The UDF finds itself cornered as old charges of corruption and involvement in sex scandals catch up with leaders of constituent parties.
IT is not clear why they fell out, but P.K. Kunhalikkutty, the controversial Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) leader and former State Industries Minister, and his relative, K.A. Rauf, a rubber trader and businessman with a record of dubious dealings, are now at each other's throats, giving sleepless nights to politicians, government officials and judges in Kerala.
The paranoia of the two men would normally have had only a curiosity value, and their brawl would have ended without much public or political significance. It is perhaps a sign of the power and influence individual politicians have come to wield within parties and in the State that the allegations the two hurled at each other have shaken the confidence of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), which hopes for an easy ride to power in the Assembly elections due in April. One of the important accusations was that the judiciary had been influenced with bribes to obtain favourable verdicts for the IUML leader in the infamous ice cream parlour sex scandal case'.
Unfortunately for the UDF, in this environment of jarring revelations came the Supreme Court's conviction and sentencing, on February 10, of former Electricity Minister R. Balakrishna Pillai, leader of the Kerala Congress (B), a member of the UDF, in a 25-year-old corruption case linked to the Idamalayar Hydroelectric Power Project. He was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for a year. This is the first instance in Kerala of a former Minister being sent to prison in a corruption case.
The multi-purpose project, 80 km from Kochi on the Idamalayar river, a tributary of the Periyar river, was conceived in 1966 to generate 75 megawatt of power to irrigate paddy crops in Ernakulam and Idukki districts and to prevent salt water intrusion into the Periyar, at a total cost of Rs.23.40 crore. A Mumbai-based construction company was the original contractor, but subsequently, in a controversial decision, the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) awarded the contract for the tunnel and surge shaft of the dam to one person, K.P. Poulose, who was a co-accused in the case and who died during its pendency.
The project was completed in 1986, and by March 1989 over Rs.90 crore had been spent on it. In July 1985, during a trial run, cracks and leaks were detected in the tunnel and the surge shaft, leading to suspicion on the quality of construction and possible corruption.
In November 1999, a special court had found Balakrishna Pillai and some others guilty of abuse of power in the award of contracts for the project and sentenced them to five years' rigorous imprisonment. But the High Court suspended the sentence and later reversed the special court verdict and acquitted them.
The then Leader of the Opposition, V.S. Achuthanandan, now the Chief Minister, filed a special leave petition in the apex court when the UDF government decided not to go on appeal against the acquittal.
Significantly, Achuthanandan, as opposition leader and later as Chief Minister, had also played a prominent role in the campaign against those involved in the ice cream parlour case and a series of other sex scandals that rocked Kerala at the time of the previous UDF government.
The ice cream parlour scandal came into the limelight in late 1997, and despite a tenacious campaign and a series of court battles spearheaded by Anweshi', an organisation led by former naxalite K. Ajitha, it was as good as a lost cause by January 2006, when, after a series of amazing twists and turns and serious allegations against Kunhalikkutty, a Principal Sessions Court ordered that the 16 accused be let free.
Kunhalikkutty has since brushed aside the case as part of a motivated campaign by his political rivals and has tried to rebuild his image and his position in the IUML. The Muslim League itself has rejoiced at the prospect of re-emerging, after the elections, as the second biggest constituent in the UDF after the Congress.
In this, the party is pitted against the Kerala Congress (Mani) group, which is clamouring for more seats in the elections on the strength of the merger with it of the Kerala Congress (Joseph) faction (until a year ago a constituent of the ruling Left Democratic Front). The speculation is that the KC(M) and the IUML will seek more prominence perhaps in the form of a deputy chief ministership if the UDF forms the next government.
It was, therefore, with surprise that Kerala watched Kunhalikkutty himself raking up the ice cream parlour case at a press conference in Kozhikode on January 28. The circumstance in which the press conference was held was itself bizarre. For one, Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy had only a few days earlier embarked on a Kerala Mochana Yaatra', the UDF's pre-election campaign with its message of deliverance from LDF rule. The Congress was also getting ready for the inauguration of the Kerala Development Congress' by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Thiruvananthapuram on February 11. The three-day academic exercise for members of the Congress was meant to achieve an image-makeover for the party and to emphasise its development agenda vis-a-vis the ruling CPI(M), which has conducted a Kerala Studies Congress' every five years since 1996.Charges & countercharges
So it was with incredulity that Kerala watched Kunhalikkutty dictate a separate election agenda by conducting two press conferences on a single day and claiming, among other things, that his life was in danger.
He alleged that Rauf had been blackmailing him for money all along, even after the Supreme Court had absolved him of the charges in the ice cream parlour case, and was now trying to tarnish his image using false evidence and forged videos and had even hired goons to kill him. He also said that as Industries Minister in the UDF government he had gone out of the way to help Rauf several times. He alleged that Rauf was behind the people who campaigned against him in the sex scandal case and that Rauf, while pretending to be his confidant, had worked against him and misused his name for his own ends for several years.
Kunhalikkutty claimed at his second press conference that he was saying all this because he had information that some people were going to unleash a campaign against him and his party using false evidence and doctored images and CDs. This, he believed, was to be timed for the eve of the April elections or for the time when the Kerala Mochana Yaatra reached its final leg in Thiruvananthapuram.
Rauf's counter-allegations were stunning, and, if proved true, can be more serious than the charge merely of involvement of a former Minister in a sex scandal. Rauf claimed that Kunhalikkutty had influenced victims, witnesses, officials and the judiciary through hefty bribes to doctor statements (of victims) and inquiry reports, to change the courts hearing the case and to win favourable verdicts; that he had acted as Kunhalikkutty's mediator and representative when many such deals were struck, and had helped in paying bribes and in falsifying documents; and that he had all the evidence to prove how the ice cream parlour case was sabotaged, including about bribes paid, details in the former Minister's tour diary, and contradictory statements given by two victims during the initial stages of the case, one of which had Kunjalikkutty's name in it while the other did not.
Rauf also said Kunhalikkutty had appointed his spies at all important places, including even at the residence of his then party president, Panakkad Mohammedali Shihab Thangal; that he had tried to destroy politically and at a personal level his party colleague, former Minister M.K. Muneer (son of the late IUML leader C.H. Mohammed Koya and the chairman of Indiavision, a television channel that first aired the allegations of one of the victims against Kunhalikkutty); that he had also similarly targeted another League leader (whom he did not name).
Subsequently, Indiavision aired footage from what it said was a sting operation, which showed a former Additional Director General of Prosecutions (known to be close to Kerala Congress(M) leader K.M. Mani) disclosing, in what seemed to be a casual conversation, details of how two judges were influenced to favour Kunhalikkutty at various stages of the case an allegation the judges (now retired) denied.
The Indiavision report also said the channel had more evidence, which it would hand over to the authorities if needed. Rauf held another press conference the next day, in which he corroborated the TV channel's report and claimed that he was a witness to bribes that were accepted by or on behalf of the judges and that a former Additional Director General of Prosecutions and a former Additional Advocate General in the State had acted as mediators.
The long and tortuous course of the ice cream parlour case is strikingly similar to that of the Idamalayar case against Balakrishna Pillai and those against many other Kerala politicians accused of corruption and other misdemeanours. In the 25 years it took for the Idamalayar case to reach a final stage, Balakrishna Pillai had been in and out of ministerial office and had faced trial in yet another corruption case. There were attempts by the prosecution to sabotage the case; instances of prosecutors and judges resigning or being replaced and appeals being made to the higher courts, including the apex court, at every turn; and an instance of the then UDF government deciding to drop the case altogether with the sanction of the High Court on the basis of the argument that it was politically motivated.
It was Achuthanandan's single-minded pursuit of the case he went on appeal in the Supreme Court that resulted in the resurrection of the case in the High Court itself. Subsequently, he also went on appeal to the apex court against the High Court decision to acquit Balakrishna Pillai and the other accused.
After the verdict was announced Achuthanandan said at a press conference: For over two decades, I have been fighting for justice in this case, for which I was made the target of a lot of accusations and allegations. The Supreme Court verdict in the Idamalayar case is a warning against those who misuse power and indulge in corruption.
Coincidentally, a day after the Idamalayar verdict, the apex court ordered the production of all investigation reports in the Karappara Kuriayarkutty project case, in which another former UDF Minister, T.M. Jacob, was an accused. In May 2008, the Kerala High Court had, on the basis of the vigilance department's reinvestigation reports filed during the tenure of the previous UDF government, closed the case against Jacob, who is also the leader of another Kerala Congress group in the UDF. The Achuthanadan government had gone on appeal to the Supreme Court against the High Court ruling.
Meanwhile, the allegations made by Kunhalikkutty and Rauf against each other are the subject of an inquiry by a special police team led by Additional Director General of Police Vinson M. Paul. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the fresh allegations would be thoroughly probed by the team and all information brought before the court. The Minister said the government would consult the Kerala High Court on the steps to be taken on the allegation that two former High Court judges were bribed to influence the verdict in the ice cream parlour case.
The Kunhalikkutty-Rauf disclosures may well become the turning point in this sensational case that has rocked Kerala politics for so long. Whichever way the election verdict goes, it is well known that the most striking aspect of the ice cream parlour case is indeed the repeated and powerful attempts allegedly made during both the LDF (1996-2001) and UDF (2001-2006) governments to tilt the course of the case in favour of the IUML leader.
And such a spread of unholy alliances cutting across party lines is certainly a worrying prospect for Kerala. The demand now is for a re-investigation of the case from the beginning, if legally possible, and not just into the recent allegations alone.
Soon after the Idamalayar verdict, a seemingly shaken Balakrishna Pillai told presspersons that he was a victim of Achuthanandan's personal vindictiveness. He also said pointedly that if Achuthanandan comes back to power, it would be the end for several of the Chief Minister's present ministerial and party colleagues, too, some of whom, he pointed out, have already become his targets.
Indeed, a keen political game is on in Kerala. Achuthanandan's detractors now like to claim that even as the Chief Minister takes a tough, tenacious stand against corruption and immorality in public life, towards the fag end of his tenure he is not targeting merely Opposition politicians but also rivals within his own party who have been under a cloud for alleged corruption and other wayward indulgences. It was such a crusader role that he donned as Leader of the Opposition in 2001-06, which saw him overcome the objections of his party rivals and gain, first, the candidature of his party in the 2006 elections, and later, the chief ministership.
Much to the discomfiture of several politicians in the State, there has been an expectant boost in the popular image of the Chief Minister after the Kunhalikkutty-Rauf disclosures and the sentencing of Balakrishna Pillai and the reopening of the case involving T.M. Jacob. But whether this alone will compensate for the general performance rating of Achuthanandan's government in the past five years, marred as it was by inner-party rivalries throughout, will be the moot question for the LDF in the elections.
No doubt, the pre-election months are fast turning out to be a season for scandals in the State. The issue of corruption in public life has suddenly taken political centre stage. A series of other corruption charges too have followed. For instance, while addressing a reception organised in support of Balakrishna Pillai after the Idamalayar verdict, senior Congress leader and MP from Kannur, K. Sudhakaran, said that in 1994 he was a witness to a litigant paying a hefty bribe to a Supreme Court judge for lifting a Kerala High Court ban on bar licences sanctioned by a UDF government. But no sooner had Sudhakaran said this than one of the litigants came up with what he alleged were the names of all those in the corridors of power who had similarly received bribes during the term of the K. Karunakaran government, which (originally) sanctioned the licences.
A police inquiry is on and Sudhakaran's allegation has become a major political controversy, with questions being raised by the Chief Minister and other LDF leaders as to how an MP could remain silent for so many years on an act of corruption he had witnessed.
It is as if an ogre that lives on the fortunes of naughty politicians is once again on the prowl in Kerala, and true to its style, at the most inappropriate moment for its victims.