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Hanging by a thread

Print edition : Dec 02, 2011

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The fledgling UDF government in Kerala is bogged down in troubles of its own making.

in Thiruvananthapuram

IT is not clear what would eventually bring down the United Democratic Front (UDF) government in Kerala or when, if at all, it would happen. But, within the next six months, the nine-member ruling coalition led by the Congress will have to face a byelection that could see its slender majority in the Assembly becoming even more skimpy and uncertain.

If the tumultuous Assembly session that ended on November 3 can be taken as an indicator, persisting scandals, corruption charges and appeasement of errant coalition partners might prove costly for the UDF as it tries to ward off a possible defeat at Piravom, a central Kerala constituency near Ernakulam, where a byelection is due.

In the Assembly elections held in April, T.M. Jacob, a seasoned politician, administrator and leader of the Kerala Congress (Jacob), won Piravom, with a thin lead of 157 votes and become the sole representative of his party in the Assembly. He was the Minister for Food, Civil Supplies and Registration in Oommen Chandy's Cabinet. But Jacob, suffering from pulmonary hypertension and related troubles, was in and out of hospital since then and his last stint as a Minister ended abruptly with his death at a private hospital in Ernakulam on October 30.

The UDF came to power in May 2011, winning merely 72 of the 140 seats despite initial expectations of a comfortable majority and an anti-incumbency upsurge against the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. The election outcomes in many regions reflected the impact of a number of scandals and allegations against prominent UDF leaders and the rivalries within the coalition and within the prominent parties in the coalition.

Even as the new UDF government was just settling down with a high-profile, 100-day fast-track governance programme involving all government departments, the old charges of corruption and allegations of involvement in other scandals caught up with its leaders, casting a shadow on its future.

Jacob's death, therefore, came at a critical time for the UDF government, whose frail majority was already forcing it to counter carefully every other issue raised by the Opposition in the Assembly.

With the UDF's strength reduced, there was concern over the Assembly membership of the Government Chief Whip, P.C. George (Kerala Congress-Mani), after Sebastian Paul, a former CPI(M) Member of Parliament, raised a question against his appointment. Paul claimed that the appointment of George, as the Government Chief Whip with the rank of a Cabinet Minister with all the attendant facilities went against the office of profit laws under Article 191 of the Constitution. As per Article 191, a person who holds an office of profit under the State or Central government shall be disqualified for being chosen as, and for being, a member of the Legislative Assembly unless the State legislature passed a law exempting the particular office from disqualification. In the absence of such a law exempting the post of Chief Whip, could George continue as an MLA? This was the question referred to the Governor. The Governor has sought the opinion of the Election Commission on it, as required under the Constitution, and is expected to announce a final decision based on its advice.

However, since then, another appeal questioning the status of the Opposition Leader under the office of profit laws too has been submitted to the Governor by a journalist, P. Rajan. Given the risk an adverse decision from the Election Commission and the Governor would pose for the government's survival, the State Cabinet took a decision hurriedly on November 9 to promulgate an ordinance exempting the posts of Chief Whip and the Opposition Leader from the definition of office of profit'. The ordinance is expected to have retrospective effect in order to protect persons who have held such posts earlier.

All this has triggered much anxiety in the UDF about the way scandals, allegations of corruption and misuse of power against its leaders are coming to the fore once again and on how they are going to affect the government.

Special remission

For instance, a day after Jacob's death, using the pretext of the State Reorganisation Day 2011 (November 1), the government granted a special remission of sentence (under Article 161 of the Constitution) to prisoners in the State having good behaviour and no adverse remarks against them. Nearly 2,500 prisoners lodged in various jails got their sentences reduced for varying periods and 138 of them were released immediately.

Among those who came out of jail, however, was the controversial former Minister R. Balakrishna Pillai, leader of another Kerala Congress group, which, too, has only a single representative (his son, the Minister for Forests, Sports and Cinema, K.B. Ganesh Kumar) in the Assembly. Balakrishna Pillai had been convicted by the Supreme Court in the Idamalayar Hydroelectric Power Project case for a term of one year. But never the one to let go of his family's feudal trappings and his claim of being the only surviving founding leader of the UDF coalition, Balakrishna Pillai (as well as his UDF colleagues) sought to portray it all as personal vendetta by Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan, who had pursued the case for over two decades to ensure Balakrishna Pillai's conviction by the Supreme Court (Rash of scandals, Frontline, March 11, 2011).

Once in jail, Balakrishna Pillai acted the reluctant prisoner, complaining of lack of facilities and poor treatment by the jail authorities despite his age and ill-health. Evidently, a wounded Balakrishna Pillai was not satisfied with the relief in the form of a hospital stay that was conveniently offered by the UDF government subsequently. And, as a senior leader of the coalition that ran the government, he wanted something more from it, which came in the form of his release from the hospital room two months before his jail term was to end.

Achuthanandan said his release amounted to a travesty of justice and approached the Supreme Court against the remission of sentence (see separate story). Balakrishna Pillai had served his term at the Central Prison only for 93 days. He was then sent out on parole for the maximum 75 days, and ever since his return, was lodged in a private hospital where he continued to enjoy five-star facilities and the luxury of being in constant touch with his family members, Ministers and UDF leaders and illegally using several facilities, including mobile phones.

Other Opposition leaders claimed it was a challenge to the democratic conscience of the people of Kerala and an affront to the Supreme Court, an instance of political corruption by the government and capitulation to the arm-twisting by Balakrishna Pillai and Ganesh Kumar. The LDF's claim was that it would send the wrong message that even Supreme Court verdicts could be overcome if one had influence in government and money power. Incidentally, Balakrishna Pillai's imprisonment, after nearly two decades of court battles by Achuthanandan, was the first instance in Kerala of a former Minister being jailed on a corruption case. His release from prison has raised several questions not merely about its legality or morality but also about the compromises that a weak coalition structure would continue to demand from it and how far it would go on.

Though not in substance, but in the way it was sought to be tackled by its victims, the Idamalayar case finds an echo in the ice cream parlour sex scandal case too, in which the prominent Muslim League leader P.K. Kunhalikkutty continues to remain the prime target of several serious allegations. Despite the harsh revelations including accusations of influencing the judiciary with bribes that tumbled out as a result of a pre-election spar between Kunhalikkutty and his relative and former confidant K.A. Rauf, the Muslim League managed to win 20 seats in the Assembly. It is now the most powerful group within the UDF after the Congress, which has only 38 seats (after contesting in 84 seats). Kunhalikkutty himself won Vengara, a party stronghold in Malappuram district, with a 38,237-vote margin. But with Rauf's allegations, which he has now raised in courts too, the nature of the case itself has changed, from being a sex-for-money scandal case to a more serious one in which the accused, now including some senior High Court judges and law officers, are being charged with blatant misuse of power and corruption of a grand scale to alter evidence, doctor statements and engineer favourable judgments.

No doubt, the ruling coalition would be dreading the day the case eventually catches up with its principal target. Ominously for Industries Minister Kunhalikkutty and the UDF government, though the High Court has rejected the plea made by the Opposition Leader for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into it, the court has instead said that the ongoing police inquiry should be conducted under its direct supervision from now on. Again, it would be a rare instance in Kerala of a case thus being supervised directly by the High Court.

Palmolein case

To further increase the pressure on a weak government, the LDF had been tactically hunting Oommen Chandy too in the 20-year-old palmolein import case ever since it came up for hearing before a special court judge in Thiruvananthapuram in January.

Former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran, the first accused in the case, had obtained a stay order from the Supreme Court in August 2007 against the trial proceedings at the lower court. Until the death of Karunakaran in December 2010, Chandy was only the 23rd witness' in the case. But as the trial restarted after Karunakaran's death, arguments in a discharge petition filed before the trial court by Chandy's former colleague in the Karunakaran Cabinet, then Food Minister T.H. Musthafa, gave a pre-election opportunity for the LDF, then in government, to demand a further inquiry' into Chandy's role in the import deal.

Following this, the State Vigilance and Anti-corruption Bureau, which initially sought the court's sanction for further investigation on several grounds and especially with a focus on the role of Chandy, filed its report on May 13, the day the Assembly election results were out, concluding that further investigation could not reveal the involvement of any other person in the case. The court, however, rejected the agency's report and, on August 8, the Enquiry Commissioner and Special Judge P.K. Haneefa directed it to conduct further investigation into the involvement of Oommen Chandy and submit a report within three months.

The observations made by the judge while issuing the order, which some UDF leaders claimed appeared like a judgment delivered before an inquiry, proved to be the first major crisis for the Oommen Chandy government, with the Opposition demanding the Chief Minister's resignation on moral and legal grounds.

The Chief Minister initially expressed his readiness to step down but was promptly dissuaded from doing so by coalition leaders and his party high command. He then transferred the Vigilance portfolio under him to his trusted party colleague, Revenue Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan. He took the moral high ground by announcing that he would not go on appeal against the court's directive for a further investigation and that the very same public prosecutor appointed by the LDF government would continue to argue the case in the trial court.

What Kerala then saw was a wholehearted strategy unleashed by the UDF to derail the court proceedings and the probe. For one, on September 24, Judge Haneefa recused himself from the case following harsh public statements against him by P.C. George and letters sent to the Governor and the President alleging that the judge's order was politically motivated and that he had acted beyond his brief. The case, which ought to have otherwise been heard in November on the basis of the Vigilance's further investigation, now stands transferred to another special court in Thrissur.

Subsequently, another accused in the palmolein case, Jiji Thomson, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who was the Managing Director of the State Civil Supplies Corporation at the time of the palmolein import (in 1991), approached the High Court questioning, among other things, the Vigilance Court (Judge Haneefa's) order and claiming that the court had no power to order suo motu a further investigation'. At the time of writing this report the High Court was yet to give its verdict on Thomson's submissions.

But, no doubt, the Opposition is going all out against the government. Yet another allegation of corruption mainly targeted at Chandy is with regard to a pollution control, capacity expansion and diversification project (A toxic hotspot in Kerala, Frontline, June 17, 2005) sought to be implemented by the government-owned Travancore Titanium Products Ltd., Thiruvananthapuram, during Chandy's earlier stint as Chief Minister. (The issue was raised first by Congress leader and former Minister K.K. Ramachandran Master soon after he was denied a ticket in the 2011 elections.)

The political atmosphere remains surcharged after the recent Assembly session, among other things, with Achuthanandan and another CPI(M) MLA, former Minister A.K. Balan, filing separate cases for damages against Ganesh Kumar and P.C. George for making derogatory comments against them at a public meeting in Kollam district. It is a recurrent theme in Kerala politics of late to put one's own government or coalition in trouble by being a blabbermouth at public meetings. But the comments, made a few days before Balakrishna Pillai was to be released, inflamed political passions in the State to such an extent that it actually diverted a lot of attention from the government's move to release Balakrishna Pillai from jail.

It is strange that the reasons for the troubles of the fledgling UDF government are mostly all of its own making. Many of the allegations raised against prominent leaders are not implausible and leaves enough room for doubt. The constant drift from principles to appease coalition partners, for example, or to support errant leaders is already proving to be too hazardous for the UDF government even as Chandy appears bent on creating an image of fast-track, transparent governance.

Given his party's and the UDF's meagre strength in the Assembly, Chandy should know that if his governance agenda fails, the focus will immediately shift to the strange troubles that the UDF and its leaders find themselves in.

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