Founded in 1964, the Kerala Congress is one of the early regional political parties in the country. Over the five-and-a-half decades, the party split several times and what remains is a number of factions of the Kerala Congress, spread across all the three major political fronts in the state.
The April 6 assembly elections in Kerala will be crucial for the Kerala Congress factions fighting on over 20 seats from various fronts for several reasons.
Though there are seven Kerala Congress factions functioning as independent political parties, the performance of two of them – the one led by Jose K Mani and the other by P J Joseph – are being keenly watched. The Kerala Assembly elections 2021 is as much Jose vs Joseph as it is the LDF vs UDF.
The Kerala Congress (M) led by Jose K Mani is contesting on 12 seats from the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) while the P J Joseph faction has been allotted 10 seats by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). The two parties, when they were undivided and part of the UDF, had contested on 15 seats in the 2016 polls.
This time the two parties will come face to face in four constituencies – Idukki, Thodupuzha, Kaduthuruthy and Changanassery. In Piravom, the Jose K Mani faction will fight the Kerala Congress (Jacob) faction.
Battle for Pala
Being leader-centric groupings, the survival of each Kerala Congress faction depends on the performance of the heads in terms of electoral strategies and alliance managements. In that sense, the upcoming assembly elections will be a testing time for both Jose and Joseph. Still, the test will be tougher for Jose who has taken the biggest and daring decision of his political career. This is the first state elections after his faction left the UDF and joined the LDF.
“Jose K Mani is getting big protection from the CPM. It was evident in the seat allocation. Since he is being protected too much, his faction also has to win big time. Otherwise his survival will be difficult in the Left front. Traditionally, it is said that the vote bases of the Left front and the Kerala Congress don't get along with each other. It remains to be seen whether the voting pattern has changed these days,” a senior journalist and political observer said.
In Pala, Jose K Mani is facing a tough fight from Mani C Kappan, who recently quit the NCP, a constituent of the LDF, and floated his own Nationalist Congress - Kerala. Mani has the support of the LDF machinery while Kappan claims to enjoy the support of a sizeable population of Pala beyond party lines. Mani is contesting the assembly polls first time after two stints in Lok Sabha and one in Rajya Sabha. The elections will prove how much he has inherited the election management skills of his late father K M Mani who represented Pala for over 50 years. In Pala, however, several undercurrents will decide the results. The major factor will be the Catholic church's stance.
If the BJP-led NDA fields P C Thomas, who heads another Kerala Congress faction, in Pala, the fight will be more interesting.
Will Joseph retain Thodupuzha?
Mani's rival Joseph will be seeking re-election from his home turf Thodupuzha. The Mani faction has fielded its senior leader K I Antony against Joseph. The Joseph faction suffered a setback in Thodupuzha in the local body elections. However, the state polls being an altogether different ball game and Joseph being a seasoned politicians, it's advantage Joseph in Thodupuzha.
In the neighbouring Idukki seat, incumbent MLA Roshy Augustine, a lieutenant of Jose K Mani, is facing Francis George, the son of Kerala Congress founding leader K M George. A tough fight is on the cards in Idukki for sure.
In Kottayam district, Jose and Joseph factions take on each other in Kaduthuruthy and Changanassery. In Kaduthuruthy, Mons Joseph of P J Joseph faction is seeking re-election against Mani group's Stephen George. Kaduthuruthy is a Kerala Congress stronghold. Mons Joseph won the 2016 elections with a margin of over 42,000 votes against Scaria Thomas, who heads the Kerala Congress faction after his name. Thomas, an ally of the LDF, has not been given any seat to contest this time. The Janadhipathya Kerala Congress has been given one seat. Antony Raju is the party's candidate in Thiruvananthapuram.
Changanassery, the constituency left vacant with the death of C F Thomas, who stood with Joseph in the split, is witnessing a fight between Job Michael (Mani) and V J Lali (Joseph). Like in Pala, the Church will be a decisive factor in Changanassery. Ettumanoor is the third constituency where the Joseph faction has its candidate in Kottayam district. Prince Lukose takes on CPM district secretary V N Vasavan there.
“We are confident of winning all the three constituencies in Kottayam where we have fielded our candidates. We are sure about Idukki and Thodupuzha also,” a leader of the P J Joseph faction said.
The other constituencies where Joseph faction contests are Irinjalakuda, Kothamangalam, Kuttanad, Tiruvalla and Thrikaripur.
Candidate selection has turned troublesome for the Jose K Mani faction in Ranni, Piravom and Kuttiyadi – all three seats allotted by the CPM from its kitty. The discontent among the LDF cadre over seat allotment and candidate selection in these constituencies is likely to play out in the polls.
The 2021 election is noted for the generational shift in Kerala Congress factions. Sons of six founding leaders of the party are contesting the polls from different fronts. Apart from Jose K Mani and Francis George, the other sons in the fray are Ganesh Kumar (R Balakrishna Pillai), Anoop Jacob (T M Jacob), N Jayaraj (K Narayanakurup) and Prince Lukose (O V Lukose).
If P C Thomas (son of P T Chacko) enters the fray, the number will go up again.
P J Joseph is the lone first generation leader of the Kerala Congress in the fray this time. The other veteran, Balakrishna Pillai, is taking rest from active politics due to ill-health.