Politics is the biggest entertainment in Kerala these days. With new stories of bribes, sleaze and more tumbling out every other day, it is a field day for the media houses out here. The Kerala government and the ruling Congress party are scurrying for cover as almost half the cabinet including the CM, senior ministers and dozens of prominent party leaders are in the direct line of fire over various scandals ranging from solar scam to bar bribery case. With polls just around the corner, the Congress-led UDF government is staring at massive rout as the public confidence in the government seems to be at its lowest ebb. The current dispensation is being perceived as one of the most corrupt and shameless the state has ever seen as charges fly thick and fast against almost the entire leadership. To make the matters even worse, the government seems completely clueless about any damage control strategy other than trying to brazen everything out which is invariably damaging it further.
The CM, Oommen Chandy, widely perceived to be a shrewd politician with a great political acumen appears to be stumped by the fury unleashed by the troika of Saritha Nair, Biju Radha Krishnan and Biju Ramesh, the main protagonists in the Solar and the Bar crime saga. The fratricidal factional feuds within the Congress party has only made the situation more precarious for Chandy as leaders within the party try to fix each other as allegations tumble out. Well, it is Karma after all- Oommen Chandy, once played a stellar role, along with his mentor A K Antony in fixing the then CM, the Congress patriarch, K Karunakaran in the ISRO spy scandal. And, he didn’t stop at that, a few years down the line, he managed to grab CM’s chair for himself by shunting out Antony to Delhi by manipulating Congress factional dynamics to his favor.
The solar scam broke out in 2013 as it came to light that Saritha Nair and her then live-in partner, Biju Radhakrishnan had swindled crores by duping many to invest in none- existent solar parks. Saritha Nair worked her charms to get close to the power corridors and flaunted her contacts in the CM’s office, senior Congress leaders and even the CM himself to convince reluctant investors. More than the amount of money involved, it was the sleaze angle involving the highest echelons of the government that grabbed the eyeballs. The media also played up that angle as the story of a seductress using powerful political figures and even the CM’s office to carry out her con jobs was bound to generate a huge interest.
While Oommen Chandy has maintained that he has nothing to do with the scam and is just a political conspiracy, he cannot wish away the facts that three of his office staff, including his confidante for over a decade, Tenny Joppan were arrested and charged. Saritha Nair ’s call history allegedly shows thousands of phone calls between Joppan and Saritha. There are hundreds of separate conversations between CM’s office and Saritha Nair. The call list also nails Chandy’s point man in Delhi, Thomas Kuruvila. In fact, Saritha Nair ’s call history shows two-way communication between her and many senior ministers in the Chandy cabinet, Congress MLAs, MPs etc. Much of this was corroborated by a senior IPS officer, Hemachandran who initially investigated the solar scam in his deposition before the solar commission. Many of these conversations allegedly have sexual undertones and give credence to Saritha’s charges that many of these leaders exploited her sexually. The final nail in the coffin for Chandy in terms of public perception was the now leaked conversation between the KPCC general secretary and CM confidante, Thampanoor Ravi and Saritha Nair in which he appears to plead with her to go soft on the CM and the government during her deposal before the Solar commission led by Justice Shivarajan.
With the resurgence of the solar scam, thanks to explosive salvos by Saritha Nair, the bar license scandal which had scalped a political heavyweight in K M Mani was being relegated to the background. But, with charges and counter-charges on latest expose of Saritha Nair being at the behest of the bar lobby has thickened the plot. Allegations levelled by the ruling front that the CPM-led opposition and bar lobby have joined hands to use Saritha Nair as their pawn to wreck vengeance on the government has little takers. But, the fact that aides of senior CPM leaders also figure in the call list of Saritha, albeit on a much lower scale, and also the hushing up of Biju Radhakrishnan’s murder of his own wife, despite forensic evidence incriminating him during the previous left government’s tenure has raised uncomfortable questions on the left as well. Much has been said of the left’s apparent clumsiness in cornering the government despite possessing enough ammo to sink 100 governments. This clumsiness appears to be out of helplessness as some of the left leaders might also bite the dust if the investigation goes full steam ahead. The looming indictment of many prominent CPM leaders in various political murders across the state also seems to act as a deterrent. So, in a nutshell, Kerala politics appear to be an exotic cocktail of corruption, sleaze, and cold-blooded murders.
With assembly election looming large on the horizon, Oommen Chandy still appears to be defiant and is hell bent on brazening it out. In fact, after a vigilance court ordered an FIR against him, he not only refused to step down, but also reinstated K Babu, the excise minister who had stepped down after the court ordered an FIR against him in the Bar bribery scandal. The CM even invited K M Mani back to his cabinet. The Chief Minister is resigned to the fact that his reputation has gone down the drain is trying to cut losses by appeasing sections within the UDF to get them to close ranks with him. Kerala has been choosing the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the CPM-led Left Democratic front for decades. And, with the present UDF government down on their knees, it is expected to be a cake walk for the LDF. Even the feud between the nonagenarian comrade, V S Achutanandan, arguably the most popular leader in the state and his one-time apprentice turned bête noire, Pinaray Vijayan, probably the most powerful left leader in the country today seems to have abated with the former resigned to let Vijayan become the CM and the latter increasingly amiable to portraying VS as the face of the campaign.
So, the left should have had it easy, come the assembly polls. But, a resurgent BJP has put a spanner in the LDF plans by cobbling together a formidable social coalition by roping in the likes of the powerful OBC leader Vellapally Nateshan whose SNDP has considerable influence Southern Kerala, Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha, a Dalit community organisation, the Dheevara Sabha, an outfit representing fishermen, and the Yogakshema Sabha — the organisation of the Namboothiri Brahmins. BJP also seems to have the tacit support of the influential spiritual leader Matha Amritanandamai.
Further, the new BJP president, Kummanam Rajashekaharan, despite his strong Hindutva credentials has considerable goodwill among all sections of the public and even the intelligentsia and the Christian clergy as he is a noted environmental activist and is reputed to be a man of integrity. He also played a stellar role in diffusing the tensions after the Maradu massacre by pacifying Hindu outfits who were seething with anger after 8 Hindu fishermen were hacked to death in the aftermath of communal tension in which 3 Muslims and 2 Hindus were killed. And, as the local body polls showed, BJP has emerged as a third force in at least 20% of the constituencies. With Kummanam and veteran leader O Rajagopal leading the battle with the solid backing of RSS and various social organizations, ruling UDF in shambles and the charisma of PM Modi serving as a catalyst, this might well be the breakout election for BJP.
The Kerala elections thus have a degree of uncertainty though it should have been a cakewalk for the LDF. There is already an exodus of CPM cadre to BJP. If the BJP comes to the party, it will be the left that is the most hit as it will be its voters who will be more inclined to vote for BJP. UDF will always have its Muslim vote bank to fall back on as the majority of Muslims won’t ditch IUML, a UDF constituent under any circumstance. UDF also has the complete support of the majority of the Christian clergy, a cushion which LDF do not have. The Ezhava community has been a pillar of strength for the left front in the state, with many prominent leaders from the caste ruling the roost in the party organization.
But, BJP has in its own managed to get the youth from the community to support it in North Kerala while its ally SNDP has a definite say in the community vote in the South Kerala. So, if BJP performs even close to its potential, LDF will end up losing many winnable seats even though they should still emerge with the highest number of seats. With UDF retaining its core voter base which will be even more inclined to vote for it in the face of the rise of the BJP, there might emerge a situation where no one can form the government as any alliance between either of the three is unthinkable. The BJP might have the last laugh in the state if it manages to win a little more than a dozen seats as it can watch with relish both LDF and UDF squirming over how to form the government without the support of a party which is anathema for both. So, watch out for an interesting poll season in God’s own country.