The drama surrounding faction feuds in Kerala Congress has become so mundane that it does not stir political excitement any more. Monday's episode was a bit different, though. There was an element of shock in the UDF's decision to oust the Jose K Mani-led Kerala Congress faction from the Congress-led United Democratic Front.
Those who have been observing the recent bout of factional feud within the regional party, which began during the Lok Sabha polls and reached a crescendo following the demise of party patriarch K M Mani, knew that something was on its way.
Still, the UDF's decision to throw away one of its constituents ahead of the local body elections seemed unthinkable, especially when the front is on a slippery wicket against the CPM-led LDF government, riding high on the apparent goodwill over its COVID-19 management.
The UDF's tough action, necessitated by the Jose faction's refusal to hand over the post of the Kottayam district panchayat president to the P J Joseph faction, looks like a shock treatment as well as a political gamble.
For many UDF leaders, mainly the Congress veterans, teaching the Mani scion a hard lesson was inevitable as he has been snubbing them repeatedly. The district panchayat row set them the right stage.
Choosing the veteran and shrewd Joseph over the young and arrogant Jose was not an easy decision for the UDF leadership, as both of them command the support of a sizeable vote base. However, they chose to side by Joseph because otherwise they would have been seen as compromising political integrity.
In doing so, the UDF leadership, especially the Congress, has taken some risk in terms of possible voting patterns and alliance equations in the coming elections. Yet, they decided to crack the whip considering a variety of reasons.
“Jose faction may be stronger in terms of voter base not only in Kottayam but also in Idukki (Joseph's stronghold) as he is the son of K M Mani. But, Joseph enjoys a high level of goodwill among the traditional Kerala Congress supporters. At the same time there's a dislike for Jose among many of them. Jose doesn't command the respect his father used to get from the people. So if you ask me Jose or Joseph, it's advantage Joseph, at least in the present context,” a Congress leader outside Kottayam said.
The anti-Jose feeling is so strong that even if he remains within the UDF, his candidates are likely to fail in the next assembly polls.
“The Pala bypoll was a clear sign,” he said. Jose's nominee lost the bypoll necessitated by the death of K M Mani, who had represented the constituency for over 50 years.
Chandy's strong stance
All those who know Oommen Chandy's position in the UDF as its de facto leader would be aware that a decision as crucial as keeping an ally outside the front could not be taken without his consent, especially when the son of his long-term associate Mani is at the receiving end.
“Oommen Chandy took a strong stance on the issue. He wanted the Jose faction to abide by the consensus reached among the UDF leaders to hand over the civic body chief's post to Joseph faction. He must have been felt snubbed by Jose as he refused to do so. His must have been the final word as it's an issue relating to Kottayam,” the Congress leader said.
“Chandy must have compared the situation with similar occasions when Mani was alive. Both of them could have settled such an issue amicably through talks. It was not happening with Jose,” he said.
A district-level Congress leader in Kottayam, visibly elated over the move against Jose, said Chandy was stern about the decision.
The local leader downplayed Jose faction's strength, saying Joseph commanded more support among the party workers.
“There's only one MLA (N Jayaraj of Kanjirappally) supporting Jose in Kottayam district. Even if the faction joins the LDF, it's unlikely that the traditional supporters of the Kerala Congress (M), mostly Catholics, would vote for the CPM-led front,” he said.
A senior Congress leader in central Kerala, however, did not share such an optimism. He said the action should have been avoided. “There was still room for discussions. An assurance about the seats to be allotted to the Jose faction might have settled the disputes,” he said.
He said the political circumstances in the state was not at all opportune for a decision that would weaken the UDF.
“We can take a tough decision when we are strong enough to do so. Unfortunately, we are not in a good position as of now,” the leader confessed.
Would the front become weaker sans Jose K Mani? The local body elections should throw up an answer.