When police arrested two promoters of Team Solar, a Kochi-based firm that promised to end Kerala’s power woes by offering solar power solutions, in 2014 many thought it may pass off as one of the numerous cheating cases that the state is all too familiar now.
Instead the case has grown in dimensions with regular revelations of hoary tales of sleaze and corruption by the too ambitious entrepreneurs Saritha S Nair and Biju Radhakrishnan and now offers to add enough spice to the campaign for the Assembly election slated to be held on 16 May.
The Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF), which used the Suryanelli and Kozhikode ice cream parlour sex scandals to prevent the rival United Democratic Front (UDF) from retaining power in 2006 and to contain its majority to one of the lowest in the state’s poll history in 2011, has taken it up along with the bar bribery scam as its most potent weapon to beat UDF's “development and care” poll plank.
The two scams together have put nearly one third of the UDF ministry, including Chief Minister Oommen Chandy himself, in the dock over charges ranging from bribery to sexual exploitation. While Saritha accused Chandy and a former Union Minister of raping her, Biju, who is also her former live-in partner, added two more ministers, an MLA, son of a minister and a senior police officer to the list.
The duo also accused the Chief Minister and two of his ministerial colleagues and a host of MLAs and ruling front leaders of accepting bribe for supporting their business. Saritha alleged that she had paid Rs 1.9 crore to Chandy for making available government land at Palakkad to set up a solar power farm.
The bar bribery scam involved mainly two ministers. While K M Mani resigned as finance minister over the allegation leveled by bar owner Biju Ramesh, Excise Minister K Babu is staying in power on the strength of a stay granted by the High Court into the vigilance court proceedings against him.
Never before in the history of Kerala have so many ministers faced such grave charges of corruption and sexual exploitation. Normally, the scandals of this magnitude are enough to spell the downfall of a government. However, the Oommen Chandy government has survived the storm and nurses the hope of retaining power.
The major reason for the confidence is a victory in a by-election in July last year and the impressive show they put up in the last Lok Sabha election amid the raging scandals. Does this indicate a rejection of the allegations by the electorate, who are normally very sensitive to corruption, and an endorsement of the UDF’s ‘development and care’ slogan?
Political observers believe it is a mix of the two. Political commentator Jacob George said that people may have taken the allegations raised by the solar scam accused with a pinch of salt as they sought to build their empire by cheating and blackmailing people. They are accused in 36 cases related to solar scam alone. Besides, Biju Radhakrishnan is also serving a life-term for murdering his first wife.
Even the High Court has questioned the credibility of Saritha, who has been making contradictory allegations. The court expressed lack of faith in her when she sought a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe against the Chief Minister.
The sexual allegation she made against the Chief Minister raised eyebrows in the state as she had described Chandy father-like only three months ago, when her partner leveled sexual charges against him. Though Biju offered to produce a CD to prove his charge, he could not do so far.
Saritha had also denied Biju’s allegations when he cross-examined her at the judicial commission probing the scam in February. The Chief Minister pointed out that her lawyer had also not raised any reference to the charge during his cross-examination before the Justice Sivarajan Commission.
Chandy believes that Saritha has come out with the allegation after the poll notification at the behest of forces that do not want the UDF to retain power. He has turned the accusing finger at the bar owners, who suffered huge loss following closure of all bars below five-star category under the government’s phased prohibition policy.
Curiously, Chandy spared the Opposition even though Saritha had at one time alleged that Communist Party of India (Marxist) that heads the LDF had offered her Rs. 10 crore for raising allegations against the government.
“Big money centres and interests are behind Saritha’s allegations. Those who can make gains if the UDF suffered in the upcoming Assembly elections are behind it,’’ said the Chief Minister, who has already filed a defamation suit against Saritha and two television channels which aired her allegations.
Jacob thinks that the Opposition's attempt to portray Chandy as an immoral man may not yield them any electoral dividend to them as the latter has not faced any corruption or sexual allegations in his political career spanning more than five decades.
N P Chekutty, another political commentator, thinks such attempt could even boomerang on the Opposition. He said that the type and manner of the allegations against the Chief Minister clearly showed that they were inspired by forces with ulterior motives.
“Chandy was never tainted by personal compromises in his long political career. He was too open always. That was perhaps the only mistake he committed. He has admitted it. No level-headed person in Kerala will believe that Chandy has committed any financial or sexual misdemeanor,” says Chekutty.
He says that it would be difficult for anybody to swallow Saritha’s allegation that she had handed over about Rs. 2 crores to one of his aides in a public place in Delhi. She could not produce any visual or other evidence regarding the bribe so far, he added.
Chekutty said he would not be surprised if the Opposition avoids the solar scam in their election campaign. They have already started playing down the allegations leveled by Saritha and Biju Radhakrishnan.
Chekutty pointed out that there was no dip in the popularity of Chandy despite all these allegations. “People throng him wherever he goes. I don’t think there is any other leader like Chandy who has contacts everywhere from the northern tip of the state to the southern tip.”
In fact, a recent Mathrubhumi-Axis My India pre-poll survey showed that Chandy was the second most popular leader after Opposition leader V S Achuthanandan. He was only one point below Achuthanandan in the survey, which was conducted between 26 February and 13 March. The survey predicted 68 to 74 seats for the LDF and 66 to 72 seats for the UDF.
Both Chekutty and Jacob do not think that the Chief Minister and the UDF are on a safe wicket with regard to the bar bribery charges. They believe that the Opposition has a strong case in not only the bar bribery scam, but also the land scam, which came to the fore towards the fag end of the UDF regime.
“The LDF need not work hard to take home the issue since state Congress Chief V M Sudheeran himself has done their job. His dogged insistence on denying ticket to two ministers and a sitting MLA involved in the scams in itself is a strong indictment of the government,” says Jacob.
The UDF is trying to counter the corruption charges by focusing on the development and welfare measures implemented by the government in the last five years. Kochi Metro, Kannur airport, Vizhinjam container transshipment terminal, Smart City are some of the projects are being flaunted by the UDF.
But with caste and religious combinations changing with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sowing the seed for a Hindu consolidation by stitching together a third front with the help of caste organisations like the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, it is not easy to say whether Kerala will go by the trend of alternating power between the two rival fronts for more than last three decades or buck it.