Featured

With Scam After Scam, the BJP Is Struggling in Kerala

The latest bribery scandal, relating to Medical Council of India clearance for colleges, has once again revealed the factionalism within the Kerala BJP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan. Credit: PTI

Thiruvananthapuram: M.T. Ramesh, general secretary of the Kerala BJP, reportedly broke into tears in the state leadership meeting held at Thiruvananthapuram. He was demanding stringent action against some of his fellow leaders who “hatched a conspiracy to tarnish his image” by leaking an internal enquiry report about the Medical Council of India (MCI) scam involving certain party leaders. The inquiry committee, comprising senior leader K.P. Sreesan and minority cell leader A.K. Nazeer, was constituted by the party state president Kummanam Rajasekharan.

The meeting was held after Asianet News, a TV channel owned by NDA leader Rajeev Chandrasekhar, reported that the probe committee’s report found that R.S. Vinod, BJP cooperative cell convener, had accepted Rs 5.60 crore from R. Shaji, chairman of the Varkala-based S.R. Educational and Charitable Trust for securing MCI clearance for his medical college. The report indicated that this amount was routed through Delhi as a hawala transaction. Ramesh’s name was also mentioned in the report in connection with another medical college in Palakkad district, though he denied the link before the media. Stung by the media exposé and the subsequent discussions across the country, the BJP had to oust Vinod from the party.

The leaders who spoke to the media after the top-level meeting put forward an extremely strange defence. According to national executive member P.S. Sreedharan Pillai and state general secretary K. Surendran, what happened was a “clear case of cheating” by an individual (Vinod) and had nothing to do with the party. They kept mum about the leak of the committee report, saying that was an internal party matter. They stood behind Ramesh, denying his involvement in the alleged scam.

The state government has already initiated a vigilance inquiry into the matter, for which BJP leaders have pledged their wholehearted support. CPI(M) parliamentarian M.B. Rajesh raised this issue in the Lok Sabha as well, with Congress support, resulting in a ruckus and the House being adjourned. The opposition, who wanted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to respond to the allegations in the report, was denied permission to take up the issue in the House. “This scam involves not just the Kerala BJP leaders but also the national BJP leaders. This is a case where a bribe was paid for favours from the MCI and hence it has larger dimensions. Immediately after we raised the issue in the Lok Sabha, the parliamentary affairs minister Ananth Kumar came to me in person and inquired about the whole matter, and asked me to provide a translated copy of the same, which means they know it is serious but they are not ready to discuss it in the parliament,” Rajesh said.

These graft charges against the BJP are coming from a state where the party is neither in power nor the main opposition. The party’s central leadership has reportedly directed the state unit to submit a detailed report on the matter.

Not the first scam for Kerala BJP

This is not the first time that Kerala BJP leaders have come under a cloud of allegations while their party rules at the Centre. During the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime, BJP leaders had allegedly accepted crores of rupees as bribes to allocate petrol pumps. Then as well it was an internal probe report that resulted in the undoing of several leaders, including former organisational secretary P.P. Mukundan. The inquiry panel, after hearing the testimonies of various leaders, including former state president K. Raman Pillai, had come to the conclusion that the Kerala BJP leadership made Rs 18 crore in petrol pump-related bribes while Vajpayee was in power, but a coterie led by a top RSS nominee in the party pocketed a substantial part of that amount. The report had also indicated that the money had been used to fund ‘anti-party activities’. There was also a fixed scale for bribes to allocate petrol pumps during the 2003 scam, the report said. In 2006, the Indian Express, quoting a top BJP leader from the state, reported that the Kerala unit had been “allowed” by the national leadership to “accept donations” in return for allocating petrol pumps, but the party made the mistake of allowing a caucus to handle the exchange and keep the money themselves. They didn’t properly handover this money and obviously, given the nature of the exchange, the party did not have access to legal recourse.

A probe was ordered into these allegations after the dismal performance of the party in the Lok Sabha by-polls in Thiruvananthapuram in 2005, when its former state president C.K. Padmanabhan polled just 37,000 votes (the party got over a lakh votes in the elections before that).

The 2005 inquiry committee warned the party that the credibility and the vote base of the BJP in Kerala was at stake. The party in Kerala, however, survived the scare and thrived in the coming years, recording its first ever win in the previous assembly elections, thanks to the so-called ‘Modi wave’ across the country. Mukundan was stripped of his role as an RSS pracharak and was asked not to interfere in the Kerala matters, and Pillai drifted away from the BJP and formed his own regional party.

A history of factionalism

The 2006 report submitted by the committee comprising Mohan Shanker, Manjeri Narayanan and former state DGP and BJP state human rights cell chief R.P.C. Nair had clearly indicated towards the factionalism that had gripped the party, right from top to the bottom. Even though the party recorded significant growth in the last decade, factionalism, which had engulfed all Sangh parivar organisations, was thriving. There were always two or more rival groups within the party wanting to wrest power from each other. Every time the battle worsened, the RSS would crack the whip. Rajasekharan was a surprise appointment by Amit Shah when factional bickering was at its peak.

Rajasekharan is said to have told the national leadership that he had set up the MCI scam internal committee confidentially and was not expecting the report to be leaked. Many in the state party leadership feel that the leak was aimed at Ramesh, who is very close to expelled leader Vinod. There are still many lose ends relating to controversial middle man Satheesh Nair, who is still at large in the national capital. Nair, a former air force staffer from Thodupuzha, Kerala, allegedly has access to many top offices, including the prime minister’s office. He is known to be Rajasekharan’s right-hand man whenever he visits Delhi.

The MCI scam has opened a Pandora’s box for the Kerala BJP. It seems to be lost in a morass of allegations and explanations. Immediately after the medical college scam, a string of fresh allegations against party leaders of different strata have come up – massive irregularities in the implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi scheme being one of them. Local leaders have allegedly taken bribes amounting to Rs 4 lakh as ‘donations’ to sanction each Jan Aushadhi outlet. The PMO has initiated an inquiry into the issue. Several cases of unauthorised ‘donations’ in the name of party programmes are surfacing across the state. According to one such report, party leaders from Thrissur sent letters to businessmen asking them to donate up to Rs 5 lakh for implementing the prime minister’s projects.

After an impressive performance in the state assembly elections last year, nothing has been going right for the Hindu nationalist party in Kerala. Allegation after allegation have created much embarrassment for the BJP, which time and again calls other parties the ‘champions of corruption’ in the state.

The BJP has been on the backfoot after the police seized fake currency notes worth lakhs and a currency-minting machine from the house of two brothers, who were BJP Yuva Morcha leaders in the Thrissur district. They have subsequently been expelled from the party. The latest scam allegations have added insult to injury for the saffron party, which was already limping.

“You know the state of affairs in our party. It had been like this for long and I can’t see any immediate solution,” said a BJP leader who asked not to be named. “People like me expect a much more positive intervention from the sangham (RSS), which could patch the issues up to a certain extent,” he added.

Even though leaders say that the party has full confidence in Ramesh and it is “101% convinced of the young and vibrant leader’s innocence,” not all seems to be well within the state BJP.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.