The open door Chief Minister has his hands full with the solar panel scam denting his image and energising the Opposition ahead of 2014
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and the two-year-old United Democratic Front (UDF) government that he leads are in deep waters.
Just a few weeks ago it had seemed everything was hunky-dory and that the leader with a relatively clean image and down-to-earth approach — a cultivated one, some may say — was almost invincible for the foreseeable future. If at all anything could upset the apple cart, it would be problems related to balancing the composition of the Cabinet in communal terms, it had appeared. The Cabinet being dominated by those belonging to the minority communities, the majority-minority imbalance had been an issue of concern for Mr. Chandy ever since he assumed office for a second term with a slender majority — that since then has been shored up — in the 140-member Assembly.
What helped the UDF government coast along despite constant barbs from the majority community leaders and occasional sabre-rattling by some minor partners, was the unity among the big ones — the Congress, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Kerala Congress (Mani). But not anymore. The alliance today presents a picture of disunity, with ominous talk about KC(M) leader K.M. Mani looking out for options outside the UDF, and the IUML leadership hinting that it is ready to look at other chief ministerial options.
Mr. Chandy has set a unique style of functioning, with an admittedly gruelling pace — what with a mass-contact yatra he undertook that spanned the State’s length, and other initiatives. He was one of the most accessible of politicians, always surrounded by people who wanted his personal intervention to settle their problems. He had a rather porous security ring compared to counterparts in other States.
Then, out of the blue, came the solar panel scam. It started as a case of fraud involving a man and a woman who leveraged their seeming connections in politics cleverly to con a number of people into investing in bogus solar power and windmill projects in Kerala and Tamil Nadu just as Kerala faced a serious power crisis. It would have remained just one of the many frauds that have surfaced over the years. But the issue assumed political colour when it turned out that several members of the Chief Minister’s staff had links with the two accused, Biju Radhakrishnan and his live-in partner, Saritha S. Nair. It later turned out that both of them had a criminal record. Radhakrishnan had even been charged for the murder of his wife in 2006. Soon, even the State Public Relations Department chief was found caught in the whirlpool. A rather violent agitation by outfits owing allegiance to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) has since shaken up the State. The Opposition wants the Chief Minister’s resignation for his alleged culpability in the solar scam.
Ironically, the same aspects of his functioning that have given Mr. Chandy an endearing image, particularly his open door policy, and even his possible naivete, are now seen as responsible for his troubles.
Staff members who were constant companions of the Chief Minister in their capacities as either personal assistants or security personnel, also contributed their bit. One of the personal assistants of the Chief Minister, Tenny Joppan, has since been arrested, while his personal security officer (“gunman,” as he is known in Kerala), Salim Raj, who belongs to the Kerala police force, has been suspended from service. A third person has quit his job. All three, investigations revealed, had links with the accused. Phone call records did them in.
To add to Mr. Chandy’s woes, the leak of a list of telephone numbers linking the accused to some UDF leaders have strained his relations with Home Minister Thiruvanchur Radhakrishnan, also from the Congress. The Home Minister’s prevaricating stand on his connection with another accused in the case, actor Shalu Menon, has also revived suspicions about the impartiality of the police.
The Assembly was in session when the scam broke, and it gave a ready opportunity to the Opposition to put the Chief Minister on the mat. Almost every day, there was some kind of exposé on television channels about the alleged links the accused scamsters had with personnel in the Chief Minister’s office. The Assembly was adjourned sine die last week. The Opposition has since decided to expand its agitation beyond the State capital to other districts as well.
Mr. Chandy has ruled out the question of his resignation or any judicial inquiry since he had not been named in any concurrent investigations or court observations. He maintains that the LDF campaign is the result of a “political conspiracy” aimed at the image of his government ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Emboldened by the unconditional support he got from his party colleagues, the IUML and the Kerala Congress (M), both major coalition partners, and his own party central leadership, Mr. Chandy says he would fight the “LDF’s conspiracy” against him politically.
Without doubt, the scam and its fallout have hit the solar plexus of the UDF government. Its image has taken a severe beating.
Mr. Chandy may have crossed a major obstacle by consolidating his position politically and precluding any debate about a change in leadership or a Cabinet reshuffle. But he has many challenges ahead. The first is to attend to the dented credibility of his government. He has announced plans to go ahead with a mass contact programme beginning August 12 in a bid to recreate the response his first journey across the districts received. In the aftermath of the scam, the burden of ensuring the UDF’s victory in the Lok Sabha election now shifts to Mr. Chandy’s shoulders even as tussles in the party’s State unit continue.