The UDF leadership has stopped an inch short of formally announcing the ouster of the Jose K Mani faction but has made it evident that it is no longer interested in having the Kerala Congress faction within its fold.
At the UDF meeting held in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday, there was no trouble for the leaders to pick P J Joseph's nominee Jacob Abraham as the UDF candidate in Kuttanad. No punitive action was taken against the Jose K Mani faction either, except to extend the earlier punishment banning the group from attending UDF meetings.
It was clear the UDF did not want to force the faction out and allow the group to play the martyr. In the last week of June, when the UDF first banned the Kerala Congress group from UDF meetings, Jose K Mani had played the victim to near perfection by trying to give the impression that the UDF had insulted the memory of K M Mani.
The UDF, therefore, was careful this time. Opposition leader and UDF chairman Ramesh Chennithala, while briefing the media after the UDF meeting on Tuesday, said the UDF had not expelled anyone from the UDF. At the same time, he also ruled out further discussions with the party. "If they are interested, perhaps we can think of talks," Chennithala said.
Three factors seem to have forced the UDF to finally give up on Jose K Mani. One, the group's decision to abstain from the no-confidence motion against the government on August 25. Two, its refusal to take part in the Rajya Sabha elections. Three, the secret talks the UDF believes the Mani faction leaders had held with the CPM.
The UDF chairman told Jose K Mani that if he intended to walk away from the UDF, he should display "political ethics" and resign the Rajya Sabha seat he had secured with the help of the UDF.
While subtly daring Jose K Mani to formally exit the front, Chennithala also claimed K M Mani as UDF's own. "Mani sir was one of the greatest leaders of the UDF. He always wanted to be part of the UDF. Though he had kept away from the UDF for a time, he came back to the UDF fold before the Chengannur byelections," Chennithala said.
He also sought to paint the decision of the Jose K Mani faction to keep away from the no-confidence motion as an insult to K M Mani.
"They have betrayed the UDF in the very House where the UDF leaders threw a ring of protection around Mani sir when the LDF threatened to forcefully prevent him from presenting the annual Budget," Chennithala said. "Even then we did not take any action," he added, hinting that the UDF had been extremely patient.
"People now ask how any group that takes an anti-UDF position inside and outside the Assembly can be seen as part of the Front? It is up to the Jose K Mani faction, which claims K M Mani's legacy, to convince the public," Chennithala said.
He said the UDF had banned the faction from UDF meetings (in June) only because it refused to honour the power-sharing pact the leadership had struck for Kottayam District Panchayat. “But, instead of imbibing the spirit of the decision, they chose to betray the UDF's trust. Throwing an open challenge at the UDF leadership, they proclaimed that they will be taking an independent political stand. Even then we did not take any disciplinary action and continued to hold discussions to bring them back. But they went ahead as if they were looking for a chance to betray the UDF,” the opposition leader said.
If K M Mani was present, Chennithala said, such an immature decision would not have been taken and the UDF would not have been backstabbed like this.
Jose K Mani's counter
In response to the UDF charge, Jose K Mani said that his party had not betrayed the Front.
He said the original betrayal had taken place at Pala. "P J Joseph made several statements (during the Pala byelections) that hurt the prospects of the UDF candidate. We submitted documentary proof of P J's attempts to sabotage the UDF's chances. Yet, no action was taken. We were not even called for a discussion," Jose K Mani told reporters at Pala on Tuesday.
He also charged P J Joseph with trying to hijack Kerala Congress (Mani) after the death of K M Mani. Jose said Joseph had been attempting to take over KC(M) even before Mani's death. As proof, he cited Joseph's indifference to the 'Kerala Yatra' he had launched in 2019 and Joseph's demand for Kottayam Lok Sabha seat.
"What has now been revealed is the conspiracy to destroy Kerala Congress (M)," Jose said, a clear hint that the Congress and the Joseph faction was working in tandem to destroy Mani's legacy.
Jose once again insisted that there was no accepted power sharing formula for Kottayam District Panchayat. He also said the UDF leaders had not contacted his faction MLAs - Roshy Augustine and N Jayaraj - to take part in the no-confidence motion against the LDF government.
Jose, however, was vague about his future plans. He just said his party was in "talks with all the fronts". The UDF has said it would not initiate any discussion with the Jose faction. But Jose was not as emphatic. He did not say whether he would or would not hold talks with the UDF.
He said his party's political stand would be revealed at the time of the local body polls.