How about this for a sex-scandal?
No evidence till date about sex, but the connotations are sexual because the woman at the centre of Kerala’s “solar scam”, has managed to trap nearly one-third of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) cabinet and some of their personal staff, with her mobile phone calls.
If one adds a former minister also to the list, it’s more than one third of the Congress-led cabinet.
The basic storyline of the “solar scam” was simple: a couple - a serial fraudster and murder accused from Kottarakkara in southern Kerala, and a woman, another serial fraudster from central Travancore - have conned people across the state brandishing claims of high-level connections, including with the Chief Minister Oomen Chandy.
The scandal began as a simple cheating case in which the couple promised either solar panels or shares in large solar farms, and disappeared with their cash that ran into several crores of rupees. But what made the scandal big, despite it being smaller in scale compared to other financial frauds, was that the star attraction - the woman- was in constant touch with Chandy’s secretary.
The secretary and she spoke frequently and on one occasion, she even took a potential victim, whom she had later allegedly defrauded of Rs 40 lakhs, to the chief minister’s office, where the secretary assured him that her solar scheme had the support of the government. The meeting reportedly took place in the conference room of the chief minister’s office. The secretary, a small time youth Congress worker turned Chandy-confidante, is in custody now.
The Opposition said it was not the secretary that she was speaking to, but Chandy himself because the number was being used by him. According to them, it’s the same phone that he uses to speak to Sonia Gandhi and to say that it was not his phone was a lame excuse. Additionally, the woman also had unhindered access to his office, which couldn't have happened without Chandy's blessing, they allege. To make matters worse, the director of Chandy’s public relations department had joined hands with the couple to cheat a man in Thiruvananthapuram.
Not only the secretary, even his bodyguard was speaking to her. There were hundreds of calls, back and forth, and some at odd hours of the night.
Hmm...that sounded salacious enough, particularly for opposition leader VS Achuthanandan who revels in sex-scandals. Not only him, the entire opposition went for the jugular.
With the opposition baying for his blood, Chandy and his government was in trouble - and many thought that was the end of the story. Either he goes or survives.
But, it was only the beginning - now it turns out that it was not just Chandy’s secretary or his bodyguard who were speaking to her, but many other ministers. No marks for guessing that all of them, except one, were men.
Media reports listed the names of six ministers, including the home minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, besides Chandy, the woman was speaking to. In addition, there were also conversations with senior leaders of the Congress as well. Reportedly there were calls from her, calls to her, and text messages. And these calls took place mostly in January and February, and some even after the scandal broke out.
According to Malayala Manorama, which today published a lead cartoon titled “Miss Call” in which a bunch of ministers chaperon the woman by the tail of her glitzy sari, so far only 60,000 calls have been examined.
She has six more phones and once the call details of those phones are also examined, more politicians could be exposed.
The Opposition has been on a high-intensity attack, perhaps the strongest since the Congress-led UDF came to power, against the government both in the Assembly and on the streets. But the latest details of her calls from her phone dampen at least some of the opposition leader's claims. Latest leaks show that she was in touch with some Opposition leaders as well. Reportedly, there are calls traced to opposition leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, another former LDF minister, and the party’s most influential wheeler-dealer proxy in the media.
The calls certainly cannot be completely benign and the men seemed to have fallen for the promise of some easy flirting, because some of the calls lasted really long. The call between her and a minister reportedly lasted 15 minutes, while his secretary called her at least ten times.
So, who is this woman who has charmed Chandy’s cabinet into this morass?
Her name is Saritha Nair - an engineering college drop out who apparently first conned her ex-husband and then launched herself into the enterprise of cheating while operating from multiple locations. She finally lived with Biju Radhakrishnan, who often appended a “Nair” surname although he belonged to a backward caste, and continued their enterprise, which included promises of multi-crore loan from ADB, kidney to a terminally-ill renal patient and other ones. In 2006, both of them spent time in jail and she even delivered her second child, reportedly with Radhakrishnan, there.
The man was not just a cheat, who assumed any identity that was convenient - like that of an IPS official, London-based RAW official, and ADB consultant - but was in reality an accused in a case of murder. In 2006, he was accused of murdering his wife before Nair moved in with him. The police, was under the CPM-headed government that is now clamouring for Chandy’s head, mysteriously went slow on the case and he was never arrested although the forensic department's findings indicated murder.
The same man and the woman, against whom there were more than a dozen cases, went on to set up Kerala’s sunrise industry through non-existent schemes and an extensive network of offices and dealerships, and charmed a cabinet of men.
Kerala believes that the controversy around Nair is its version of Niira Radia scandal because it’s was all about flirting, name-dropping for undue favours and hundreds of phone calls. What the state is salaciously looking for are the actual conversations between her and the men. Unfortunately there are no controversial recordings, at least till now.
The only glimpse into her Radia-like persona are two brief conversations that one of her victims has recorded - in one, she is irresistibly charming, and in another, with the same person after she successfully conned him, she gets intimidating. Incidentally, it was this conversation of intimidation that prompted the man to go to the police and blow the lid off the scandal.
For Chandy’s cabinet, the ribald opposition parties and the scandal-loving public, it isn't over yet.
The state’s competitive media has now coined a new term for alternative energy - “Saritha-oorjam” (Saritha energy). It looks like the state doesn't mind revelling in it for now.