Congress reeling in Kerala
The Congress party is on the ropes like a fading boxer. After the fiasco in Arunachal Pradesh, the Congress-led government in Kerala has been caught in a slew of corruption scandals. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has been accused of accepting bribes in the solar scam. The accusations against Chandy comes after the bar bribery case, which brought the resignation of two State Ministers. Suffice to say, these scandals have rocked the government. To the uninitiated, the solar scam came first came into prominence in June 2013 when the Kerala police arrested Saritha Nair and her partner Biju Radhakrishnan on charges that they duped clients out of lakhs of rupees after promising to install solar panels for them or offering them shares in large solar farms. Things took a political turn after it was found that some members of Chandy’s personal staff had been in close touch with Nair. After an initial outcry from the opposition, the Chief Minister got rid of two personal aides and a bodyguard and ordered an investigation into the racket.
The focus on Chandy, however, came to the attention of the national media, when the main accused in the case, Saritha Nair deposed before a judicial panel on Wednesday. Nair told the panel that she had bribed Chief Minister Chandy and Power Minister Aryadan Mohammed on the assurance that they would ensure government support for her solar projects. In her deposition, Nair had alleged that she handed over Rs 1.90 crore to a close aide of the Chief Minister in New Delhi. The day before Nair’s deposition, Chandy had appeared before the judicial commission and took questions for over 11 hours. However, in a move that may further heighten public suspicion, the Chief Minister refused to undertake a lie-detector test. And to make matters worse, there is the recent leak of audiotapes, wherein the voice of Kerala Congress leader is heard tutoring Saritha Nair over the telephone for her testimony to the judicial commission. Matters finally reached a crisis point for Chandy, when a local vigilance court ordered the police to investigate Nair’s bribery allegations. In response, the Congress party has decided to back its beleaguered Chief Minister. Chandy, meanwhile, has filed a petition in the Kerala High Court challenging the vigilance court’s decision. Although the Chief Minister has denied allegations of accepting bribes, it is rather apparent that the chain of evidence thus far points to the involvement of his office. Therefore, it’s not surprising that opposition parties have pressed for Chandy’s resignation. There is little that the Congress and Chandy can hide behind.
The allegations against the Chief Minister have come at an inopportune time for the Congress, with Assembly elections only months away. The party is quite naturally caught in a tight spot. Political commentators have argued that if the party relents and seeks Chandy’s resignation, it would be an implicit admission of guilt. With polls only a few months away, party insiders have argued that there is no way the party can take a risk now. Nonetheless, the mountain of evidence of corruption against Chandy’s office and the UDF-led government continues to grow. As stated earlier in the column, two of Chandy’s senior colleagues, K.M. Mani, and K. Babu, had resigned as Finance Minister and Excise Minister, respectively, after adverse court orders in a bar bribery scam. The defense presented by both Chandy and the two tainted ministers is that these corruption allegations are part of a “conspiracy” by the liquor lobby against the UDF government’s decision to introduce prohibitory measures on the sale of alcohol. The Congress will now wait for the High Court verdict in the appeal filed by Chandy and the report of the judicial panel. Both the verdict and report are likely to come before the assembly elections. Meanwhile, the political drama will continue to unfold.