Kerala

Singed by a scam

Print edition : February 19, 2016

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy before the Justice Sivarajan Commission inquiring into the “solar scam” case, in Thiruvananthapuram on January 25. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Saritha S. Nair, a key accused in the scam.

Three years after it came to light, the solar scam has now gathered enough steam to threaten the State government itself.

IT is not yet clear whether Chief Minister Oommen Chandy took that bribe as alleged by Saritha S. Nair, a key accused in the “solar scam” case, in which she, along with her former partner, cheated several people of large sums of money by flaunting their “influence” in the offices of the Chief Minister and other Ministers while promising to make them investors or clients in a fraudulent clean energy company.

But the Congress-led coalition government in the State found itself in a curious political trap on January 27 when the Vigilance Court in Thrissur ordered the State police to register a first information report (FIR) and conduct an inquiry into the allegations raised by the woman against the Chief Minister and his Cabinet colleague Aryadan Muhammed.

On January 26, a day after the Chief Minister submitted himself confidently to a 14-hour grilling before the Justice Sivarajan Commission inquiring into the “solar scam” case and emerged largely unscathed from it, Saritha deposed before the same commission, contradicting Oommen Chandy’s statements in several crucial respects.

Contrary to her stand earlier, when she had even said the Chief Minister “was like a father figure to me”, she alleged before the commission that she had paid a bribe of Rs.1.90 crore meant for the Chief Minister to one of his aides in New Delhi and Rs.40 lakh to Electricity Minister Aryadan Muhammed for their support in promoting the business interests of the renewable energy company of which she was a co-director.

She told the commission that the money meant for the Chief Minister was handed over in two instalments to Thomas Kuruvila, a known Oommen Chandy aide, first in New Delhi and then in Thiruvananthapuram, and peppered her statements with details of the time, dates and circumstances of her meetings. She alleged that the Chief Minister’s former personal assistant, Jikkumon Jacob, had in fact demanded Rs.7 crore from her on behalf of Oommen Chandy, just as Aryadan Muhammed’s personal assistant, Kesavan, had demanded Rs.2 crore from her. She also claimed that Rs.25 lakh was handed over to Aryadan Muhammed at his residence and that later on Rs.15 lakh more was entrusted with his assistant during a seminar in Kottayam.

She also claimed that she used to enjoy easy access to the Chief Minister’s office and had met Oommen Chandy at several places, including his official residence in Thiruvananthapuram while his wife and son, too, were there, and had called the Chief Minister many times at his official residence to discuss business matters.

But more damning to the Chief Minister than these allegations was a recorded telephone conversation between Saritha and the Congress MLA Thampanoor Ravi that was aired by a television channel in which the latter appeared to be coaching the woman on how to depose before the commission—importantly, so that she would not contradict the Chief Minister’s statements.

Ravi, a known confidant of Oommen Chandy, seemed to clarify with Saritha details about the number of times she had met the Chief Minister; on the need to say she had not met Oommen Chandy in New Delhi; to take care to read newspaper reports of the Chief Minister’s statements before the commission; and to consult the government pleader on the statements she was going to make before the commission the next day.

Ravi also asked probing questions on what she was going to tell the commission about the long letter she wrote while she was in jail earlier, which reportedly contained the names of several VIPs, including Ministers, MPs and MLAs and a police officer allegedly involved with her or otherwise in the scandal (a bombshell that reportedly had the potential to bring the government down).

However, Saritha told the commission the next day, among other things, that she had in fact informed the Additional Chief Magistrate Court for Economic Offences in Kochi in July 2013 itself about the “bribe” she had paid to the Chief Minister and others. The judge had, however, asked her to give the details in writing through the jail superintendent, following which she wrote the 30-page letter. However, the contents of the letter were later cut down to an innocuous four pages when it was finally submitted at the court. This, she claimed, she had done at the behest of messengers (including the personal assistant of former Minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar) who had met her in jail to inform her that they were there at the behest of the Chief Minister, who had promised to compensate her for her losses and settle the criminal cases against her if she did not divulge the explosive details in her original letter.

She also told the commission that former Minister Ganesh Kumar (whose controversial relationship with her had led eventually to his resignation from the United Democratic Front (UDF) Ministry) and his father, Kerala Congress-B leader R. Balakrishna Pillai, too knew about the deal and that they had said they would ensure that the offer would be honoured. She also claimed that Thampanoor Ravi and Benny Behanan, another Congress MLA close to Oommen Chandy, had spoken to her mother to strike the deal and that they used to call her regularly to instruct her on what stand to take during critical junctures in the case.

Vigilance judge’s order

The order of the Vigilance Inquiry Commissioner and Special Judge, Thrissur, S.S. Vasan, was in fact the result of a public interest litigation petition filed by a social activist, P.D. Joseph, citing the allegations raised by Saritha before the inquiry commission on January 27. In what Congress leaders later described as “an order issued in undue haste”, the judge turned down a plea by the vigilance lawyer for some time to conduct a quick verification on the veracity of the complaint. Instead, the judge said, “extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary orders” and that “be it a village clerk or the Chief Minister, the law must apply equally to all public servants”, while asking the police to file an FIR and investigate the case.

The Vigilance Court’s order put the Chief Minister in the same spot as his Excise Minister, K. Babu, was in a few days earlier when that court similarly ordered the police to conduct an inquiry against Babu on the basis of the allegations raised by some bar owners that he had taken a bribe from them. Babu immediately submitted his resignation to the Chief Minister “on moral grounds” as the court had ordered a police inquiry—the second victim of the other corruption scandal that was already rocking the Kerala government: the “bar bribery case”.

Finance Minister K.M. Mani, too, resigned under similar circumstances on November 10 when a single bench of the Kerala High Court made adverse remarks while asking the State Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau to “further investigate” the bar bribery case against him, as directed earlier by a Vigilance Special Court in Thiruvananthapuram.

Among other observations, the High Court had then said significantly that “in a case like this, it is quite natural for the common man to entertain a feeling that there cannot be a proper investigation by a state machinery when the accused, against whom fingers are being pointed, is continuing as a Minister”.

With barely a few months left in office, the Congress-led government in Kerala was thus in serious trouble, with the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) demanding the resignation of the Chief Minister and the Electricity Minister and violent protests erupting at several places in the State. The vehicles of both the Ministers were attacked and black flags shown against them at several places, including Malappuram where they were attending a public function while the details of the Vigilance Court order were being reported on television channels. An unusually flustered Oommen Chandy replied to media queries: “Why should I resign? The strength of one’s conscience is bigger than one’s moral strength. I have done nothing wrong. But I will cooperate with any inquiry in the case.”

The same day, however, the Kerala High Court issued a stay order for two months on the Thrissur Vigilance Court’s direction for a police inquiry into the allegations against Babu, even as news of the Vigilance Court’s directions for registering a case against the Chief Minister was trickling in.

Offering a ray of hope to the beleaguered Chief Minister, the High Court said while ordering a quick verification by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau before it sat in judgment in Babu’s case: “It is true that a quick verification report is always necessary to direct registration of a crime. In Babu vs State of Kerala of 2012, this court has clarified and held that though it is not obligatory to order preliminary enquiry in all cases, it is always desirable to obtain a report of preliminary enquiry so as to ensure that the FIR is not registered against an honest public servant, and that even without and before getting such report, the court can direct registration of an FIR, provided the complaint contains the necessary and sufficient materials to sustain prima facie case as to the truthfulness of the allegations raised in the complaint.”

The High Court’s observation was the straw on which Oommen Chandy was hanging, with the fate of his government depending on it, at the time of filing this report, even as the clamour rose for his resignation and the LDF decided to intensify its agitation against the government. The Chief Minister claimed that the new allegations were part of a political conspiracy hatched by the opposition with the support of the liquor lobby, which was aggrieved at his government’s decision to close down all bars in the State. Saritha’s allegations were part of that conspiracy, he said, while pointing out that in 2014, she had stated that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had offered her Rs.10 crore in order to raise such allegations and topple the government. The CPI(M) also had to beat a retreat after seeking the government’s resignation soon after Saritha’s partner, Biju Radhakrishnan, had falsely accused him of taking a bribe and alleged that there was a CD with incriminating visuals of him, he said. “What happened to all those allegations now,” he asked.

Later in the day, after the Congress high command ruled out the resignation of the Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy said that both he and Aryadan Muhammed would file individual appeals against the Vigilance Court’s “hasty action”.

Group rivalries

Significantly, given the latent group rivalries within the Congress party, the silence of several prominent leaders of the party on Saritha’s allegations against the Chief Minister and others appeared ominous. But the Congress high command spokesperson issued a statement ruling out Oommen Chandy’s resignation and, at least for the time being, accepting his argument. Immediately after his deposition before the inquiry commission, Oommen Chandy said: “A person whose cheque to the Chief Minister’s relief fund for a value of Rs.2 lakh had bounced is now claiming that she had given me Rs.1.9 crore as bribe. But then, what benefit did her company get from the government after paying this bribe? Did the government suffer any loss because of it? I have done nothing wrong and am ready to face any inquiry.”

Saritha in turn said that it was exactly because she did not get any benefit even after paying a huge amount as bribe that she was now finally telling the truth to the commission. Her demand, it seemed, was simple and clear: she needed money which, she claimed, she had paid as bribe, in order to pay off her clients, many of whom have filed cases against her.

Nearly three years after it first came to light with the arrest in June 2013 of Saritha and Biju Radhakrishnan, already an accused in a case relating to the murder of his wife, Reshmi, in 2006, the solar scam has finally gathered enough steam to threaten the State government itself.

As Frontline had reported earlier (“Cross connection”, June 26, 2013, and “Losing sheen”, August 7, 2013), from the beginning, the nature of the scam and its likely implications had caught Kerala by surprise. The Biju-Saritha team, directors of the Kochi-based Team Solar Renewable Energy Solutions Pvt. Ltd, would demand advance money from gullible clients and investors, in most cases in the hope of repaying them with funds obtained from new clients—a kind of Ponzi scheme, similar to the fraudulent money chain schemes that became popular in Kerala from the early 1990s and had claimed hundreds of victims.

The company would present awards to prominent people to gain media coverage and credibility. Ministers, MPs and MLAs were regularly invited to the company’s programmes and functions. Saritha and Biju would thus flaunt their real or contrived proximity to Ministers, their office staff, MLAs, MPs, officials and other prominent people as an endorsement of the genuineness of the company and its schemes.

It had become clear that Saritha, who was in charge of marketing and sales of the company, had clearly used her acquaintance with Ministers, MLAs and/or their personal staff and officials to entrap customers into investing sums ranging from Rs.70,000 to Rs.50 lakh in fraudulent solar and wind energy projects.

Nearly 40 cases were subsequently registered against Biju and Saritha on the basis of the complaints by scam victims. The police estimate the amount swindled by them to be around Rs.6 crore, and many people who had parked their ill-gotten wealth with the company are yet to come forward with complaints.

Be that as it may, such facts seemed too insignificant to help, as the UDF government was being pushed to the brink by an intensifying agitation by the LDF and the Bharatiya Janata Party demanding the Chief Minister’s resignation. But his government got a much-needed break on January 29 when the High Court suspended the Vigilance Court’s order against Oommen Chandy and Aryadan Muhammed for two months, chastised the Vigilance Court judge for acting hastily and mechanically and directed the High Court’s administration to look into the conduct of the judge. The judge, Vasan, in turn, promptly offered to go on voluntary retirement.

Oommen Chandy’s troubles are far from over, with an Assembly session just round the corner and the State bracing itself for a fiery election campaign. It was Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan who spread some cheer on this grim political scenario. On January 28, while announcing, among other things, that the opposition was also serving a notice for breach of privilege against the Chief Minister for misguiding the Assembly in 2013 about the date of his New Delhi visit (when the bribe is alleged to have been paid to his aide), Achuthanandan told a press conference: “In the end, it seems like a case of big-time pickpockets picking from their small-time fellows.”

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