Mani sir” in an apparent show of respect. Grapevine goes that even the former President, K R Narayanan addressed him by that name. It will be difficult to believe that the man who had to resign after being in the eye of a storm over a bar bribery scandal had the highest political stock in the state barely a year ago, political parties of various hues, from the left, right, and center of the political spectrum were fighting each other to court him. Everyone was seeing him as a CM prospect. While CPM saw him as the lynchpin to storm back to power, the Congress-led UDF was desperate to hold on to the man who commands almost absolute loyalty of Catholics in his strongholds while being popular among all communities. Even the BJP was having grand designs to ally with him to storm their final frontier in the South. Alas, after more than 50 years as the MLA of his constituency, after presenting a record 13 state budgets, after being the blue eyed boy of Kerala Politics for decades, KM Mani is all of a sudden fighting for political survival.
A lawyer by profession, K M Mani started his political career with Congress. A firebrand youth leader in the 60s, he switched to Kerala congress when it was formed under KM George after a split in the Congress party in 1964. He won his first elections the very next year from Pala, a constituency synonymous with his name, having represented it without a break ever since. K M Mani ’s first tryst with executive power came in 1974 when he was sworn in as the Finance minister in the Achuta Menon government. A political genius par excellence, he gradually became all powerful in his party by ruthlessly sidelining rival power centers [even engineering splits when it suited him] and served as a minister for over 20 years. He even gave a new definition to proletariat by proclaiming that everyone who toils hard to belong to the class rather than the Marxist definition of involving only those working under a capitalist for wages. A man, who handled various portfolios, he managed to stamp his own hallmark everywhere and was regarded as an administrator par excellence till all hell broke loose over the Bar corruption scandal.
Influence of Christian clergy in Kerala politics is a well-known fact, with not only the likes of Kerala Congress but also the Congress party itself toeing the Bishops’ line. Christian bloc is the most reliable vote bank for the Congress-led UDF along with the dedicated Muslim vote bank brought in by the ally Muslim League. K M Mani was also highly influenced by the clergy and they helped out each other during sticky situations. But, what made K M Mani stand apart from the usual leaders banking on community vote banks was his excellent equation with Hindu caste organizations like SNDP and NSS. He was smart enough to massage the bloated egos of leaders of these organizations to keep them in good humor. Further, he was accepted by the general public of majority community as a credible leader as he never played the Christian card to needle them unlike the other UDF constituent, Muslim League. But, his nepotism and blatant preference for yes men over those with merit saw a sharp decline in the stock of Kerala Congress. While, his party still has considerable political clout, future looks bleak as there is no one charismatic enough to lead the party after Mani as he deliberately sidelined worthy young leaders in an attempt to hold on to a vice-like grip on the party. With almost nil influence in student/trade union politics, the relevance of Kerala Congress a decade down the line is in serious jeopardy. As of now, it seems to be destined to be a relic of the history as all one man parties tend to do after the inevitable fall of their leader.
K M Mani’s current political conundrum started with the accusations by a liquor baron, Biju Ramesh over taking bribes to dilute a newly announced stringent liquor policy. Though he tried to hold on against relentless pressure from all quarters, he had to finally give in after an adverse High Court observation, putting an end to months of defiance. The whole state government was already in a dock as allegations flew left, right, and center against various ministers. The Oommen Chandy led state government has been mired in various scandals like the infamous Solar case where a con woman, Sarita S Nair along with her cronies minted money with alleged support from the state government at the highest level and the Kalamassery land grab case involving Chief Minister’s office staff. Add to it the occasional resurfacing of old scandals like Titanium case where the CM is accused. Further, various allegations of corruption against the Excise minister, K M Babu[ accused in the same Bar scandal which scalped Mani], Civil Supplies minister Anoop Jacob, PWD minister Ebrahim Kunju and many others had already created a public perception of humongous corruption.
Though the CM managed to wriggle out of the tight corners using his political acumen by exploiting a weak and divided opposition mired in its own problems, the bar case was the last straw and public was rightly incensed. But, doubts have been raised by various quarters about this being a hit job on K M Mani as there is an impression that he is being singled out and haunted and the government has repeatedly tried to put him in the dock under the garb of trying to save him by botching it up in the courtrooms. This argument gained currency as the bar bribery scandal exploded right at the time when there were talks about K M Mani switching to the left front and becoming the Chief Minister. Many do believe that this was a hit job and was trapped by the Congress even if K M Mani had indeed accepted the bribe. The general perception that there are much more corrupt ministers in the state government and the sullied image of CM himself in far more serious allegations has created a narrative that Mani is being made a scapegoat. This might invoke a serious retaliation from the Mani’s core constituency as well as the general public tired of the scandals resulting in a drubbing for the Congress-led UDF in the 2016 state elections. The curious case is that of the CM, Chandi who is accused by one section for protecting Mani at the cost of all legal and moral norms while another section alleges that he had ordered the hit job on Modi to scuttle the nascent bonhomie between Mani and the left front.
What next for Mani is the million dollar question in Kerala politics today? K M Mani has already secured his position in the annals of Kerala history. The Only thing that is in doubt is whether he will be remembered as an able administrator with shades of gray or as a corrupt genius who hoodwinked the system and electorate for decades.Either way, it seems difficult to erase how he won’t give in without a fight as evident from his stubborn [often bordering on ludicrously shameless] refusal to step down in the Bar case. But, with age not in his side, it will be difficult for the veteran master tactician to make an electoral comeback even if cleared of all charges. But, one just cannot write off a politician. If a convict like Lalu Prasad can lead his party to pole position in Bihar elections, mere allegations may not be enough to pack Mani off to the political wilderness. Either way, Congress leadership will be naïve to think that by sacrificing Mani in the altar of honesty, their countless sins over the last 5 years will be washed off. And, for K M Mani, if it is the full stop to his political career, it is indeed a tragedy to see him fall from such dizzy heights at the fag-end of his storied career. On the other hand, if the charges are proved right and Mani is convicted, it will serve as a huge deterrent against corruption in the state as the general feeling will be that, if someone as powerful as Mani can pay for his sins, justice will indeed catch up with everyone.