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Will Yechury give the CPI-M a makeover?

By T V R Shenoy
April 22, 2015 13:50 IST

'It is not impossible that there will be some arrangement with the Congress in West Bengal after the ongoing local body polls,' says T V R Shenoy.

From right: Prakash Karat, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, and Politburo member Brinda Karat at the party's 21st National Congress in Visakhapatnam. Photograph: PTI Photo

'April is the cruellest month,' runs the first line of T S Eliot's The Waste Land.

April is actually a pleasant month in Europe and North America. But the poet, who had taken preliminary courses in Sanskrit at Harvard, might have been aware that 'Greeshma', the cruel Indian summer, traditionally begins in April (April 20 this year, at the oddly precise time of 3:11:16 PM according to the local almanac).

Oommen Chandy might wonder if Eliot wasn't a prophet as much as a poet. Two items -- one widely reported, one barely acknowledged -- are potential threats to Kerala's chief minister.

The first is that Sitaram Yechury is the new general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist; the second is a detail within a report made by K M Abraham, additional chief secretary (finance).

I will come to the implications of Yechury's ascension later, partly because it is yet to play out, and partly because K M Abraham's report is the more immediate threat.

There have long been rumours about maladministration, corruption, and nepotism in the Kerala State Cashew Development Corporation. The chairman is R Chandrasekharan while its managing director is his brother-in-law K A Ratheesh.

Matters reached the point where a writ petition was filed in the Kerala high court by Kadakampally Manoj, asking for an investigation.

Interestingly, both K Manoj and R Chandrasekharan made their name in the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the trade union wing of the Congress.

On August 20, 2014, the Kerala high court gave orders to form an expert committee, monitored by the additional chief secretary, a man well-qualified for the task.

K M Abraham was a member of the Securities and Exchange Board of India; he made powerful enemies in his tenure. Notably, he found irregularities in the Sahara Group's dealings, which ultimately placed Subrata Roy behind bars.

In 2011, Abraham wrote to the then prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, saying, 'The frightening realisation that dawned on me from all this was that at the highest levels in government, there seemed to be an awareness of misuse of power by the office of the finance minister.' This letter was leaked to the media.

A CBI enquiry against Abraham (and former SEBI chairman C B Bhave) was ordered in the waning days of the Manmohan Singh ministry in March 2014. It was said the enquiry was in connection with the granting of license to the new stock exchange MCX-SX in September 2008.

This was patently ridiculous. The dates tell the story.

In 2008 MCX-SX was licensed to operate only in the limited segment of currency derivatives.

In 2010 SEBI rejected the MCX-SX application to become a full-blown exchange. (The order bears Abraham's signature.)

In 2011 both Abraham and Bhave left SEBI after the Manmohan Singh ministry decided not to give either man any extension.

It was on December 21, 2012 that MCX-SX was given 'recognised stock exchange' status.

Five minutes of research would have turned up these facts, but it took the CBI five months to do so. In August 2014 the CBI concluded that there was no evidence of any criminality on Abraham's part (nor Bhave's).

But other questions arise from the unsavoury episode. On whose orders was an enquiry set in motion? And who ensured the news was leaked, in violation of the CBI's own manual, making headlines even in the midst of the ongoing election campaign?

A man who had taken on the powers-that-be in Delhi was never going to be intimidated by the Cashew Development Corporation. The report says bluntly, 'There have been very serious procedural violations which might have led to large-scale corruption and loss to the exchequer in the purchase. The opacity in the procedures were unheard of in the public sector.'

On February 16, 2015 K M Abraham sent a note to Oommen Chandy recommending K A Ratheesh's removal. Crucially, the chief minister of Kerala did not act.

There have been many allegations against Oommen Chandy. He has, for instance, been accused of interfering in the Solar Panel Scam, in the course of which some of the chief minister's aides were sacked for reported collusion with one of the accused, Saritha S Nair.

Nothing seemed to stick, not even when Oommen Chandy's former bodyguard, Salim Raj, was accused of a range of crimes, including grabbing land, arranging abductions, and the fabrication of records. (Salim Raj's name also appeared in the Solar Panel Scam.)

K M Abraham's report to the high court possesses the one virtue that the Opposition's charges lacked -- credibility.

What happens if the Kerala high court picks up this detail, and asks the chief minister to explain what seems to be a dereliction of duty?

Leaving that question dangling, let us turn to the significance of Sitaram Yechury's rise to power. The choice of the new CPI-M general secretary turned into a tussle between the party's Kerala and the West Bengal units.

The outgoing general secretary, Prakash Karat, and the Kerala wing propped up S Ramachandran Pillai. Karat -- who has never won even a municipal corporation poll -- buckled only when the West Bengal unit threatened to call for a secret ballot.

Karat's tenure has brought the CPI-M to its nadir. The relationship with the Congress shattered over the issue of the nuclear deal in 2008. The party lost power both in Kerala and, more significantly, in West Bengal in 2011.

In 2014 the Revolutionary Socialist Party walked away, and N K Premachandran stood against and defeated the CPI-M candidate in the Kollam Lok Sabha seat.

If held in low regard by their comrades in West Bengal, the CPI-M's Kerala unit has an even worse reputation in its home state. One reason why Oommen Chandy always got the benefit of the doubt is that his opponents seemed far worse.

A common refrain is that where the Congress may steal your wallet, the Kannur lot -- which dominates the CPI-M in Kerala -- will also beat you up.

Between the fiscal immorality of the Congress and the physical immorality of the CPI-M the former seemed, literally, safer.

Prakash Karat was incapable of, or unwilling to, rein in the unruly comrades from Kannur. Yechury's elevation opens the door to reconciliation with the RSP, and possibly even to the likes of the rebellious Congress-Mani leader P C George. Beyond Kerala, it is not impossible that there will be some arrangement with the Congress in West Bengal after the ongoing local body polls.

It is bad news for Oommen Chandy if the CPI-M gets an image makeover courtesy of Sitaram Yechury. It will be worse news if the Kerala high court picks the point that K M Abraham made about the chief minister's refusal to act against K A Ratheesh.

April may be cruel, but Indians know that the furnace heat of May and June is worse. Will Oommen Chandy melt as the political temperature rises?

Image: From right: Prakash Karat, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, and Politburo member Brinda Karat at the party's 21st National Congress in Visakhapatnam. Photograph: PTI Photo

T V R Shenoy
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