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Has Kerala set an example of framing political opponents?

The quashing of FIR against former Kerala chief minister and CPM veteran VS Achuthanandan in an alleged land-deal by the Kerala High Court on Thursday is a huge setback for the Oomen Chandy government, although the latter tried to retrieve some lost ground through a stay on the order by a division bench later in the day.

For Chandy, the single judge’s observations against his government are severely damaging till he gets some further relief from the division bench. As of today, his government’s motive behind the case is strikingly suspect.

Former Kerala chief minister VS Achuthanandan. Image courtesy PIB

An indignant Achuthanandan immediately hit back with a curious charge that Chandy and company had hatched a conspiracy to remove him as the opposition leader. With this charge, the CPM leader also seems to have pushed his own party leadership into the shadow of suspicion.

The charge against the aging—but agile—Marxist superstar, who resorted to a lot of survival flip-flops within his party of late, is that he misused his office while allotting 2.33 acres of land to a man related to him. Although Achuthanandan stuck to his stand that he hadn’t gone out of his way to help anybody and the relative was just like any other petitioner, the UDF government was bent upon investigating him.

In fact investigating and charging Achuthanandan seemed to have been an election agenda of the UDF because it was one of the earliest decisions it took after coming to power. The government was under severe pressure from two key allies to act against the CPM leader because of the merciless legal battle that he pursed against their leaders. He had sent one of them to jail for corruption, after a legal battle lasting more than two decades, and reopened a sex-scandal against another one.

The high court judge reportedly said that some elements presented in the case against the former CM were “too disturbing” and gave enough room to suspect that the machinery of vigilance was abused to silence political opponents. He also said that there was some credence to Achuthanandan’s argument that the investigation against him had suspicious motives.

The details and circumstances of the case indicated that the charges were baseless and hollow, the judge further said. He also said that the finding of the vigilance that Achuthanandan had helped his relative was feeble and the attempts to charge him was against law. If vigilance made such conclusions, no chief minister could effectively function.

The Marxist veteran can feel elated and justified that the single judge’s observations echoed what he had been saying in his defence ever since the UDF came to power. He was so certain about his non-culpability in the case that he even took a moral stand that if he was chargesheeted, he would resign from the opposition leader’s position.

For any ruling government, the observation of the judge cannot be more damaging when he said that the investigating officer of the vigilance department apparently didn’t even know the fundamental principles of criminal investigation, and that the attempts looked suspicious. What added additional credence to the suspicion of motivated charges was the removal of some officers from the original FIR.

The entire plan of the government to frame Achuthandan looked exposed on Thursday and Oomen Chandy certainly has egg on his face. Smarting under the blow, he said that his government pursued the case only legally and not politically.

The observation by the court that the vigilance department was looking for a nail after deciding to crucify somebody is severely damaging for any democratic government, that too in a politically aware Kerala.

The court victory will certainly lead to a spike in Achuthanandan’s political stock. The veteran was bludgeoned to submission by the CPM’s state leadership, with the nod of Prakash Karat in Delhi, after a prolonged internal battle. His frosty relationship with the party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and his coterie seemed to have looked up recently when the latter rallied behind him on this case.

But on Thursday, by dropping a bomb that he suspected a conspiracy to remove him from the opposition leader’s role, Achuthanandan hasn‘t spared his party leadership either. Some observers noted that his dart was aimed at former home minister, and a close confidante of Vijayan, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. There were speculations earlier that the CPM leadership might replace him with Balakrishnan as the opposition leader on disciplinary grounds.

With this partial victory, Achuthanandan has once again proved that his image of a lonely warrior against corruption indeed works in Kerala. All the prominent Malayalam newspapers on Friday had featured his triumph as front-page headlines while TV channels ran never-ending discussions.

The case is going to be a real thorn in the flesh for Chandy and his government. The stay by the division bench is only a minor relief. Despite the stay, the vigilance department cannot chargesheet him as the court has allowed it to continue only its investigation.

Perhaps Chandy wouldn’t have pursued the case but for the pressure of the relentless demands of the Muslim League and Kerala Congress, who have a genuine grouse against Achuthanandan. Poor Chandy has no other option but to keep wearing the crown of thorns gifted to him by his influential coalition partners.

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