Landing in trouble

Print edition : September 22, 2006

P.J. Joseph resigns from the Cabinet following an allegation that he misbehaved with a woman co-passenger on a flight.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

P.J. JOSEPH with his wife Dr. Santha after submitting his resignation letter to the Chief Minister.-S. GOPAKUMAR

THE four-month-old Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala overcame the first major challenge to its credibility when Kerala Congress (Joseph) group leader P.J. Joseph resigned from the Cabinet on September 4, in the wake of the report of an inquiry into the allegation that he had misbehaved with a woman co-passenger on a Kochi-bound flight from Chennai on August 3.

Ever since the State voted the LDF on the basis of its campaign for `clean' politics and `pro-poor' administration, Kerala has been nagging the new government to prove itself worthy of its 98-42 mandate and be strikingly different from its predecessor United Democratic Front (UDF) government, which had Ministers and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) entangled in sex scandals, corruption charges and communal and caste affiliations.

Joseph's alleged misdemeanour with the woman had put the LDF in a quandary. On one side was a senior leader of the coalition, a man who had held several important portfolios, including Education, Revenue, Housing and Home in previous LDF and UDF governments and had an unblemished record as a leader for over three decades in Kerala politics; on the other was a woman's seemingly genuine grievance, and the LDF promise of ensuring clean administration, a theme much touted by Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan during the election campaign.

Although the report of the inquiry conducted by Inspector-General of Police B. Sandhya was not made public immediately, from several indications, including statements by Ministers privy to the report, it was clear that the charge that Joseph had touched the woman who was sitting in front of him in the aircraft in a manner that outraged her modesty was upheld. Significantly, perhaps because the nearly 25 passengers in the small aircraft said they did not witness the actual event but only the woman's alarmed reaction to it, the report did not say clearly whether Joseph's action was deliberate.

The incident came to public notice only after August 19, when news reports claimed that an informal inquiry had been conducted by a security officer at the Kochi airport (reportedly at the behest of the Chief Minister's office) into what was described initially as "a complaint by a woman passenger to the pilot of a Kingfisher flight from Chennai to Kochi about harassment by a VIP passenger". A television channel reported that Joseph was the only VIP on board the aircraft. The youth and women's wings of the Congress and other Opposition groups in the UDF picked the story up and demanded the resignation of the Minister.

The woman had reportedly given a complaint only to the airline's authorities demanding security for women passengers on its flights, but the initial informal inquiry by the airport security officer and the opportunity that organisations of the Opposition front saw in it to pounce on Joseph made his continuation in the Cabinet an embarrassment for the Achuthanandan government.

Joseph was quick to see a political conspiracy in it. He said that if at all he had touched the woman passenger, it must have been only an inadvertent action; that the event could not have happened as alleged when the plane was taking off and the passengers had fastened their seat belts, because the seats were far apart and especially because his left hand had been incapacitated partially in an accident. He alleged that the conspiracy had been hatched by his "political rivals" in order to evict his party from the LDF. Of the several Kerala Congress factions, Joseph's faction is the only one in the LDF.

In fact, Joseph had revolted against the LDF leadership during the seat-sharing exercise before the elections and had even threatened the LDF that he would put up rebel candidates in his party's strongholds. He had also fought unsuccessfully for the Education portfolio.

Besides, only the other day had he freed himself, at least temporarily, from a major campaign alleging corruption, diversion of funds and favouritism in the implementation of the `Maitri scheme', an ambitious housing project for the poor launched when he was the Housing Minister in the previous LDF Ministry led by E.K. Nayanar. A Vigilance inquiry ordered by the UDF government had filed a report before the High Court subsequently, stating that there was no proof to substantiate the allegations. Another allegation of misuse of funds by the Federation of Indian Floriculturalists (of which Joseph is the president) in a Rs.41-lakh floriculture project with government support is now before the Kerala High Court.

Hardly had he struggled out of such troubles, albeit temporarily, when the latest controversy forced him to resign.

However, Joesph's own demand for an immediate inquiry by a woman police officer and the way his quick exit was ensured by LDF leaders a day after the report was submitted, stands in sharp contrast to the responses of the previous Congress-led government when Muslim League Minister P.K. Kunhalikkutty's alleged involvement in a sex racket case dragged on for months in the streets and courts of Kerala. Although a defiant Kunhalikkutty had to step down a few months before the elections, the Muslim League and the UDF made him one of their star candidates in Kerala in the May elections. In the end, the League's powerful general secretary was thrown out by the electorate which preferred an LDF-supported independent, K.T. Jaleel. Kunhalikutty's defeat came in the Kuttippuram constituency, which was supposed to be his pocket borough.

Joseph's resignation also compares favourably with that of A. Neelalohitadasan Nadar, former Janata Dal (S) leader and Minister of Transport and Forests in the previous LDF government, which ruled the State for five years from 1996. Nadar was accused of blatant sexual harassment by two top women officials in the civil service and eventually found guilty by the courts. Though he was made to step down as Minister after some initial delay, he refused to resign as an MLA even when he became the first MLA in Kerala to be convicted in a sexual harassment case. He continued as a member of the Assembly despite the serious nature of the allegations against him and the widespread protest in the State at one time. In the May 2006 elections, when his party denied him the ticket, Neelalohitadasan Nadar contested as an independent candidate and lost.

Addressing the media after submitting his resignation to the Chief Minister at his residence, Joseph (who was accompanied by his wife), at whose bold behest the inquiry by the woman Indian Police Service officer was held, described the inquiry report as "biased, unjust and incomplete as per the terms of inquiry set by the government" and demanded an immediate judicial inquiry into the incident.

At the time of writing, the Cabinet was yet to consider Joseph's request for a judicial inquiry and his party's decision nominating the MLA from Kothamangalam, T.U. Kuruvila, to replace him as its representative in the Cabinet. Kuruvila is one of the four Kerala Congress (Joseph) MLAs and is a confidant of Joseph. He was the Chairman of the State Housing Board when Joseph launched the Maitri scheme as Housing Minister in the Nayanar government.

There might be room still to speculate whether Joseph was indeed guilty of the accusations or was a victim of an inadvertent act that was sourly misunderstood by a co-passenger. But the Kerala Congress leader had no other way but to resign as there was little open support for his continuation in office from within the LDF, especially after the report was submitted, or from the Chief Minister who had used "threats to the dignity and security of women in Kerala", "the silence of those in power about it" and "their enthusiasm to protect the guilty" as important campaign issues against the UDF only a few months earlier.

It may be a personal tragedy for Joseph that at the age of 64 and for the first time in his career of over 35 years he has to leave office facing an allegation of harassment against a woman. But, by turning his back on such a personal misfortune that befell a Cabinet colleague, Chief Minister Achuthanandan was perhaps only trying to keep the LDF's campaign promises alive and give a tacit message to other colleagues in his fledgling government.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor