He was considered the ultimate political survivor. Now, Kerala’s 82-year-old finance minister and the country’s longest-serving MLA stands disgraced
Kerala’s embattled Finance minister KM Mani, India’s longest- serving MLA, is worshipped in his constituency Pala, which he has represented in all elections since 1965. He is accessible, hardworking, crafty, ingenious and warm. His detractors may call him a poseur, but he certainly has a knack for treating even strangers like members of his family. ‘Mani sir’, as he is popularly known, claims he remembers the names of almost all of his constituents. (People close to Mani say that his assistants keep tabs of the names of people he meets so that he can surprise them later by addressing them directly and inquiring after their kin.) Among some residents of Pala, especially of the entrepreneurial Christian community, he was also revered—mostly in secret and sometimes publicly—for making money through bribes without facing charges of graft. Typical Pala household talk about ‘Mani sir’ always veers towards his “great cunning” and foxy disposition. “He can’t be touched. He can’t be trapped. He is an old fox. He is too good. He is chief ministerial material. This is what we all used to say,” recalls a person from his hometown who is also a government official.
On 27 January, three days before his 82nd birthday, when Mani appeared at a hurriedly convened press conference in Thiruvananthapuram, he looked flustered, smiling perfunctorily and blurting out cuss words at the opposition and liquor vendors to hide his unease at events taking an awkward turn. The same day, the RSS and BJP had called a dawn-to-dusk hartal in the state seeking his resignation for allegedly accepting huge bribes from liquor barons, and it was a near-total success. For all his avowed political shrewdness at one-upmanship, eliminating old rivals both inside and outside his party, destroying the careers of young politicians and repelling irritants, he is now embroiled in a corruption scandal that has hobbled the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), of which his party, the Kerala Congress (M), is a part. The diminutive-yet-tall political leader, who holds the record for any state assembly of presenting 12 budgets, faces his biggest battle yet as the three-month-old political crisis persists. Amid murmurs of disapproval from a section of the UDF, he declared at the press conference that he himself, and not the Chief Minister or any other minister, would present his 13th budget due in March. “I have a record [of presenting the budget] and this is the only such record in the country. My life is an open book. People know me very well for the past 50 years. I will be presenting my 13th budget. Some people told me about the unlucky number 13, but for me 13 is lucky,” said Mani, falling back on threat as an act of bravado. The Kerala Congress (M), where M stands for Mani, has nine MLAs in the 140-member state Assembly; and Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, an extremely artful politician, enjoys only a thin majority. It will spell trouble for the ruling dispensation if Mani decides to leave the UDF, which currently has only 75 seats in the state while the CPM-led opposition has 65. The main opposition CPM is the single-largest party with 44 MLAs. Within a day of Mani throwing down the gauntlet, Chandy said that the Finance Minister himself would present the state budget.
It all started with accusations hurled at Mani in November by Kerala Bar Hotels’ Association (KBHA) working president Biju Ramesh, who claimed that bar hotel owners had paid the state finance minister a bribe of Rs 1 crore for the renewal of expired liquor retail licences. The payoff was made to Mani by representatives of the KBHA at the minister’s private residence in Pala in April. This was done to lobby the government to revoke the cancellation of licences to 418 bars where conditions were found to be ‘sub-standard’. According to a 2006 study by the state excise department, Kerala had 752 bars, and it found the condition of 418 bars ‘appallingly pathetic’. The UDF government had refused to renew their licences last year. More skeletons emerged by December last, when Ramesh—who claims to have offered “enough and more” proof to the state vigilance department about the bribes accepted by Mani—came out with a more startling revelation: tapes of conversations between bar owners, with one of them, identified as Animon, saying he had gone with Rs 5 crore to Mani’s Pala house at 1 am along with another liquor trader who claims in the tapes that there was a currency- counting machine at Mani’s home.
An apocryphal story has it that the select leakage of ‘evidence’ against Mani, who alone couldn’t have met the demands of bar owners in his capacity as finance minister, surfaced around the time the veteran politician was parleying with the Left Democratic Front (LDF) to unseat the Chandy government. Mani, who almost became Chief Minister twice in the past, had long harboured ambitions of attaining that position. In 1979, when the CPI’s PK Vasudevan Nair resigned, Mani was tipped to be Chief Minister, but was passed over thanks to the machinations of his rivals, and CH Mohammed Koya of the Muslim League assumed the post. He got another opportunity two months later, but his detractors within the Congress prevailed again, calling for fresh elections.
Mani and his team had first begun negotiating with the Left just before the last General Election. It is said that the ‘quid pro quo arrangement’ with the Left was that while the LDF would back Mani for chief ministership (which would lead to the fall of the Chandy government that had fewer seats then than it has now), the Left would also offer 23 assembly seats to the Kerala Congress (M) and three seats of the Lok Sabha in a proposed seat-sharing formula. The plan fell through as Jose K Mani, son of KM Mani, was already in full swing campaigning with the Congress. At that time, the Kerala Congress had not envisaged the electoral rout that would befall the UPA at the Centre. Months passed, and as Narendra Modi held increasing sway over national politics, pushing the Congress to the sidelines, Mani revived his chief ministerial hopes of pulling down the UDF government with the Left’s support. “It was around this time that allegations against Mani for accepting bribes from bar owners appeared. He couldn’t have tweaked the liquor policy on his own, but there was definitely a plan to implicate him,” says a Congress leader who belongs to Chandy’s rival camp in the party.
“It appears that Chandy, who was privy to intelligence inputs about Mani’s overtures to the Left, wanted to give Mani sir a warning, but the whole thing seems to have snowballed into a controversy, the damage of which even the Chief Minister didn’t estimate at that time,” says another Congress leader close to Chandy, matter- of-factly. However, in his official statements, Chandy has vehemently denied any move to frame his finance minister. He had even gone highly vocal, saying, “Mani sir will never do such a thing.”
Chandy’s loud statements exoner- ating Mani evoke mirth and laughter among Congressmen for obvious reasons. Various commentators have openly stated on TV channels that they have been told by people close to the Chief Minister that the ‘leakage’ was only to “douse the fire of ambition of Mani sir to become CM, and not to politically assassinate him”. But it remains a fact, alleges Ramesh, speaking to Open, “That Mani sir is the most corrupt politician in Kerala.” Many political analysts on Kerala’s TV channels engaged in discussions as if they were sure that Chandy was behind the leak. “People assume that Mani sir is corrupt. In politics, it is a bad prospect, but he is my leader and I know he is not corrupt,” PC George, vice-chairman of Mani’s party, tells Open. Asked whether he is joking, he merely says, “I am the most misunderstood politician in this state.” He adds that Jose K Mani couldn’t be made Mani’s successor as party chairman since there are other senior and accomplished leaders within his party. “Ours is not dynasty rule,” he quips.
Marxists, who have reportedly been in secret talks with Mani, try to rationalise why certain controversies spin out of control. CPM Politburo member and former home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan neither denies nor confirms any ‘negotiations’ with Mani. “Controversies often get lapped up into events that could lead to the fall of the government, especially when the allegations are true. Not even once did KM Mani deny accepting bribes. He only said all these were meant to damage his unblemished reputation of decades,” he says.
The reputation that Mani brandishes— as a hardworking politico, astute parliamentarian who knows the rules of assembly procedure by heart, a finance minister with a good grip of the subject and an elephantine memory, a rare politician who has mastered Kaul and Shakdher (authors of Practice and Procedure of Parliament, a bible for lawmakers)— took a long while to create, as he himself says.
Born to a lower middle-class family in Pala, Kottayam district, Mani was a promising student who went on to become a lawyer. People who have worked closely with him say that young Mani’s shrewdness was in full display right from the start. “Even his marriage was a clever political move,” says an insider. Mani, who had also started dabbling in Congress politics in the 60s, got married to Congress veteran PT Chacko’s cousin, Kuttiyamma. “That helped him rustle his way up through the circles of power within the Congress without much difficulty. Those were the days of leviathans in politics like R Shankar and many others,” adds another former associate of Mani. Chacko died in 1964 when he was just 49, and a few leaders in his camp in the state Congress led by KM George parted ways with the parent party and formed the Kerala Congress. Mani was not among its founders, though he would dominate the party within the next few decades.
In the 1965 polls, a few rich businessmen led by Kolathinkal Pothen approached Mani to contest on a Kerala Congress ticket. Mani refused, saying he didn’t have the money for it. “He agreed to join Kerala Congress when Pothen agreed to finance the elections, not out of any ideological differences with the Congress over corruption or any other reason,” says a Congress leader who has known him for long.
Mani won that election comfortably, but the Assembly was not convened and the state was under Governor’s rule until 1967, when he was re-elected to the Assembly. There, thanks to his grit and hard work, he excelled as a legislator, rocking politics with corruption allegations against ministers such as MK Krishnan, who had held the portfolio for Forest and Harijan welfare in the EMS cabinet of 1967-69. While he honed himself as a dexterous party leader and legislator, he was also deeply involved in creating a clique around himself within the party. “He is an illustrious parliamentarian, but he had no qualms about fighting over a jeep with a colleague, and he did. He managed to influence Kerala Congress founder KM George that he should use a jeep for party work that was owned by a senior colleague, Mathachan Kuruvinakunnel,” says another person who has known him. George, who was unaware of Mani’s wily games till rather late, asked Mathachan to let Mani use the vehicle, recalls this person, adding that Mathachan had warned George, “Mark my words, this fellow will turn against you.” George laughed it off, but within years, Mani launched “group activities” to sideline the founder-leader. Mani also got his acolytes to refer to him as “Mani sir”, because everyone referred to George as “George sir”.
“All this explains his intense obsession with being in power,” says another former Mani loyalist. “He is a slogger who can work days on without sleep, but when it comes to sharing power, he gets fidgety and cuts to size anyone who comes anywhere near his stature within his party.”
When the Emergency was imposed in 1975, the Kerala Congress was in the opposition, and when Indira Gandhi decided to woo the party with ministerial posts, Mani and others jumped at the opportunity. His colleague K Balakrishna Pillai and he joined the cabinet. Mrs Gandhi asked them if they wanted to go to jail or become ministers, and neither had any quarrel with the latter option.
After George’s death in 1976, Mani began to exercise plenty of control within the Kerala Congress, resulting in numerous splits over the next few decades. “Despite being in power for such a long time, through the decades, his greed for power is still not satiated because he wanted to be Chief Minister as well,” says a senior Congress leader from Kottayam, his hometown. “His undoing has been not just that. He began to promote his son as his successor, which other senior leaders detested.”
Chief Minister Chandy, who has faced numerous corruption scandals since coming to power in 2011, doesn’t seem in a mood to relent. He may not want to shove a contender like Mani out of the UDF because he would want all secrets and evidence against ministers to be hidden within the walls of his coalition. Indications are that Chandy will have the last laugh yet again in the tight-rope balancing act of staying in power and on top of a coalition that always looked tumultuous. In the 1990s, he had gone one-up on the late Chief Minister and Congress patriarch K Karunakaran, once considered undefeatable. Looks like the 71-year- old veteran of many battles has shown yet another political Machiavelli his place.