In a late evening coup on March 11, the faction led by Jose K Mani swatted aside the counsel of senior allies Congress and Muslim League and forced his father and Kerala Congress (M) supremo K M Mani to turn down the request of party working chairman P J Joseph to contest from Kottayam. Joseph, one of the founders of Kerala Congress, was dealt with supercilious contempt. To aggravate the insult, Mani loyalist Thomas Chazhikkadan, who had quite decisively lost in the 2016 elections, was chosen over Joseph.
It might have been Jose K Mani's way of showing who the crown prince is. Such daredevilry might have even endeared Mani Junior to a cadre fed on the political exploits of K M Mani but it looks like both the Kerala Congress and the UDF will have to pay a heavy price for this. The Congress is already worried. “Our objective is to win as many seats as possible. Congress will intervene if the issue snowballs into a crisis that threatens to hurt the UDF chances in Kottayam,” Congress working president Benny Behanan said in New Delhi.
There are reasons why the UDF should panic. The Joseph group has considerable clout in areas within the Kottayam constituency. Keeping Joseph miffed is not the best way to wrest the Idukki seat from CPM independent Joice George either. In 2014, Jose K Mani's biggest margins came from Pala, Kaduthuruty and Kottayam segments of the Kottayam constituency. In both Kaduthuruty and Kottayam, the P J Joseph faction is the most dominant at the level of party functionaries. In the 2009 polls, the Kottayam segment was barely won by Jose K Mani. But in 2014, he had a lead of nearly 17,000 votes in Kottayam segment.
However, the bigger lead was in Kaduthuruthy segment, 24,960 votes. This is Joseph's right hand man and former minister Mons Joseph's fiefdom. Mons had won the Assembly fight here in 2016 with a staggering margin of 42,256 votes. Piravam is other segment where Joseph has some serious clout. It was only after Joseph came over to Mani side that the party could effectively soften the CPM hold in the area.
The Jose K Mani faction still reckons that Joseph does not have the standing to close the existing gap between the fronts. There was nearly 14 per cent gap in the votes polled by Jose K Mani and his closest competitor Mathew T Thomas of Janata Dal (S) in 2014.
However, the fear in the Congress camp is that if a disgruntled Joseph decides to go for an informal alliance with the BJP then the tables could be turned against the UDF. BJP national president Amit Shah himself had told state leaders to play the waiting game and not to shut out Joseph option. “A political understanding with a predominantly Christian party with deep roots in Central Travancore is a prospect the BJP has been chasing for quite some time. Once a partnership is struck, the BJP will do all it can to barge in. This is a possibility that we will have to prevent at any cost,” a top Congress leader said.
The UDF also needs Joseph's blessings if it wants to take back Idukki from Joice George. Joseph has strong connections with the church and the settler community in Idukki. It was only in the strongholds of Joseph - Thodupuzha, Muvattupuzha and Kothamangalam – that the Congress candidate Dean Kuriakose had come on top during the 2014 polls. Two years later, Joseph himself had won the Thodupuzha Assembly seat with a mammoth margin of 45,587 votes.
Here is yet another pointer to Joseph's grassroots strength. Except for Joseph and Mons, the four remaining Kerala Congress MLAs (all on Mani's side) had a win margin of less than 10,000 votes. Even among them, except for Roshi Augustine, three, including Mani, had a win margin of less than 5,000 votes.