Nobody in Kerala, not even the Congress, would have thought that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan would prove himself to be a bundle of contradictions this fast. The man who campaigned against the lack of transparency and alleged cronyism of the Oomen Chandy government is now a big symbol of both afflictions.
Worse still is that while Chandy looked for ways to trick the people with his mild manners, Vijayan is brazening it out.
Two controversies, real controversies, surround Vijayan government, or rather Vijayan himself. First, he is refusing to obey the orders of the chief information commissioner who has asked the government to make public the decisions of his cabinet meetings; and second, his honorary legal advisor is also the advisor of many suspected lawbreakers that the state is seeking to prosecute.
In simple terms of democratic governance, both denote blatant impropriety. Right to Information was a major breakthrough that began to clear the rot in Indian democracy and offered some hope against corruption and political immorality. The CPM was a big beneficiary of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in Kerala because many of their battles against the Chandy government rode on the information gathered by the media and the public using the Act.
Pushed to wall by the media and RTI activists, Chandy had even issued an order in the final days of his government not to disclose details of the vigilance cases against his officials and ministers. Vijayan was at his acrimonious best then and had charged that Chandy was hiding behind secrecy out of fear. Chandy was scared that he would be driven out by people if they saw his true colours, Vijayan had said.
Had there been no RTI or media leaks from the reformists within the Congress, Vijayan would have been short on ammunition and probably the Left Front wouldn’t have managed its present majority. The same Vijayan is now emulating Chandy’s secretive ways and is justifying them too.
Chandy had become secretive only at the end of his term, but Vijayan wants to install an iron curtain right from the beginning and seemingly doesn’t care about the public outcry and mounting media pressure. Chandy had been extremely accessible, held media briefings after every cabinet meeting, and freely gave interviews. In contrast, Vijayan scrapped the long-held tradition of post-cabinet press briefings with the excuse that public relations was not the job of his office, and blocked the reach of the RTI Act.
That his government will contest the chief information commissioner’s order in court rather than disclose the details of his cabinet decisions smacks either of an anxiety that totalitarian, including communist, regimes always betrayed, or a total disregard for the principles of democracy and governance. Opposition will be completely justified if they allege that this obsession with opacity is a cover for corruption, cronyism and illegality. In the UN book, transparency is one of the defining principles of democratic governance. As a party that picked on Chandy’s lack of transparency and misconduct, the CPM should have gone one step ahead by even submitting its government’s performance to public audit. Unfortunately, it began by cowering under pressure for transparency.
The other controversy is equally baffling. He has appointed a top Kerala lawyer, MK Damodaran, as his honorary legal advisor, who also appears for people against whom the government has filed cases. In simple terms, he is the lawyer for both the plaintiff and the defendant. While advising Vijayan, he is also appearing for the accused in corruption and criminal cases — such as an alleged illegal lottery operator, the quarry lobby and even a Congress-leader involved in a scam — against whom the government has to make a strong legal case. A simple case of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.
People in the state and the media see an obvious conflict of interest and impropriety, but Vijayan, his party and its proxies don’t see it that way. According to them, the advise is only for Vijayan and the government doesn’t pay because the service is free. However, there is no satisfactory answer to the question of conflict of interest. In fact, Vijayan, his party and the proxies, don’t see a conflict at all. They are certain that there is no elephant in the room.
They also don’t have a satisfactory answer to the question as to why the chief minister needs a separate official advisor, on the rank of a principal secretary, when he has the whole state apparatus that includes the advocate general, the law secretary and the law department.
Vijayan is also under fire for appointing a director general of prosecution (DGP) who has a pending case of financial misappropriation against him. He has defended him and rejected opposition demands for dropping him saying that the DGP was only a signatory to a decision by the board of directors of a company and has done nothing wrong himself. Legal experts point out that this is bad in law and by this procedural yardstick, some allegations against the Chandy government too could have been explained away.
Vijayan has only begun and has already demonstrated a certain self-righteousness that when displayed by Oomen Chandy was dubbed as a cover for corruption and immorality. In fact, Chandy’s decline started when he clammed up after a glorious and extended honeymoon. Sadly, Vijayan seems to be starting from the point where Chandy began to slide.