For Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who was expecting a historic comeback for the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 2016 Assembly elections in the state, recent developments in the front and the state have not been encouraging. The developments have emboldened rivals in the party and outside.
The setback suffered by the UDF in the local body elections and the bar bribery case have raised questions about Chandy's leadership. With a section of the numerically strong Ezhava community shifting loyalty from the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the UDF was expecting a cakewalk in the civic body elections. That didn't happen. In several civic bodies such as the Thiruvanantha-puram municipal corporation, the BJP ate into the Congress vote base, relegating the party to third place in terms of vote share.
But it is the bar bribery scandal that may hurt the UDF's prospects more. The case came to light on October 31, 2014. Biju Ramesh, working president of the Kerala Bar Hotel Owners' Association, alleged that Kerala Congress (Mani) chief and state finance minister K M Mani had sought Rs 5 crore to renew the liquor licence of 418 bars identified as 'substandard'. According to Ramesh, he had paid Rs 1 crore to the minister. Acting on a complaint by CPI(M) leader V S Achuthanandan, the Vigilance & Anti-Corruption Bureau probed the matter and found merit in the allegation against Mani.
Subsequently, the case reached the Kerala High Court, which upheld the vigilance court's view that Mani should be tried. Following the high court's stinging remarks and the pressure mounted by the Opposition, it became untenable for Chandy to continue with Mani in the cabinet although the latter's party is a key constituent of the UDF. The UDF has 72 MLAs in the 140-member state Assembly, of which Kerala Congress (Mani) MLAs number eight.
Mani, on his part, said: "I am quitting voluntarily. There was no pressure on me from any quarter." His party member and government chief whip Thomas Unniyadan also resigned "expressing solidarity with the party leader".
Earlier, Mani had tried to dig his heels in, saying he would not quit as several other ministers were being probed for corruption but had not resigned. He had tried to bargain with the Congress leadership, saying that the support of the eight MLAs from his party was crucial for the survival of the government, which has only about six months left in its term. Ultimately, he had to resign after UDF coalition partners Indian Union Muslim League, Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Janata Dal (United) put their foot down. Chandy is said to have put pressure through them and thus managed to drive a wedge into Mani's party.
To put pressure on the Congress, Mani tried to seek the resignation of the other minister from his party, P J Joseph. But Joseph refused, claiming he had the support of two party MLAs.
With Mani's resignation, Chandy has succeeded in taking the sting out of the agitations the LDF had planned. However, the issue regained traction in the wake of new disclosures made by Ramesh against Congress ministers in the scandal.
The Kerala Congress (Mani) was once sought-after by the CPI(M) and the BJP. But with Mani becoming a pariah after getting embroiled in the bribery case, he has no option but to support the UDF. The latest is that Mani has been booked for bribery by the Vigilance & Anti-Corruption Bureau.