Just recently, Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy was riding high. As recipient of first prize from the Asia-Pacific region of the United Nations Public Service Award 2013 for his Mass Contact Programme, he was naturally on top of the world.
But no sooner did Chandy return home, his problems began. He is currently in the midst of battling anti-corruption charges and unarguably the toughest period of his political career following allegations of a multi-crore rupee solar scam conducted allegedly with the tacit support of his office aides. Whether he is part of the scam is not established yet but the certain misuse of the chief minister’s office stares at him in the face.
The budget session, scheduled to hold sittings for 28 days, assembled only for 12 days; of them 10 were lost in the din and the rest went through the motions of getting the finance bill passed before adjourning sine die, as the opposition continued to stall proceedings.
Running a coalition government on a wafer thin majority with divergent political, communal and vested interests pulling in different directions, has never been smooth sailing for Chandy.
The origins of the recent political crisis began when Saritha Nair and her husband Biju Radhakrishnan were held last month on complaints of swindling crores of rupees, promising to install solar panels and wind mills at subsidized rates. Sarita and Biju stand accused of swindling more than Rs 10,000 crore in the name of solar panels and windmills. Later, a prominent Malayalam TV actress, Shalu Menon, was also held in the case.
Such scams are by no means new to Kerala and there is a good chance that it would have died a natural death but for the arrest of the chief minister’s close personal aides with links to the accused.
ADGP T.P.Senkumar in his investigation found that Saritha Nair had held several phone conversations with CM’s personal staff members Tenny Joppan, Salim Raj and Jikku. The three were immediately sacked. Then came the suspension of Firoz, public relations director, Government of Kerala.
But this, as it turned out, was merely the tip of the iceberg. Then, like an impending avalanche, the long list of phone calls from and to Saritha revealed a hallowed list of ministers, members of Parliament and the state assembly, including home minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishna and former minister K.B.Ganesh Kumar.
The opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) lost no time in demanding a judicial probe in the matter, and asked Oommen Chandy to quit so as to enable a fair probe.
Opposition leader V S Achuthanandhan alleged in the house that the chief minister and his family are directly involved in the solar fraud. ‘‘The move for a CBI probe is only to rescue the CM and not acceptable to the opposition,’’ he said.
The chief minister under a siege ruled out quitting. ‘‘I am not adamant to stay on in power. If I quit now, it would be injustice. The truth will come out soon. The opposition is not interested in the truth. They know about the muck when it first emerged while they were in office and not even a criminal case was registered. But we will let the people of Kerala know what exactly happened,’’ Chandy told the media.
Congress Working Committee member and defence minister A.K. Antony’s reaction set at rest all speculation about a leadership change in the state. ‘‘Currently, there is no political crisis in the state. No one need think that there will be a change of government,’’ Anthony said in Kerala.
Though KPCC president Ramesh Chennithala publicly supports Chandy, his followers say the anarchy in the CM’s office is the root cause of all the chief minister’s troubles. Sulking after being denied the deputy chief ministership and the home portfolio, they are critical of the way home minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan handled the scam. They allege that the full list of telephone calls from and to Saritha Nair was released with his connivance to embarrass other party leaders.
So far, Chandy has the full backing of the party high command which has also compelled the Congress to indulge in factionalism within limits.
Outbursts of government chief whip P.C.George have not helped. Sarita and Biju might have swindled more than Rs 10,000 crore in the name of solar panels and windmills, he told a news channel. A cheating of this dimension, he hammered the point home, could not be the handiwork of just a couple of people and several big shots might be behind the scene.
The cup of woes for the Congress-led UDF is now brimming over. Minister K.B.Ganesah Kumar of the Kerala Congress (B) was forced to quit following allegations of domestic violence by his wife Yamini Thankachy.
The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) recently threatened to pull out of the ministry following Ramesh Chennithala’s statement that the IUML was taking undue advantages from the UDF administration. Ramesh had to swallow his words immediately: ‘‘The IUML is a vital constituent of the UDF and hence there would not be any attempt from the Congress to hurt its sentiments,” he proclaimed grandiosely, but the issue is far from settled.
The stand-off between the ruling front and the opposition in the state assembly has already spilled out to street-level violence between their respective cadres. Normal life was disrupted due to the dawn-to-dusk 12-hour strike called by the LDF to demand Chandy’s resignation. LDF supporters had clashed with police near the secretariat complex forcing the police to fire teargas shells.
It’s certain that the theatre of the absurd will continue for the coming weeks. The LDF has planned a series of agitations till the chief minister resigns and a judicial probe is ordered into the matter. Consider the list: Left trade unions will hold a secretariat march on July 12, agricultural farmers will march on July 15, student bodies on July 16, public meeting on July 18, public meetings on district centres from July 18 to 22 and youth marches at secretariat and district centres. Considering their track record, these agitations are bound to generate heat and dust.
The political colour of Kerala is acquiring a shade of blue. Allegations of sexual harassment have claimed many top political leaders in Kerala. The ice cream parlour case haunted Union Muslim League leader and industry minister P.K. Kunhalikutty, Kerala Congress leader and minister P.J.Joseph is entangled in a mid-air molestation case and Rajya Sabha deputy chairman P.J. Kurien is neck deep in the Suryanelli serial rape case.
And now, another woman is giving sleepless nights to former LDF minister and Janata Dal (S) MLA Jose Thettayil. The Kerala Police had on June 22 registered a case against Thettayil and his son on the complaint of a woman alleging sexual harassment by the father and son. ‘‘Big Brother” in LDF, CPM, who had to take action against two of its powerful district secretaries on sex scandal charges, has decided to go slow keeping by elections in mind.
The observations made by Justice A.S.Sirijagan of the Kerala High Court in connection with a petition filed by Kottayam CMS College principal are a pointer. ‘‘The ruling and opposition parties have no interest in development issues. No one is bothered about lack of roads, rain havoc, price hike and people’s plight. The main focus is on solar and bedroom scenes. No one sees the misery of the people or the real issues of the country. Discussions are centred on two or three women. In pursuing sensational issues, responsibility to public issues is forgotten,’’ the court said.
Clearly, women have shaken the foundations of several Kerala politicians. Now it is a matter of speculation as how many more heads will roll due to Saritha Nair?