KM Mani, the most seasoned politician of Kerala, has finally called it a day. A career that spanned six decades had its ups and downs, but unlike most other politicians, Mani had more success stories than failures. Mani was secretary of the Kottayam District Congress Committee when the Kerala Congress was formed in October 1964. This was the culmination of long-standing factional politics within the Congress party, and the organisation structure of the party in central Kerala took a serious hit due to the split. And even amongst the turmoil, Mani had remained with the Congress.
But the possibility to contest in the 1965 Assembly election from his home turf Pala made him switch sides. With the necessary material support from the newly formed party contesting its first election, KM Mani defeated his opponents and won by a commendable margin of over 9,000 votes. And since then, even after 13 elections and 53 years, no one else has represented Pala in Kerala’s legislative assembly. He also managed diverse and critical portfolios in different ministries and has remained a formidable force in Kerala’s political domain all this while.
The story of Mani, the ‘Jewel of Pala’ as he was often referred to, is also the story of coalition politics in Kerala. More than his mass appeal or influence across geographies, it was his acumen to play the political game that paid all the dividends.
Being a late entrant into the Kerala Congress hierarchy, Mani came a bit lower in the pecking order in the party. But being one of the most consistent election performers, he regained turf gradually and made his own space. He was made a secretary of the party leadership and travelled across the state to build the party organisation.
Factionalism in state politics
Mani’s first coup in the party happened in December 1975 when the Kerala Congress decided to join the C Achutha Menon ministry. Mani played his cards right and forced the founding chairman of the party, the late KM George, to choose between the party chairmanship and a minister post. And thus, KM Mani became a minister for the very first time. Not much later, Mani adopted a major chunk of the party and made it his own – and thus formed the Kerala Congress (Mani). The next series of factionalism happened with PJ Joseph on the other side of the court. While they both worked together to push out R Balakrishna Pillai and form the KC(M), they soon parted ways and thus was formed the Kerala Congress (Joseph) group.
While all these developments were in progress, the Kerala Congress factions also started playing well between the newly formed United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the CPI(M). While they all were with the UDF in 1977, Mani and Balakrishna Pillai switched sides in 1980 and joined the EK Nayanar ministry. And in between, Pillai realigned with Joseph, while TM Jacob, a young and aspiring leader under Joseph, switched sides to Mani. Confusing, huh?
Towards the end of the 80s, PJ Joseph parted ways with the UDF and went back to the LDF fold. Pillai had then become almost insignificant which made KM Mani the rightful heir to the Kerala Congress legacy in the UDF.
The story started its rerun in the 90s, when TM Jacob found it the right time to create his own party and move away from Mani. He floated the Kerala Congress (Jacob) faction with three other MLAs, but remained a minister in the cabinet along with Mani. They fought the 1996 election together under the same front.
PM Mathew, an MLA who had defected to join Jacob, reran from Kaduthuruthi, a constituency where Mani had significant influence. In the run-up to the election, PC Thomas, erstwhile representative of the constituency, entered the fray as an independent candidate and there was widespread speculation that he was backed by KM Mani against PM Mathew. While Mani maintained a strategic silence on this, Thomas captured almost 21,000 votes and Mathew lost the election by 15,000 votes.
Entry of the son
The young PC Thomas, son of PT Chacko, was adopted and groomed by Mani as his prodigy. But by this time, his own son, Jose K Mani, was ready for a debut and Thomas had to move out and find new pastures.
The only electoral defeat that Mani faced, though not personal, was the result of the Muvattupuzha parliamentary elections in 2004 where his son Jose was pushed to third position and, to make things worse, PC Thomas won. But the smart tactician in Mani immediately made amendments. Just before the 2009 election when Jose was about to contest from Kottayam, Mani took the initiative to form a larger Kerala Congress forum for cooperation, co-existence and mutual benefit. With that in action, he made sure that no undercurrents spoil his plans for his son again. The forum found its natural demise soon after that election.
KM Mani in his final decade of existence could still make magic, first by absorbing PC Thomas, his arch nemesis for many years, into his fold; and then when PJ Joseph defected back to the UDF, getting him to merge his party with the Kerala Congress (Mani). He had the might to quit the UDF recently after severe verbal attacks on the Congress and still get himself reabsorbed with zero repercussions.
Even during the last few weeks, Mani kept himself busy with the latest instances of feud and conflict, and eventually made his own decisions stand, irrespective of any opposing views.
In short, from 1965 up to 2019, what Mani did or did not do, had significant impact. Very few people in Indian politics have remained relevant for such a long span. Folklore says that he made himself known as “Mani sir” by addressing himself thus in the third person to everyone around him. And he had his way. That has been his story for long – Mani sir made others walk every path he found for himself.