Losing sheen

Print edition : August 23, 2013

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy (right) and State Congress president Ramesh Chennithala at the KPCC office-bearers' meeting in Thiruvananthapuram on June 13. Photo: C. Ratheesh Kumar

With Lok Sabha elections a year away, the ruling coalition in Kerala stands thoroughly discredited by the solar scam and weakened by the deepening schisms within it.

ON July 29, after keeping the fragile Congress-led coalition government in Kerala on tenterhooks for over two months, Saritha S. Nair, one of the prime accused in the “Solar scam” case, finally submitted an innocuous statement in writing to the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court for Economic Offences in Kochi.

Never before in Kerala’s political history had the credibility and, perhaps, survival of a State government hinged thus on the statement of a woman accused (along with her former live-in partner and the kingpin in the case, Biju Radhakrishnan, and a few others) of defrauding several people of large sums of money.

Both Biju and Saritha were self-styled “directors” of an Ernakulam-based company, Team Solar Renewable Energy Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a firm reportedly floated by them to supply solar and other clean energy equipment to domestic and industrial customers—now a booming business in Kerala encouraged by the State and Central governments with a subsidy of 50 per cent of the cost.

The arrests of Biju, already an accused in a case relating to the murder of his wife Reshmi in 2006, and Saritha in early June had marked the beginning of an explosive political scandal in Kerala. It came on the eve of an Assembly session that ended in turmoil in the wake of opposition demands for a judicial inquiry into the role of the Chief Minister’s office in the scam and the links of some other Ministers with the accused.

Within weeks, the ramifications of the scam had stunned the State. The Biju-Saritha team would demand advance money from gullible clients for solar and wind energy equipment in the hope of repaying them, when they could not deliver, with similar advance payments from new clients—a kind of cheeky money chain fraud that had become notorious in Kerala from the early 1990s and had already claimed hundreds of victims.

But the crux of the duo’s modus operandi was clearly the flaunting of their real or contrived proximity to Ministers, their office staff, MLAs, MPs and officials, among other prominent people, as an endorsement of the credibility of their company and the genuineness of its schemes. Ministers and other leaders were regularly invited to company programmes and functions. The company also reportedly presented awards to prominent people to gain media coverage and credibility.

Thirty-three cases have now been registered against the duo on the basis of complaints by scam victims. There are reports that many other people who had parked their ill-gotten wealth with the company are reluctant to come forward with complaints.

It soon became known that Saritha, who was in charge of marketing and sales of the company, had charmed her way into the corridors of power, including the Chief Minister’s office, and had clearly used her acquaintance with Ministers, MLAs and/or their personal staff and officials to entrap customers to invest sums ranging from Rs.70,000 to Rs.50 lakh in fraudulent solar and wind energy projects.

The sigh of relief among a section of the ruling coalition leaders—and the disappointment of some of their political rivals—were therefore evident as the “harmless” details of Saritha’s written statement trickled out of the courtroom.

Unlike the veiled suggestions aired by her lawyer in the days since she first made the request for an in-camera deposition before the court on July 20, her eventual statement, written down nine days later based on the court’s order, contained no revelation of her so-called links with State or Central Ministers, MLAs or MPs, or, therefore, of their suspected facilitatory role, if any, in the solar scam.

Any such suggestion from a woman known to have had a free rein in the corridors of power, including, importantly, in the office of the Chief Minister (“Cross connection”, Frontline, July 12, 2013), would have been disastrous for the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition.

Instead, Saritha’s written statement was targeted mainly against the co-accused in the case, Biju, whom she describes as her “husband” and as the one who handled all the financial aspects of their company along with his new business associate and “friend”, Shalu Menon, a well-known dancer and television actor.

Saritha is also known to have complained to the court that there is a threat to her life and to that of her family members from Biju and Shalu, both of whom she has also reportedly named as the real beneficiaries of the scam. All three are now in police or judicial custody, with over 40 cases against them for defrauding people and on other charges, now being inquired into by a special police team or the local police at various places.

High drama

For the UDF government, however, the past two months have been one of extreme stress and high drama, especially after Saritha told the court on July 20 that she wished to make a statement under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) before the magistrate.

Already, the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) had launched a day-night agitation in all districts of Kerala demanding the resignation of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and a judicial inquiry. Wherever the Chief Minister and some of his Cabinet colleagues went, they were greeted with angry slogans and black flags. The protests, also by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have refused to die down.

Revelations that the close personal aides of the Chief Minister were somehow deeply involved with Saritha and perhaps in the scam itself had come as a bolt out of the blue for the coalition government. Tenny Joppen, a private aide who used to accompany Oommen Chandy like a shadow, was one of the first to be arrested, significantly, while the Chief Minister himself was away in Dubai accepting the United Nation’s Public Service Award.

(Ironically, the award, which the Chief Minister’s office won for his mass contact programme, with a first place in the category “Preventing and Combating Corruption in the Public Service” from the Asia-Pacific region, would, otherwise, have been the most prestigious honour bestowed on his government, which often liked to take credit for “transparency”, “openness” and “good governance”.)

Soon, one of the Chief Minister’s security staff, Salim Raj, was suspended from service for his involvement with Saritha. Another personal staff member, Jikku Jacob, resigned his job. Yet another person, Thomas Kuruvila, a businessman who assisted the Chief Minister during his visits to New Delhi, also later confessed to having known Saritha well and to having had several phone conversations with her.

The UDF government’s Public Relations Director, A. Firoz, too was arrested over charges that he had helped the Saritha-Biju duo obtain over Rs.40 lakh from a Thiruvananthapuram-based industrialist.

Kerala watched in shocked silence, when amidst all this, a businessman from central Kerala, Sreedharan Nair, who was interviewed by a television channel, explained in detail how Saritha had tricked him into paying Rs.40 lakh as advance for setting up a solar plant at the government-owned KINFRA Park in Palakkad.

Significantly, Sreedharan Nair, a known Congress party worker, claimed in the interview that he had decided to release the final instalment of the advance money only after Saritha convinced him of her familiarity and influence within the Chief Minister’s office, and especially after meeting the Chief Minister along with Saritha at his office on July 9, 2012.

During the meeting, Sreedharan Nair alleged, the Chief Minister had told him of the importance of such solar energy projects for Kerala and the need for people like him to make more investments in such projects.

This was immediately denied by Oommen Chandy, who said that only Sreedharan Nair, who was the State president of the Crusher Owners Association, had met him that day, and that too to present him a representation on behalf of the association. Moreover, Sreedharan Nair had signed an MoU and issued a cheque to the Team Solar company on June 30, much before he is supposed to have met him in his office along with Saritha, the Chief Minister said.

An NRI businessman, T.C. Mathew, too, then raised the allegation that he had met the Chief Minister on March 30, 2013, to complain about Saritha who had obtained Rs.1.05 crore from him as advance for solar/wind energy projects and later had duped him and of the role of his office staff members in the fraud. But the Chief Minister had refused to get involved as it was a “private affair” and had even told him that Joppan was his aide who would not get involved in such things, Mathew alleged.

Incidentally, before his arrest, adding to the Chief Minister’s troubles, Biju had alleged in a television interview that not long ago he had used the good offices of the Congress MP M.I. Shanavaz to seek an audience with Oommen Chandy at the State Guest House in Kochi. He had met the Chief Minister to complain to him about former Forest Minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar, whom he alleged “had a relationship with Saritha and was wrecking his personal life”.

While Ganesh Kumar denied these allegations, the Chief Minister admitted subsequently that he had indeed met Biju but it was “before he became an accused in the solar cases”. Despite being under tremendous pressure to disclose the details, the Chief Minister maintained that he did not want do so because it was a purely “personal matter”.

This was the context in which Saritha, then in police custody, sought to make her in-camera statement before the magistrate. Her lawyer, Fenny Balakrishnan, clearly indicated to the media that her revelations would change the course of the investigation and might prove to be disastrous for the Oommen Chandy government.

Unexpected move

But the unexpected happened and in a controversial move, questioned subsequently by several legal luminaries including Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, the magistrate, who allegedly heard her out in his chamber, did not record a statement but asked her instead to give it in writing later on.

Simultaneously, with a television channel airing bits of conversations between its reporters (masquerading as private secretaries of certain Ministers) and a State Minister and a businessman in Malappuram, respectively, speculation was rife that some Congress leaders close to the Chief Minister were already out “with loads of money to buy Saritha’s silence at any cost”.

The opposition, too, raised the allegation that the conversation aired by the television channel was proof that moves were afoot to bribe, threaten or coerce Saritha, through her family members and others to restrain her from naming Ministers or other ruling Front politicians and officials in her statement. On July 26, when the lawyer, who claimed that he had already prepared a 24-page draft of Saritha’s complaint on her request, sought the court’s permission to present it to her and record it as her statement, the judge ordered that she should instead write the complaint herself, to ensure that the “script of somebody else is not imposed on her”.

The court also denied the lawyer permission to visit her in prison but asked that Saritha submit the statement to the superintendent of the women’s prison in Thiruvananthapuram where she was, meanwhile, transferred to be held in judicial custody.

In his controversial order, the magistrate also said that media reports about what had happened in the court on July 20 were “a bundle of lies”. The order said: “Rumours have spread that the court had recorded the statements of the accused on the facts of the case and she had revealed the names of Cabinet Ministers in the State and the court had further prohibited dissemination of said facts.” Such “false propaganda” indicated a grand design to implicate members of the government and “to impose upon the court or attribute to court what it has not done”.

Saritha eventually wrote her statement nine days after she originally proposed to depose directly before the magistrate under Section 164 of the CrPC. It turned out to be a very brief statement, a mere four pages in her own handwriting and contained no “shocking revelation” that could hurt the Chief Minister or his government.

Only her mother, along with a “cousin brother”, and a “Jail DIG”, had reportedly visited her at the women’s prison in Thiruvananthapuram during this period.

As this report was going to the press, a thoroughly shaken Chief Minister Oommen Chandy was shuttling between New Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram in a bid to offer a Cabinet berth to the Pradesh Congress Committee president, Ramesh Chennithala, to shore up the State party with the help of the Congress high command.

But how would it help his discredited government?

More than that of the opposition, which continued to demand the resignation of the Chief Minister and a judicial inquiry into the solar cases, the statements and activities—or inaction, even—of some of his own party colleagues and UDF leaders in the past two months had helped push an already feeble government to the brink. The scandal had emerged when the ruling coalition was already facing several internal troubles. The most divisive of them all was the demand within the Congress itself for the inclusion of Chennithala in the State Cabinet as the Home Minister.

Long-standing demand

It had been a long-standing demand of the once prominent “I group” (now led by Chennithala) within the State party. Ever since the rival “Antony group” representative, Oommen Chandy, became the Chief Minister, Chennithala’s continuance as a mere MLA was threatening to revive the debilitating group war within the party after a gap of about eight years.

But handing over the Home portfolio, now in the hands of Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan (at least until now), a close confidant, to his party rival Chennithala at a juncture when the solar scam bomb was still ticking, posed its own problems for Oommen Chandy. The involvement of his aides in the solar scandal thus has deepened the schisms within the State party and the ruling coalition, with the Chief Minister increasingly forced to lean on two prominent coalition partners, the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani), instead of his own party leaders for damage control. It is a familiar predicament of Congress Chief Ministers in Kerala, and sooner or later such coalition partners too would start demanding a heavy price for such support.

Surely, it will be a thoroughly discredited and weakened UDF coalition that will rule Kerala from now on. And, the Congress’s vote-getting mascot, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, until now one of the most popular politicians in the State, would have lost much of its sheen by the time the party faces the Lok Sabha elections in just about a year.

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