With Joseph on the fence, all eyes on Chandy

P J Joseph was vocal in the United Democratic Front meeting on Tuesday. By now, allies have grown used to the senior Kerala Congress leader's sudden spurt in activity levels. When Congress president Rahul Gandhi met the allied leaders in Kerala recently, even Kerala Congress supremo K M Mani was surprised to see Joseph raising the demand for a second Lok Sabha seat for his party to contest.

If recent history is any indicator, the seat division ahead of every election could change the equations of both dominant political alliances. The CPI retorted sharply when the CPM demanded Ponnani ahead of the 2009 general election. The Janata Dal walked out of the Left Democratic Front when the CPM claimed the Kozhikode seat. In 2014, it was the RSP's seat to leave the alliance when its stronghold Kollam was taken over by the CPM. This time, the United Democratic Front has reasons to worry.

Leaders of the the Congress and the front it leads expect to finish the seat division on February 18. The Congress is hopeful that the Muslim League would not be pressing for its demand for a third seat. That would weaken the Kerala Congress's demand for an extra seat. This is where Joseph's bargains assumes significant.

The former minister is not known as a hard negotiator. Yet people close to him point to another of his personality trait: he is not one remain calm in the face of a threat. He has the acumen to counter any move against him. Is Joseph viewing the seat division as such an opportunity?

Joseph knows all too well that his party is unlikely to be offered a seat other than Kottayam. Still he has been arguing for it. He has also said that his loyalists have not been given their due even after they joined Mani's party a few years ago. Evidently, he is up to cement his position within the party. In the likelihood of his request for a second seat being turned down, he expects Mani to give him the only seat to contest.

Curiously, Joseph asked for either Idukki or Chalakkudi in addition to Kottayam. In other words, the party would be content with either Chalakkudi or Idukki even at the cost of Kottayam. In such a scenario, Joseph is the apt candidate for the party.

Jospeh's strategies are not going down well with the other faction within the party led by Mani and his son Jose K Mani. When Jose K Mani's roadshow ends in Thiruvananthapuram on Friday, Joseph will not be there to greet him. Joseph has left for a West Asian visit. He had already rubbed Jose the wrong way by saying that the roadshow has not elicited the required response because the plan was not discussed within the party.

Even some Congress leaders had to prevail on Joseph not to disown the roadshow.

Junior Mani's roadshow was planned in a party meeting at Charalkkunnu. However, the plan was not discussed in the party's high-power committee earlier. Joseph and his loyalists see a sinister plan by Mani in the organisation of the roadshow. They suspect Jose of pulling the strings to get him anointed as the party chairman or acting chairman. Joseph would not want to work under the junior Mani. He may be planning his exit strategy in asking for a second seat and creating confusion within the front. Many cannot be expected to offer the party's seat to Joseph.

What is Joseph left with when Mani constantly snubs him? He could lead his faction out of the Kerala Congress but remain within the front. Or he could switch to the Left Democratic Front has he had done in the past. Such a move may not be wise just ahead of the poll.

The discussions around Kottayam and Idukki seats invariably hinges on another power centre within the United Democratic Front, Congress veteran Oommen Chandy. A lot depends on the choice of the former chief minister as a candidate for either of the two seats.

Chandy's entry could change the equations within the front as he is perhaps the only leader who can strike an accord between Joseph and Mani.

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