Kerala’s embattled Finance minister KM Mani, India’s longest- serving MLA, is worshipped in his constituency Pala, which he has represented in all elections since 1965. He is accessible, hardworking, crafty, ingenious and warm. His detractors may call him a poseur, but he certainly has a knack for treating even strangers like members of his family. ‘Mani sir’, as he is popularly known, claims he remembers the names of almost all of his constituents. (People close to Mani say that his assistants keep tabs of the names of people he meets so that he can surprise them later by addressing them directly and inquiring after their kin.) Among some residents of Pala, especially of the entrepreneurial Christian community, he was also revered—mostly in secret and sometimes publicly—for making money through bribes without facing charges of graft. Typical Pala household talk about ‘Mani sir’ always veers towards his “great cunning” and foxy disposition. “He can’t be touched. He can’t be trapped. He is an old fox. He is too good. He is chief ministerial material. This is what we all used to say,” recalls a person from his hometown who is also a government official.
On 27 January, three days before his 82nd birthday, when Mani appeared at a hurriedly convened press conference in Thiruvananthapuram, he looked flustered, smiling perfunctorily and blurting out cuss words at the opposition and liquor vendors to hide his unease at events taking an awkward turn. The same day, the RSS and BJP had called a dawn-to-dusk hartal in the state seeking his resignation for allegedly accepting huge bribes from liquor barons, and it was a near-total success. For all his avowed political shrewdness at one-upmanship, eliminating old rivals both inside and outside his party, destroying the careers of young politicians and repelling irritants, he is now embroiled in a corruption scandal that has hobbled the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), of which his party, the Kerala Congress (M), is a part. The diminutive-yet-tall political leader, who holds the record for any state assembly of presenting 12 budgets, faces his biggest battle yet as the three-month-old political crisis persists. Amid murmurs of disapproval from a section of the UDF, he declared at the press conference that he himself, and not the Chief Minister or any other minister, would present his 13th budget due in March. “I have a record [of presenting the budget] and this is the only such record in the country. My life is an open book. People know me very well for the past 50 years. I will be presenting my 13th budget. Some people told me about the unlucky number 13, but for me 13 is lucky,” said Mani, falling back on threat as an act of bravado. The Kerala Congress (M), where M stands for Mani, has nine MLAs in the 140-member state Assembly; and Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, an extremely artful politician, enjoys only a thin majority. It will spell trouble for the ruling dispensation if Mani decides to leave the UDF, which currently has only 75 seats in the state while the CPM-led opposition has 65. The main opposition CPM is the single-largest party with 44 MLAs. Within a day of Mani throwing down the gauntlet, Chandy said that the Finance Minister himself would present the state budget.