Kerala

Litmus test

Print edition : November 11, 2016

E.P. Jayarajan (left) outside the CPI (M) headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram after resigning as Minister. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. He said that henceforth all appointments to public enterprises would be vetted by the State Vigilance Department. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, CPI (M) state secretary, announcing the resignation Jayarajan's resignation at a media conference. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Jacob Thomas, who suddenly sought permission to step down as Vigilance Director, for reasons unknown. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

The Left Democratic Front government in Kerala apparently tides over a crisis of credibility with the resignation of E.P. Jayarajan as Industries and Sports Minister following allegations of nepotism, but challenges remain.

IN every government’s life there comes a moment which, either as a propitious one or as a mere foreboding, turns out to be the sign of its destiny. For the new Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala, that moment appears to have come early, with Industries and Sports Minister E.P. Jayarajan being forced to resign following allegations of nepotism, 142 days after the Left coalition rode to power on the strength of an anti-corruption, pro-development manifesto.

It is indeed too early to pass a verdict on the new government or try and guess its course from now on. The overwhelming goodwill for the new administration was still largely intact and the Cabinet had, only the other day, decided to launch an ambitious four-point action plan aimed at the “comprehensive” development of the State.

Yet the series of events that led to the swift resignation of Jayarajan, a prominent leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from the trouble-torn Kannur district and a known loyalist of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, turned out to be a jolt for well-wishers of the party and its government.

It was an indication that the hopes generated by the LDF’s election campaign and its famous election slogan (“LDF will come, everything will be all right”) could easily colalpse if the deviant forces that had been the bane of Left governments in the past were allowed a go at the reins once again.

CPI(M) State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan told the media that Jayarajan had realised his mistake and sought the State party’s permission “to resign from the Cabinet” in order to “uphold the image of the LDF government, to prove that the CPI(M) is different from other political parties and that its government too is quite different from earlier State governments led by other parties”.

But Jayarajan’s detractors insist that his resignation was not a spontaneous gesture—that it came only after strong and open criticism was raised at the party’s local and area committees, which then led to a barrage of public criticism fuelled by social media commentaries, cartoons and caricatures. Significantly, they say, he resigned only after the Chief Minister refused to come to his rescue.

Contentious appointments

The most controversial of Jayarajan’s actions were the appointments of Sudhir Nambiar, son of Jayarajan’s sister-in-law and Member of Parliament P.K. Sreemathy, as the managing director of Kerala State Industrial Enterprises (KSIE), and Deepthi Nishad, Jayarajan’s brother’s daughter-in-law, as general manager of Kannur-based Kerala Clay and Ceramics. There were also reports that relatives of several other prominent CPI(M) leaders were about to be accommodated in similar posts in other public sector enterprises.

When the issue came to light, Jayarajan tried to brush it all aside, telling the media: “My relatives may be there in many institutions. I have not received any complaint against it. Such questions do not deserve an answer.” But as soon as the Chief Minister clarified that he was unaware that such appointments had been made, and that “usually only capable people are appointed in such posts”, Sudhir Nambiar’s appointment was cancelled by the Industries Department (ostensibly because he asked for more time to join) and Deepthi Nishad resigned from her post. By that time, however, the CPI(M)’s coalition partners and the party’s central leadership too had involved themselves in the issue. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury firmly said that appropriate action would be taken by the State party very soon.

In public, Jayarajan never admitted he had done anything wrong. In a statement made in the State Assembly after he stepped down, for example, he said he was targeted by political opponents and a “mafia” because of his efforts to curb inefficiency, corruption and extravagance in the State’s industrial sector and to bring in professionalism in the PSUs. He said these forces had tried initially to influence him and, when that failed, to intimidate him even, but he “fought for the country and fought for justice”. The opposition was baying for his blood and the media had unfairly caused a hype over the issue, he said. He also said there was no appointment manual, and as per existing rules the government could appoint anyone as managing director.

Though he spoke also in eulogising terms about Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister told the Assembly that he never knew about the appointment of Sudhir Nambiar even as the opposition laid papers on the table claiming it had evidence to prove that some of the controversial appointments had been referred to him.

Pinarayi Vijayan said that though it may have been customary to inform the Chief Minister of such appointments, it was not a mandatory requirement. He said that the KSIE came under the purview of the Companies Act and the government had the right to appoint one of the directors as the managing director and that the Minister concerned had the power to make such appointments. “It need not come before the Chief Minister and it did not,” he said. “But Jayarajan’s resignation has startled the opposition. They are unable to come to terms with it. Jayarajan took the right decision and we concurred with it. The right decision was for him to resign.”

Controversial figure

Jayarajan has always been a controversial figure, and belonged to that variety of CPI(M) leaders who rose from the ranks in party strongholds and are generally known for their abrasive style of functioning. Like Pinarayi Vijayan, with whom he shares a close bond, he comes from Kannur district, known for its political killings and violence, especially between the CPI(M) and the Bharatiya Janata Party/Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (BJP/RSS) or the Congress.

Jayarajan came into the spotlight in 1995 after he was shot at inside a train while returning from a party conference in Vijayawada. Pinarayi Vijayan, who was also supposed to travel with him, had cancelled the journey at the last minute, and it is still not clear who the real target of the attack was; it occurred at a time when Kannur was witnessing a major escalation in political violence. Jayarajan was injured in the attack and later on would often proudly claim that he still carried a bullet in his head.

He soon came to hold several key positions in the party, and his statements began to carry a lot of weight, especially during the long tenure of Pinarayi Vijayan as the party secretary in Kerala. Jayarajan’s statement in 2007, at the height of inner-party troubles, that “communist parties cannot any longer function as they did 50 years ago, and the insistence of some leaders that it should always be a life of sacrifices for party workers would only drive young people away from the party”, has since been used by his opponents as signs of erosion of values and “Right deviation” in the party.

In the same year, when he was functioning as the general manager of Deshabhimani, the party newspaper, Jayarajan was again in the eye of a storm for allegedly accepting an investment of Rs.2 crore on behalf of Deshabhimani from a notorious lottery businessman. A similar controversy arose subsequently too, when Deshabhimani carried a full-page advertisement from a controversial industrialist, and Jayarajan tried to justify it claiming that a newspaper cannot be expected to accept advertisements after a police verification of the credentials of the advertiser.

Later on, in yet another contentious move, prime land belonging to the newspaper in Thiruvananthapuram was sold to the same industrialist, and Jayarajan’s justification of it made him the target of the party’s opponents. He was again involved in a major controversy following the CPI(M)’s efforts to construct a mangrove park in the ecologically sensitive area adjoining the Valapattanam river in Kannur district. Jayarajan was the project’s main adviser and, though he had the full backing of the party, had to face much flak for allegedly destroying a stretch of mangrove forests in an ecologically fragile area.

Jayarajan’s inclusion as a Minister in the government led by Pinarayi Vijayan and the fact that he got the key Industries portfolio had raised a lot of eyebrows. He was also the Minister for Sports and caused a ruckus early when the then Sports Council president, Olympian Anju Bobby George, alleged before resigning from her post that he had verbally abused and threatened her when she made a courtesy call on the new Minister. Jayarajan, in turn, alleged that she had indulged in nepotism in appointments in the council and had obtained undue benefits using her position as the council’s president.

Political strategy

The current controversy, however, has proved to be the worst and most embarrassing of them all, especially for his party. Unlike earlier occasions, Jayarajan found himself isolated and fighting the nepotism charges raised against him all alone, both within and outside the CPI(M).

As a political strategy, however, it brilliantly insulated the Chief Minister, the party and the government from the issue. In the Assembly, Pinarayi Vijayan pointedly tried to draw attention to the quick and decisive action by his government, in contrast, to the way the previous United Democratic Front (UDF) government had handled similar allegations.

Had such an issue occurred during UDF rule, he said, they would have first said “there is no evidence”. “If evidence was produced the response would be ‘the law will take its own course’. Once the issue was dragged to the court, they would say they ‘believed in the people’s court’. Then they would say they have faith only in their conscience. The LDF did not make any such flimsy argument and the Minister has rightly opted to step down,” he said.

For successive governments in Kerala, public enterprises have long served as avenues for the distribution of political patronage. Jayarajan’s exit has once again brought to light the chaos that prevails in such units. There are still no clear guidelines or criteria for appointment of members of the director board or to the top posts in such government units. Successive governments have failed to address such issues and had let nepotism and corruption thrive.

After a Cabinet meeting following Jayarajan’s resignation, the Chief Minister said that henceforth all appointments to public enterprises will be vetted by the State Vigilance Department.

The Cabinet also decided that a permanent technical expert committee would be established to monitor appointments to top PSU posts, and that legislation to curb nepotism and ensure transparency in public sector appointments would soon be made. The Chief Secretary has been asked to conduct an inquiry into all such recent appointments.

But has Jayarajan’s resignation and the firefighting that followed served its purpose for the CPI(M) and the LDF government? Has it helped sustain the LDF’s image as a force against corruption? Has it proved that the ruling front parties are quite different from those in the opposition coalition?

Clearly, the story is unlikely to end with Jayarajan’s exit, and the opposition has been alleging in the Assembly that the appointments could not have taken place without the Chief Minister’s knowledge.

The controversy has, therefore, been portrayed as a test case for people to ascertain the genuineness of the new LDF government and the statements of its leaders just when the government was beginning to implement its long-promised development initiatives.

Quick verification inquiry

Therefore, political Kerala is eagerly observing the curious progress of the State Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau’s quick verification inquiry into the appointments—necessitated by complaints filed by Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala and BJP leaders V. Muraleedharan and K. Surendran before it—and waiting for its conclusions.

The scope of the quick verification inquiry by the Bureau (an anti-corruption investigative agency under the Chief Minister) is merely to ascertain whether the information available points to a cognisable offence. If it does, thereafter, a first information report (FIR) could be registered against Jayarajan or others. (Based on another petition, the Vigilance Bureau is also inquiring into 16 similar appointments made during the time of the previous UDF government.)

However, on October 19, a day after he announced at a function organised by the Thiruvananthapuram Press Club that the crux of the new government’s vigilance policy was “an uncompromising stand against corruption and its results are already being seen”, Vigilance Director Jacob Thomas dropped a bombshell by writing to the Home Secretary requesting, citing “personal reasons”, that he be relieved of his duties as Director immediately.

Jacob Thomas, an officer who is known for his uncompromising position against corruption, was already leading several inquiries into high-profile cases involving opposition politicians and some top officers of the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, several of whom had complained to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan about his methods and approach to those inquiries.

As the Jayarajan case too came to the fore, the opposition used the opportunity to raise the findings in a report of the Finance Inspection Wing of the State Finance Department against him. It dealt with the flouting of norms and alleged irregularities in the installation of solar energy units and the purchase of some laptops for the Department of Ports while he was its director during UDF rule. The officer later told the media that “some people opposed to his fight against corruption have now found an old report useful to strike against him”.

As this article went to the press, his reasons for suddenly seeking permission to step down as Vigilance Director were still unclear and had led to much speculation that he was under pressure as part of moves to wreck the investigation against Jayarajan. When questioned by the media, with the Chief Minister yet to accept his request, Jacob Thomas would only speak in riddles. He said “each new day brings a new sky and a new earth” and that “yesterday’s truth is not today’s truth”, while reiterating that he wanted to be relieved of his post, despite CPI(M) leaders Sitaram Yechury and V.S. Achuthanandan reportedly asking him not to quit. A day later, however, he said, “If you don’t pull me back, I will move forward.”

With a decision on the vacant Industries portfolio too being delayed, the Vigilance case against Jayarajan and its outcome have quite unexpectedly become a test of the resolve of the LDF to offer a truly people’s government in Kerala.

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