KM Mani appears set to be cleared of bribery allegations – and that could engender a political realignment in Kerala.

The Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau informed a Thiruvananthapuram court on Monday that it had found no evidence implicating the chairman of the Kerala Congress (Mani) in what is popularly known as the “bar bribery scam”. Mani is accused of taking a bribe of Rs one crore to renew the licences of 400 bars in 2014, when he was finance minister in the previous United Democratic Front government led by the Congress.

This is the agency’s third clean chit to Mani in the ongoing case, having told the court in June 2015 and January 2016 that there was little evidence to prosecute him.

The bribery allegation was first raised by Biju Ramesh, a bar owner and a member of the Kerala Bar Hotel Owners’ Association. It sparked a political storm, with the opposition legislators demanding Mani’s resignation going to the extent of disrupting his budget speech in 2015. He was eventually forced to resign later that year after the Kerala High Court asked how he could continue in office while he was being investigated.

The bar bribery scam dominated the campaign for the 2016 Assembly election, which saw the Left Democratic Front wrest power from the United Democratic Front, winning 91 seats in the 140-member Assembly to the incumbent’s 47.

In August 2016, Mani broke his 35-year-long association with the United Democratic Front, alleging that the Congress was trying to destroy his party by tarnishing its image.

Weighing options

Mani is one of India’s longest-serving legislators, having represented Pala constituency in Kottayam ever since it was formed in 1965. He has won 13 elections and presented 13 budgets as the state’s finance minister. He formed his party after splitting from the Kerala Congress in 1979. It enjoys the support of the influential Catholic Church.

The party currently has six legislators and a member each in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.

Since exiting the United Democratic Front in 2016, the Kerala Congress (Mani) is sitting as a separate unit in the Assembly, keeping equal distance from both the ruling and opposition coalitions. But the vigilance bureau’s clean chit has fuelled speculation that Mani plans to join the Left Democratic Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The CPI(M) had invited Mani for a seminar, “Kerala Today, Tomorrow”, held on February 23 on the sidelines of the ruling party’s state conference in Thrissur. Speaking on the occasion, he showered praise on the CPI(M)-led governments of the past.

Though Mani did not speak about allying with the communists, senior CPI(M) leader EP Jayarajan seemed to suggest it was possible. “Mani is a mass leader who knows farmers’ issues really well,” he told a TV channel. “Left Democratic Front wants to expand its base to fight fascist forces. I am sure all parties that fight Sangh Parivar will stand with us.”

Mani has history with the Left Democratic Front, having aligned with it for the 1980 Assembly election.

But before considering an alliance with the ruling front, Mani had reportedly held discussions with BJP leaders in 2016. Rumours were rife at that time that he would join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance if his son Jose K Mani was given a berth in the central cabinet. That this wasn’t merely speculation was confirmed when three senior leaders split from the party to launch the Janadhipathya Kerala Congress.

Eyeing Christians

The CPI(M) wants Mani for his Christian support. His party wields considerable influence in Christian-dominated Kottayam and Idukki, taking nearly 4% of the vote in the two districts in the last Assembly election. Kerala’s Christians traditionally vote for the various factions of the Kerala Congress and the Congress.

The CPI(M) calculates that bringing in Mani would persuade the Christians to switch allegiance to the Left Democratic Front, starting with the bye-election to Chengannur. The Election Commission is yet to announce the date for the election, necessitated by the death of the ruling party’s KK Ramachandran Nair in January, but it is expected to be held soon. Apart from the Congress, the BJP is a strong contender in this Assembly constituency. The result would be taken as people’s evaluation of the state government.

Meanwhile, the Congress is working to not lose Mani and, thus, possibly Christian votes. Senior Congress leader Oommen Chandy is said to have discussed the possibility of bringing Mani back into the United Democratic Front with Congress president Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi last month. The alliance’s chairman, Ramesh Chennithala, recently described Mani as “a natural ally”. “He has been with us for close to four decades,” Chennithala said. “All of us are confident Mani will take the right decision and he will be given an honourable entry into the UDF.”