“The more it grows, the more it splinters; the more it splinters, the more it grows” – this is how KM Mani had described Kerala Congress, the third largest component of Congress-led United Democratic Front or UDF.
He couldn’t have been more prescient.
Kerala Congress’ existence through more than half-a-century has only served to underline the party’s uncanny ability to evolve and mutate in unpredictable ways.
Founded in 1964 by KM George from malcontents within the state unit of Indian National Congress, Kerala Congress drew its votes and talent largely from the relatively well-to-do and ambitious Syrian Christian community of Kottayam and Idukki districts.
The first eight years of the party passed off in relative bonhomie and political harmony. The first major split happened in 1972 when E John Jacob and JA Chacko formed a new Kerala Congress.
However, this was only the beginning. Splits became a regular affair in the party, with almost all letters of the English alphabet being put to use to distinguish between one faction from another.
Kerala Congress was formed by leaders belonging to two powerful communities — Syrian Christians and Nairs — who rebelled against R Shankar, the first Ezhava chief minister of Kerala and could count Nair Service Society among its supporters in its initial years.
Mani was, interestingly, not among the initial bunch of Indian National Congress leaders who went on to create Kerala Congress, but joined after 1965.
Along with KM George and K Balakrishna Pillai, KM Mani and PJ Joseph rose as prominent leaders of the party in the 70s. But KM George, considered the founder, died in 1976, leading to a tussle for control between Pillai and Mani.
Pillai announced a split from the parent party Kerala Congress and formed the Kerala Congress (Balakrishna Pillai) faction in 1977.
Mani had a ruthless style, and has been accused to trying to cut down anyone who could pose a threat to his position in the party and trying to accumulate as much power with himself as possible.
Not surprisingly, Mani and Joseph did not get along for long, and the party split again split in 1979, with Mani forming the Kerala Congress(M) — one of the most durable factions within the Kerala Congress family.
In 1980 he joined hands with LDF, but returned to UDF in 1982.
In 1985, the Kerala Congress (M) and Kerala Congress (Balakrishna Pillai) merged with the parent Kerala Congress party under PJ Joseph when they realized that the splits had weakened their position.
On May 25, 1985, at a public meeting in Ernakulam, Pillai, then a minister in the Kerala Cabinet allegedly incited people to resort to protests like ‘Punjab Model’ to get rights of Kerala State.
This became a huge controversy and Pillai was forced to resign from the Cabinet and his portfolio was given to KM Mani.
Later, the High Court gave relief to Pillai.
On these grounds, the Kerala Congress led by PJ Joseph requested the then Chief Minister K Karunakaran to reinstate Pillai to the cabinet.
Karunakaran saw this as an opportunity to weaken Kerala Congress and took a stand that for Pillai to be re-indicted to the cabinet, Kerala Congress has to surrender the Finance portfolio held by Mani or to be content with three ministerial posts.
This upset Mani and he again split from Kerala Congress just before the Assembly Elections of 1987.
In 1993, T.M Jacob, one among the chief loyalists of Kerala Congress (M) group, announced his split from the party citing differences with KM Mani.
During late 2000s, another series of splits happened within the Kerala Congress (M), resulting in the exit of various leaders including PC Thomas owing to their differences with KM Mani.
KM Mani is considered a leading proponent of what his supporters call ‘pragmatic politics’ and his detractors term ‘political opportunism’.
He did not have ideological hangups, and was willing to join with anyone, including the Left and the Congress, to partake of power.
He befriended even his foes, and was even rumoured to be in talks to join BJP’s National Democratic Alliance.
However, over time, he established himself as a political voice of both the agriculture and plantation oriented sections as well as the the industry and trade oriented segments within the local Christian community.
FUTURE OF KERALA CONGRESS IN DOLDRUMS?
Though all the splits and fissures, Mani held on to his status as the tallest leader among the various Kerala Congress factions.
When smaller leaders threatened to switch sides, he managed internal feuds and built Kerala Congress (M) a force to reckon with in the history of state politics.
With Mani gone, the future of Kerala Congress has again been plunged into uncertainty.
Political analysts are of the opinion that it will be hard for the party to even survive. Moreover, Indian National Congress will be keen to finish off, or at least severely handicap, its unwanted offspring once and for all, making more seats available to itself in the broader UDF coalition.
Any weakening in the position of the Kerala Congress will also help INC further consolidate its position in the Syrian Christian community, the strongest and most reliable vote bank for the national party in Kerala.
“Congress will benefit from the ongoing internal crisis of the Kerala Congress as it is trying to finish off the party”, said Cherian Philip, LDF leader and a prominent political analyst.
Mani’s mantle, meanwhile, is likely to pass on to Jose K Mani, KM Mani’s son.
However, observers are of the opinion that he lacks his father’s vision and organizational skills.
Even though he handled very important roles in the party matters in the recent years, it will be hard for him to replace his colossal father, they argue.
Advocate A Jayashankar, a keen observer of local politics, points out that Jose K Mani might even be forced to float a new Kerala Congress party if PJ Joseph manages to assert control over the united party.
“Despite all the splits, Mani sir united the party. His death has dragged the party to a major political crisis, hard to recover. There will be no surprise if the party face further splits”, said Antony Raju, a leader of Democratic Congress Party.
There are even reports that the Indian National Congress could try to wean away Joseph to their side, further weakening Kerala Congress.
Reports suggest that PJ Joseph even met Congress leaders Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala to convey his discontent after he was denied a ticket to contest from the Kottayam Lok Sabha constituency this time.
With KM Mani’s death, a glory days of Kerala Congress seem to be over.
Whether the party survives in a diminished form, or splinters into insignificance depends on how INC, the big brother in the UDF, plays its cards in coming days.