While even the Opposition doesn’t believe that Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is personally involved in the solar scam, the Congress leaders reputation has been tainted. And while he tells Indulekha Aravind that it is only a conspiracy, it may have a bearing on the coming general elections
If Oommen Chandy realises that he might well be facing his biggest political challenge ever since he took oath as the 21st chief minister of Kerala on May 18, 2011, he shows no signs of it when we meet at his office in the imposing Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.
Dressed in his trademark white mundu and shirt with collar starched within every inch of itself, the veteran Congress leader is instead conscious that he has kept us waiting for half an hour and mentions as much while deferring a conversation with an official who approaches him.
Political crises are not exactly a novelty for the United Democratic Front government that Chandy heads and even though they are usually accompanied by the Left Democratic Front-led Opposition’s demands for the Congress leader to resign, this time the situation is a little different.
The protagonists in the current imbroglio are Biju Radhakrishnan and Saritha Nair, a couple who siphoned various sums of money from different businessmen on the pretext of setting up solar and wind energy plants, which either never saw the light of day or, in some cases, ended up being solar panels that in reality drew power from the main grid.
The duo had reportedly convinced investors by claiming that their company had the backing of the chief minister, for which they used fake letters and also allegedly arranged meetings with him in at least one case.
Even though nobody, including the Opposition, is accusing the chief minister himself of profiting from the fraud, the issue has created a political storm because of the allegations that Chandy, who has so far enjoyed a spotless reputation for honesty in his 50 years in politics, had met Nair and recommended investments in solar energy to a businessman.
More significantly, three junior staff members in the Chief Minister’s Office have also been found to be involved in the scam, with leaked call records showing they were in constant touch with Nair. All three have since been dismissed and one of them is currently in police custody.
The critical question is whether Chandy had met Nair (something he steadfastly denies) and whether he was aware of his staffs complicity. Caesar’s wife, after all, must be above suspicion. The timing is also significant because of the potential impact any change in leadership, if it comes to that, could have at the national level, considering the Congress will need every single seat it can get in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections (the UDF swept 16 seats out of 20 in 2009, a number that would be very handy in 2014). The Left seems set on going for the jugular -- Chandy’s resignation.
“This is nothing but a political conspiracy of the Opposition to unseat me and it is not something I intend to buckle under,” says the 69-year-old, in soft measured tones.
Part of the circumstances under which the solar scam took place is considered to have its roots in Chandy’s famed style of functioning. The consensus in Thiruvananthapuram is that ever since he took over, the CMO resembles a mela ground to which anybody can gain easy entry. This is very much in keeping with the image Chandy has cultivated, of someone who is always accessible and likes to be among the masses.
There is even an apocryphal story that when he was injured while in Davos attending the World Economic Forum a few years ago, he missed being surrounded by people so much that he asked some of his friends and secretaries to visit him. But his asset has also turned out to be a liability, with people like the scam accused reportedly having been able to meet him easily.
The chief minister needs to screen his visitors and streamline the whole process, says D Babu Paul, who has served as chief secretary and principal secretary in Kerala, among other posts.
The Opposition is less charitable.
“This scam shows that the much-hailed style of functioning of the chief minister, where he is trying to dole out patronage to individuals, is not a desirable approach. He should be trying to build institutions, not try to solve each person’s problem individually,” says T M Thomas Isaac, the finance minister in the previous LDF government.
“By spending all his time and energy on this, he has none left for larger tasks, which he has to leave to lieutenants like his office staff,” he adds.
But this is a precaution Chandy is still not willing to take.
“Because of what happened now, there is a suggestion that there should be stricter safeguards, but I have made it clear that any such step should not prevent me from meeting people. My biggest strength is my connection with the people and I do not intend to break that,” he says unequivocally.
Last year, Chandy became the first chief minister to install a web camera in his office that streams the proceedings live (though without sound) so that people anywhere “can see what is happening in my office”. He also adds that he takes care to never meet anybody alone.
Another challenge Chandy might find harder to justify is the policy of appeasement he is accused of having adopted towards the other constituents of the United Democratic Front.
UDF was in crisis even before the present scam unfolded. There is a general feeling in Kerala that this government is appeasing various communal organisations, says Isaac.
Here, Isaac is referring to the plum portfolio allocations to the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (considered to represent the Syrian Catholics of central Kerala), both UDF allies, and the Nair Service Society’s demand that Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President Ramesh Chennithala be given a cabinet berth.
The Kerala Congress (not to be confused with the Indian National Congress), is also considered to have disproportionate clout within the alliance. The rumour mill in the capital was rife with speculation that Kerala Congress President and Finance Minister KM Mani might just jump ship and join hands with the Left to realise his life-long desire of being chief minister, even at the age of 80 (much like a certain Mr Advani and his prime ministerial ambitions).
Mani, a politician as wily as they make them, denied such speculation but could not wipe the broad grin off his face when acknowledging a Communist party of India leader’s remark that he would be a more able candidate for chief ministership than Chandy.
Then there is the internecine rivalry within the Congress itself, with the Congress (A) and (I) groups pulling in different directions.
“To me, this is the biggest problem for the government,” says G Gopakumar, political analyst and former dean and head of social sciences, Kerala University.
“The faction ranged against Chandy might well exploit the current situation”.
Chandy, of course, tries to play down all talk of rivalry or factionalism.
“I would not be able to continue as chief minister if I did not enjoy the full confidence of my party and my allies,” says Chandy, dismissing reports of disunity as “creations of the media”.
Observers feel that before the controversy erupted, the government was doing a creditable job, with Chandy trying to push for infrastructure and development. He was otherwise a very effective chief minister, with his initiatives such as the mass contact programme and Sutharya Keralam (where every petition submitted was supposed to reach Chandy).
But the government’s track record is now being camouflaged by these agitations, says Paul. Chandy says he had adopted as his government’s motto -- growth along with care for the underprivileged.
“In our two years, we have made headway in several significant projects that the state had been awaiting. Work on the first phase of Smart City (an infotech special economic zone) has begun, as has work on Kochi Metro. We have also finalised tender norms for the Thiruvananthapuram-Kozhikode monorail project,” he says.
At the same time, he says, he wants to make healthcare affordable to all, as part of which the government plans to extend the free generic medicine scheme to district hospitals and primary health centres, and set up nine more medical colleges.
Attracting new investments has long been a challenge for successive governments in Kerala; to address this, the UDF government had hosted an Emerging Kerala summit last September. Chandy now says Emerging Kerala was a platform to showcase the states potential to the world rather than an investor summit.
He does not, he says, have actual figures about the progress of all the projects announced at that time but adds that the biggest of the lot, a Rs 20,000-crore expansion of the BPCL refinery, was proceeding on track.
According to the 2012 Economic Survey released earlier this year, Kerala grew 9.5 per cent in 2012, up from 8.5 per cent the previous year. However, as always, a chunk of this could be attributed to the remittances that flowed in, which totalled Rs 55,000 crore last year.
Unemployment continues to remain a concern, with the state reporting the fourth highest rate of unemployment in the country. The challenge is not just to provide jobs for a few people but to change circumstances and mindsets so that people do not leave the state in search of employment, and that is what we are working towards, says Chandy.
According to the Economic Survey, there are 4.5 million people in the state registered with the employment exchanges.
Analyst Gopakumar fears that a potential long-term impact of the current scandal could be slowing down of new investments, if people began equating entrepreneurial ventures with scams. Aided by the growth of the middle class, Kerala was just beginning to accept the positive aspects of globalisation and the atmosphere was becoming conducive to neo-liberal policies. But issues like this could well put a brake on that growth, he says.
The other fallout is the damage it could inflict on Chandy’s carefully nurtured reputation. He still enjoys a great deal of credibility. However, this is a complex situation where Chandy might not be personally involved but may still find it difficult to disassociate himself from the controversy, says Gopakumar. Any adverse remark from the judiciary during the case proceedings would be a huge blow and, as Isaac says, events in the case are still unfolding.
For now, Chandy sounds confident of weathering the storm.
“I have been elected from the same constituency for the past 42 years. People know who I am, what I stand for and where I have come up from. I don’t think my credibility has suffered. The events of the next couple of weeks will show whether that faith is justified,” he says.