Kerala: UDF finds 'void' left behind by Chandy, Mani difficult to fill

Joseph M Puthussery, general secretary of the KC (Joseph) faction, highlighted Mani’s painstaking approach to ensure UDF victories.
Oommen Chandy and KM Mani.
Oommen Chandy and KM Mani.

KOTTAYAM: In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the UDF found itself under tremendous pressure when P J Joseph – the working chairman of its then constituent, the undivided Kerala Congress (M) – staked his claim for the Kottayam seat. Days-long discussions failed to ease the tension as Joseph refused to budge from the demand.

On the night of March 11, party patriarch K M Mani declared Thomas Chazhikadan as the candidate, dismissing Joseph’s claim. As a split seemed imminent, Mani skilfully navigated the situation, ensuring the unity of the party, until his passing on April 9, 2019.

In the 2014 general election, a major political issue was the Union Ministry of Environment and forest’s (MoEF) decision to accept the recommendations of the high-level working group, headed by K Kasturirangan, on conserving the Western Ghats. Though the MoEF decision was made in October, 2013, Kerala witnessed unprecedented protests in the high-range areas in the period leading up to the election.

Recognising the potential of the issue to drive an election setback, then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy adopted two decisive steps. First, he denied the Idukki seat to sitting MP P T Thomas, who supported implementation of the Kasturirangan report.

Second, Chandy exerted pressure on the Union government to issue a notification endorsing an expert panel report submitted by Kerala, which reduced the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) from 13,108 sqkm to 9,993.7 sqkm. On March 4, the Centre accepted the report and issued a notification, a day before the declaration of the election.

Chandy’s strategic moves proved critical, as he managed to deflect anti-government sentiment, helping the UDF bag 12 of the 20 seats that year.

This year marks the first general election without the presence of these two influential leaders. The UDF is now faced with the challenge of filling the void left by Chandy and Mani.

“Oommen Chandy had a unique ability to energise workers, especially during election campaigns. When Chandy and Mani appeared together at UDF election meetings, the workers were inspired. The absence of these two leaders is deeply felt by all leaders and cadre,” said Tomy Kallani, former KPCC general secretary.

In addition to their strategic roles, Chandy and Mani travelled extensively across the state to attend campaigns in every district. They also maintained strong relationships with various religious sects and communities. A major concern for the UDF is that the current leadership has struggled to establish a similar rapport with these organisations.

Joseph M Puthussery, general secretary of the KC (Joseph) faction, highlighted Mani’s painstaking approach to ensure UDF victories.

“He meticulously completed all preparations and made sure everything was in order before an election. He contacted workers at all levels, from the grassroots to prominent figures, to strengthen relationships. He was involved in every aspect of the campaign,” Puthussery said.

However, following Mani’s passing on April 9, just two weeks before the 2019 vote, KC (M) experienced a vertical split and Mani’s son Jose K Mani led the KC(M) to the LDF camp, while Joseph and his supporters remained in the UDF. Despite their absence, the influence of Mani and Chandy is still being felt in the election campaign.

Paying respects

  • UDF’s Kottayam candidate K Francis George began his campaign by paying respects at Chandy’s tomb at Puthuppally St George Orthodox Church.

  • LDF candidate Chazhikadan paid homage at Mani’s tomb before launching his campaign and filing nomination papers.

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