KERALA : In the tiny town of Pala, nestled in the rubber heartland of central Kerala, almost everyone has a ‘KM Mani story’ to tell. After all, when an entire generation of people here have grown up getting accustomed to a single MLA over the last five decades, there are bound to be back-stories that go beyond the usual dynamics of a relationship between a resident and her public representative.
Born into a lower-middle-class farmer family, Mani’s organisational agility and fierce oratory got him noticed among the leading lights of the Congress party, where began his politics. An accomplished lawyer, his colleagues watched him as he feverishly climbed up the political ladder and carving a niche for himself in the agrarian set-up of central Kerala. By the time he became the Kottayam district secretary of the party, he had begun to wield extraordinary influence among the farmers, especially those who owned rubber plantations, the principal cash crop of the region. He expanded his authority in the region by developing a close rapport with the priests and bishops of the Catholic Church, to which he himself belonged, and making inroads into the community. In the mid-60s however, disenchanted with the style and functioning of the Congress, he and KM George founded the Kerala Congress as an alternative to his parent party and modelled as a protector of farmers and Catholic interests. The platform generated huge interest, thanks to his ‘mass leader’ image and his uncanny ability to find the right human resources for each job. Within no time, it grew into a deeply-established party and becoming a counter to Congress and Marxist politics in the region.
From the 70s, Mani’s personal rise was meteoric even as his party suffered turbulent times. With his colleagues all vying for prized leadership positions and their personal egos clashing against each other, the party went through innumerable splits. In Mani’s own words, the Kerala Congress had the tendency to ‘split as it grew and grow as it split.’ Initial setbacks notwithstanding, the faction led by Mani would always come out on top, thanks in large part to his appeal among the public and a certain kind of connivance he displayed in politics. As much as he played a unifier in getting people together, analysts say he showed no qualms whatsoever in ditching allies and finding new friends. He was a hard taskmaster too and was always able to extract the maximum from his allies in return for his loyalty. The Congress party, it’s longest friend, has had to bow down to the interests of Mani several times with a section of it’s leadership openly showing displeasure at such attempts. Just last year, after the Congress party gave a Rajya Sabha berth to Mani’s faction out of it’s own share, a livid supporter put out an ad claiming the Congress headquarter in Kerala was on sale. Such is Mani’s bargaining power that even as he wielded influence among a small region of the state, he made national parties like the Congress work hard for his support.