Kerala

An exit and interesting possibilities

Print edition : September 02, 2016

K.M. Mani. Photo: Kamal Narang

KERALA’S predominantly bipolar political climate seems set for dramatic changes with the recent decision of the Kerala Congress (Mani group), the third largest constituent of the United Democratic Front (UDF), to leave the coalition after an association that lasted nearly 35 years.

Political realignments and the eventual disintegration of the opposition Congress-led front itself have emerged as clear possibilities: the BJP, with one MLA in the Assembly, is on the lookout for more partners to widen its influence; the ruling CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), an eight-party coalition, has 91 members in the 140-member Assembly but would want to ensure that the break-up of the UDF does not result in gains for the BJP; and the UDF faces the possibility of a further erosion, from among its other disgruntled partners who failed to win seats in the Assembly in the last election.

With the exit of the KC(M) with six MLAs, the UDF now has only two constituents that have any significant presence in the Assembly, the Congress itself with 22 legislators and the Muslim League with 18. The only other UDF constituent with representation in the Assembly is the Kerala Congress (Jacob), which has a lone MLA. Other UDF partners, among them importantly the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Socialist Janata (Democratic) which came into its fold from the LDF in the past decade, failed to win a seat in the last election. After a brief honeymoon, they have regularly raised complaints against the Congress on many issues, including lack of support to their candidates during the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. The total strength of the UDF is now down to 41 in the 140-member Assembly.

Announcing the decision to leave the UDF on August 7 after a two-day meeting of his party, KC(M) chairman K.M. Mani said that during the run-up to the election, conscious efforts had been made by some sections within the Congress to attack “the KC(M) and its leader” and to sully their image in an “unfair, politically immoral attempt to deliberately weaken his party”.

His party has decided to sit as “an independent bloc separate from the UDF” in the Assembly and to function as a “responsible opposition group with its own independent vision”. Also, the KC(M) (with two MPs, one each in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha) will only offer “issue-based support” to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in Parliament. However, coalition arrangements of sharing power with the UDF in the local bodies in the State will continue.

Mani has long been aggrieved that even though two UDF Ministers in the previous government were accused of involvement in the “bar bribery scandal”, he alone bore the brunt of it. Sections within the Congress used the opportunity to do him in politically, while the former Excise Minister K. Babu of the Congress was offered a “different kind of justice” and got away fairly unscathed. The allegations that bribes were paid to Mani were first made by representatives of bar hotel owners following the UDF government’s decision to close down all the 730 liquor bars in the private sector as part of its efforts to introduce total prohibition in Kerala in stages. They were raised right when Mani, who had just then completed five decades as a legislator (after having served the State in governments led by Congress and the CPI(M) as Finance and Law Minister for the longest period, and presented the State Budget for the most number of times), was widely being rumoured to be nurturing chief ministerial ambitions. He was even suspected to be responding favourably to “feelers” from the LDF; the nine MLAs of his party then were crucial for the survival of the Congress-led government which had only a thin majority.

The “bar bribery” allegations forced Mani to resign as Finance Minister in November last year despite his initial defiance and also became a major factor in the defeat of the UDF in the Assembly election. His alleged involvement in the bribery scandal dashed any chance he had of joining the LDF before the election. With opposition growing even within his own party during the run-up to the election, Mani had no option but to remain in the UDF.

With the UDF receiving one of its worst defeats in the Assembly election, and with the Lok Sabha election still far away, Mani seems to have decided it is time for experiments. By stating that the KC(M) will pursue an independent line, he has left the door open for interesting possibilities for the political landscape of the State.

Kerala is eagerly watching to see which group will want to hold hands with the KC(M), what with its shrinking base among the large Christian minority voters in at least three central districts and with its chairman still facing a Vigilance inquiry. It is likely that the BJP would be most ready to welcome Mani into its fold. But there are many within the KC(M) who think that it will be suicidal for the party, given the nature of its largely Christian support base.

CPI(M) State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has offered a platform where Mani’s party can join hands with the LDF on issues of public importance and in opposing the anti-people policies of the Central government, though he also said that there was no space for the KC(M) now in the LDF. He also said that the LDF did not consider KC(M) a communal party. But within the LDF, too, there is opposition to giving the KC(M) a berth in the coalition. “A man who was corrupt until the other day cannot become a saint overnight just because he switched sides. Don’t we know the people are watching all this?” CPI State secretary Kanam Rajendran said and ruled out any possibility of welcoming the KC(M) into the LDF.

Then there are those who consider the virulence of Mani’s revolt and the strong reactions to it from the Congress as a joke, made possible only because both sides do not have to face the electorate any time in the near future. If history is any guide, they may as well join hands again when the need for power and the “opportunities” that come in its wake overtake the KC(M)’s present need for theatrics.

But the fact that the BJP is waiting to gain out of any sign of weakness in either front that has run Kerala for so long makes the impact of the KC(M)’s revolt in the State’s politics so unpredictable.

R. Krishnakumar

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