Thiruvananthapuram: Every professional has his or her own unique selling point. For M.M. Mani, Kerala’s power minister, it’s his tongue that has done the trick for the last four decades. On Sunday, Pinarayi Vijayan’s Man Friday in the cabinet of India’s most literate state in the country, foul mouthed and insulted one of the most vulnerable sections of society. Not just women, but women workers who have been struggling for years to get better wages at the tea gardens of Munnar.
Employing his usual body language, that appeals to his familiar rustic crowd and shocks first timers, Mani called the women of Penpilla Urumayi, a popular women workers’ organisation, as “boozers who were doing other activities in the forests bordering Munnar”.
All hell broke loose as the workers blocked the highway in Munnar to protest being equated with sex workers. The tourist town saw yet another hartal, this time from the NDA.
Mani was no doubt shooting himself in the foot. But then he has never had any qualms about doing this over and over again. He might put his political outfit, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), to shame, invoke the wrath of women leaders in the party and even invite upon himself the occasional disciplinary action. But for Mani, the shrewd politician from the hilly terrain of Idukki in central Kerala, this is his way of muzzling his way through to the top.
If one closely examines Mani’s climb to the top to become a minister, from his humble background as a tea plantation worker, it is with this uncanny rhetorical ability of playing to the galleries across Idukki that Mani has grown into what he is today.
With a rustic tenor to his speeches, he has said what people wanted to hear in the plain language of the proletariat, with none of the reservations of the political elite. For the misogynistic male audience of Kerala, Mani had the perfect words to enthral the masses.
His style wooed poor tea plantation workers, among whom he has developed a semi-godlike image. That explains his popularity and the reason why even after the present string of episodes, no one has dared to raise a finger at ‘Maniachan’, as he is popularly called in his stronghold, Idukki.
“On one side, the gender issue inside the CPI(M) is well known. Although initially it was a struggle for the party in Idukki, it is now predatory in nature. Somewhere down the line the political discourse in Kerala has gone completely against the interests of one gender,’’ says C. Gouridasan Nair of The Hindu, who has been covering the Left for close to three decades now.
Mani hit national headlines in 2012, when he made an open declaration at a party function that during his tenure as party district secretary for 27 years, and even before that, the CPI(M) had physically eliminated its opponents in Idukki one by one to wrest total control.
The speech, which is famously called the “1…2…3 speech”, was the first time Mani learned that his loose tongue could get him into big trouble. Mani, in this notorious speech, went on to say that 13 members of the Congress party were killed over a period of time and then dramatically described how the first person was shot, the second was stabbed and the third was beaten to death. Hence the tag ‘the 1,2,3 speech’.
As criminal charges were filed against him, the party removed him from the post of district secretary but soon made it up to him by inducting him into the cabinet in 2016 at the behest of Vijayan.
The decision did ruffle a lot of feathers, especially among political observers who said that Mani was extracting his own pound of flesh for toeing the line with Vijayan in his open war with V.S. Achuthananthan.
“Why do you think Mani was taken into the cabinet? The stand he took to break the first Munnar Mission and get the party’s district committee on the side of Vijayan when the Vijayan-Achuthananthan struggle was at its peak has made him Vijayan’s favourite. It was payback time,’’ C.R. Nilakandan, a civil rights activist, told The Wire.
But for Vijayan, the payback has certainly come heavy. His words on Sunday condemning Mani are perhaps the first words Vijyayan has spoken against his trusted lieutenant. “Penpilai Urumayi was a collective movement by the women in Munnar and it is not right to make any derogatory remarks against them. It is unfortunate and I will talk to Mani on this,’’ Vijayan told mediapersons.
Even if supporting Mani in Idukki was in the party’s best interest, taking a man who insults others at the drop of a hat into the state cabinet was asking for big trouble.
For the Left government that was hoping to usher in a change after the former Congress-led United Democratic Front had left a mess to to clean up, Mani was a liability the government could have done without.
He even showed early warning signals that the party failed to take seriously. In February 2016, just two months before the assembly election, he was caught bad mouthing a woman principal of the Pinavu Polytechnic College in Cheruthony. This time, he had said that the principal indulges in “some other activities, otherwise why should she always keep her office door closed?’’ The principal had invited Mani’s ire for taking action against SFI students protesting inside the college.
Ironically, Mani entered cabinet when the first wicket fell for the Left government in the form of E.P. Jayarajan, on charges of nepotism, hardly a few months into power. Today, the same Mani is under the threat of losing his own place.
If anyone thought Mani would refine himself once he walked into the government secretariat, then they will have to think again. ‘Mani’s style’, as it is now popularly known among political circles in Kerala, travelled from Idukki to Thiruvananthapuram without a change.
On Sunday, when mediapersons asked him if he had thought about changing his style of speaking, pat came the reply: “I don’t mind not being the minister but there is no chance of changing myself.’’
Among all his verbal exploits, Mani’s high point came when he was campaigning at the recently-concluded Malappuram by-election. Here, Mani ridiculed the prime minister and said, “The real reason why [Narendra] Modi left his wife was because he had some biological issue. Now he says he left her for the nation. But who will believe that.’’
The state BJP leadership registered a police complaint against Mani, but the man laughed it off the next day at another rally.
In the same period, Mani insulted yet another woman. When the whole state was sympathising with Mahija in her hunger strike to get justice for her son Jishnu, who died after allegedly being harassed by college authorities, an insensitive Mani said, “She alleges that the chief minister never visited her but just think, if the chief minister had gone, what if she closes the door from the inside and alleges something else happened to her when the chief minister is inside?”
As the ‘Munnar Mission 2’ to evict encroachers from the hill station kicked off, so did Mani’s rant. Analysts say there is a political reason to it. Munnar, a part of Idukki, had been Mani’s fiefdom for the past three decades. Activists say that Mani certainly has vested interests to protect some among the encroachers in Munnar, and the CPI(M) revenue minister’s aim to cleanse Munnar has seriously hurt Mani and those who are close to him.
Because of this, analysts say the present string of rants by Mani is an attempt to derail the mission. First he attacked Achuthananthan, the country’s tallest communist leader alive who is also the chairman of the State’ Administrative Reforms Commission. Achuthananthan openly said that Mani was derailing the Munnar Mission as he and a few other leaders of the party led the list of land usurpers in Munnar. Achuthananthan had also hinted that he was seriously thinking of travelling to Munnar himself again to take stock of the situation. Although Achuthananthan and Mani were close initially, this relationship strained a few years ago, with Mani moving over to the Vijayan camp.
According to Mani, “VS is failing with his memory at the age of 93 so he has no idea what is happening in Munnar”. He also called the Devikulam sub-collector Sriram Venkatraman “a mad man who should be sent to an asylum” for spearheading the eviction drive.
Mani has rounded off his attack by targeting the Penpilai Urumayi women and is still posing for cameras with great glee. But this time around, the joy of getting away may not last long as the state women’s commission has already registered a suo moto case against the minister.
How long will Vijayan and the party put up with Mani’s barbed tongue before a decision is made to throw him out of the government?