Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy is the quintessential new age politician who has left behind considerations of morality in the pursuit of power. Time was when an indicted Central minister or chief minister stepped down and faced an inquiry. Now they seek to brazen it out. And Oommen Chandy believes he needs to satisfy only his conscience.
Chandy was away in Bahrain in June 2013 to receive the UN Global Award for Public Service when a police team investigating the solar scam closed in on two members of his personal staff and a gunman assigned to him. It was through them that even cabinet colleagues used to contact him as he did not carry a mobile in those days.
Members of a CM’s personal staff are political appointees handpicked by him. He, therefore, had moral responsibility for their conduct. He sacrificed the three and distanced himself from them.
According to the police, Biju Radhakrishnan, who had promoted a company named Team Solar, and Saritha S. Nair, a director of the firm, cheated a number of persons to the tune of Rs 7 crores, promising to set up solar power units. At least one victim said he had parted with money as the two appeared to be close to the CM and his personal staff.
The opposition CPI (M) staged a series of agitations demanding Chandy’s resignation. On one occasion, it brought close to 100,000 party men into the capital to surround the secretariat and paralyse the administration, only to pull them back within hours. The abrupt closure of the agitation invited the charge that the party was involved in adjustments with the CM. However, the opposition was able to extract from the government a promise to order a judicial inquiry into the scam.
Biju Radhakrishan ran into deep trouble when it came to light that he had killed his wife to begin a relationship with Saritha. He is now serving a life term. Saritha won her freedom, securing bail in all the 33 cheating cases against her. She also bought peace with several complainants by returning the money they had paid. It is not clear how she found the cash for the purpose.
Saritha made allegations of sexual exploitation by some politicians and dropped ominous hints about revealing names. Once she appeared before a magistrate to make a statement. The magistrate, after listening to her (and, according to her, after taking notes), asked her to give a written statement. Accordingly, while in custody, she wrote a statement, which, media reports said, ran into more than 20 pages but what eventually emerged was one of only four pages.
She sings like a canary
A few days ago it looked as though the worst was over so far as the government was concerned. But things went haywire when the judicial commission recorded the testimony of the chief minister, and when Saritha, who had earlier played truant, came forward to depose at length.
“If I reveal everything, the government won’t be able to bear it,” she had said earlier.
Oommen Chandy, who appeared before the Justice Sivarajan commission in the morning, stayed until an hour past midnight to answer questions by the commission and by counsel for some of the parties to the proceedings. The opposition found many discrepancies between what he told the commission and what he had said earlier in the state assembly and outside.
Saritha, who was allowed to depose at a pace convenient to her, said on the first day that she had paid Rs 1,90,00,000 in bribes to Oommen Chandy through his Delhi-based aide, Thomas Kuruvila, and Rs 40 lakhs to state electricity minister Aryadan Mohammed. Both of them denied the charge.
To the government’s embarrassment, a recorded phone conversation in which Thampanoor Ravi, a Congress leader belonging to the CM’s ‘A’ group can be heard asking Saritha to stick to Oommen Chandy’s version of events also surfaced.
The next day, as Saritha was spilling more beans, a vigilance court, acting on a public interest petition, directed that a first information report be registered against Oommen Chandy and Aryadan Mohammed and that an investigation be conducted on the basis of her statement.
Last November, K.M. Mani, state finance minister and leader of Kerala Congress, the third largest constituent of the United Democratic Front, had quit following a similar vigilance court directive in a case relating to alleged payment of bribes by hotel owners to save their bar licences. Last week, excise minister K. Babu submitted his resignation, also following a similar court order.
Predictably, the opposition has demanded that Oommen Chandy and Aryadan Mohammed follow their example and quit.
Chandy had faced a similar situation early in the life of the present government when a court asked the vigiliance department to probe his role in the Palmolein case in which former CM, K Karunakaran was the main accused. Chandy was implicated in the case at a late stage as he was finance minister in the Karunakaran ministry. He got over the situation by handing over the vigilance portfolio to a Congress minister.
This time, Oommen Chandy followed the path taken by K. Babu who had moved the high court and obtained a short stay of the vigilance court directive. The two-month stay granted by the high court and its sharp criticism of the vigilance court judge for acting hastily have given the chief minister talking points he can hurl at his detractors.
Even as the high court’s strictures became known, vigilance court judge S.S. Vasan, who has one more year of service, put in his papers by e-mail. Earlier, a Congress spokesman had alleged he was from a CPI (M) family.
Oommen Chandy’s detractors now include members of the ‘I’ faction of the party, currently headed by home minister Ramesh Chennithala. But the Congress high command is unlikely to abandon the CM so long as the UDF’s other constituents, particularly the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress, stand by him.
Oommen Chandy began his political career as a student leader and was A.K. Antony’s chief lieutenant in his running battles with Karunakaran. Cherian Philip, who worked closely with him in those group battles but is now a CPI(M) fellow traveller, has identified him as the prime mover behind the ‘A’ group’s manoeuvres which forced Karunakaran to resign on two occasions.
The moving spirit?
An easily accessible politician, Oommen Chandy begins his day interacting with visitors who turn up at dawn with representations. He has a reputation as one who is ever ready to intervene on behalf of those seeking help. As chief minister, he has travelled to every district more than once to hear people’s grievances and provide on-the-spot relief. It is too early to say to what extent Saritha’s testimony, which may run for a few days, may dent his popular image.
Saritha Nair is a woman who has been scorned. In comments made outside the commission she indicated she was telling everything as Congress leaders had not kept their promise to help her out of her troubles. There have been occasions when she broke down as she narrated her experiences, but overall she comes through as a bold person and is earning admirers as a symbol of the new age woman.
As the solar scam raises the political temperature in God’s Own Country, a few questions are begging for answers. How credible are Saritha’s statements? How will they impact on the Assembly elections which are due in a few months? If they damage the Congress party’s prospects, who will be the beneficiary – the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front, or the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is hoping to enter the house ending a long dry run?
Saritha has said that the CPI (M) had once tried to win her over with a Rs 10-crore offer. The Congress alleges that Saritha’s latest statements are the result of a conspiracy hatched by the liquor lobby, particularly those hit by the UDF government’s closure of bars in star hotels. The LDF has said that if voted to power it will frame a new liquor policy after talking to all concerned. Interestingly, it does not intend to spell out its liquor policy in the election manifesto.
BRP Bhaskar is a senior journalist