It was public knowledge that Kerala chief minister Oomen Chandy’s hurried decision to ban alcohol in the state was not out of his concern for people’s health and welfare, but because of political expedience. The president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) VM Sudheeran was looming large over him and prohibition was his pet topic.
A decision without any serious thinking in a state, where liquor money funded both politics and government, was doomed to fail. Within three months of the decision, Chandy’s policy has been weakened by a few court interventions, and now the government has decided to review the prohibition plan.
Perhaps totally unexpected, the biggest damage is collateral. The state finance minister and one of the senior most politicians KM Mani, has been caught in the crossfire between the liquor lobby and the government. Liquor contractors in November had charged that he demanded Rs five crore and that they gave him one crore. On Thursday, the state vigilance department filed a case against him. They will now investigate Mani.
A vigilance case against a minister for bribery is unprecedented in the state, that too against the leader of the second most important constituent of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF).
The charges against Mani were first raised by liquor contractors last month when the working president of Kerala Bar Owners’ Association, Biju Ramesh, alleged that the former had demanded money to keep open the 418 bars that the government had closed early this year. He alleged that out of the Rs 5 crore, one crore had been paid in two instalments at the minister’s home.
He and other office bearers of the Association persisted with the charges although they appeared to waver under pressure. It was promptly followed up the opposition leader VS Achuthanandan, who wrote to the government asking for a vigilance investigation.
Mani’s party, the Kerala Congress, while defending the finance minister, justifiably suspected a grand conspiracy. Not surprisingly, their prime suspect was none other than Oomen Chandy. Under excessive pressure to clear his name, he went to the extent of saying that there was no need for any investigation because Mani was above board. However, according to a Supreme Court verdict, corruption complaints against public servants have to be investigated within a certain period of time.
Now Mani’s ignominy cannot be erased easily and he must be fuming. To have an FIR, which accuses him of accepting a bribe from the liquor traders, is a smear that will haunt him for a long time. Reportedly, additional evidence such as an entry in the minutes of the Bar Association meeting and testimonies by several witnesses make the case against Mani strong.
Mani is certainly unsettled, although he doesn’t show it. He also thinks it’s the result of a conspiracy although he wouldn’t spell out if it’s from within the UDF or outside.
For a leader with such an illustrious political career - the longest serving legislator in Kerala who has presented the state budget 12 times - the vigilance case is highly disgraceful. The suspicions of a conspiracy is heightened by the coincidence that the charges came at a time when there was hints that the CPM was trying to induce him with the promise of chief ministership, a post that his supporters feel he richly deserved.
Although Mani always rejected the suggestion, the CPM leaders were soft in their response to the charges against him. They spared him from direct attacks while Achuthanandan made it difficult for them to keep quiet by repeatedly targeting Mani. The CPM now will have to roll back its plans.
Mani’s Kerala Congress has been a demanding ally of the Congress in the UDF. Now, they too will be forced to be less belligerent.
Whether the charges are genuine or are politically motivated, it’s both good and bad for Chandy. He will be viewed with intense suspicion by Mani and his supporters, but at the same time, he will have a slightly disarmed ally to deal with. It will also send some messages to Muslim League, which is the second biggest party in the UDF after the Congress, to fall in line. The lone MLA of another ally, a former minister, has already raised serious corruption charges against the public works minister from the Muslim League.
With corruption charges grounding both the big allies within the coalition, Chandy may have some respite for some time.
Updated Date: Dec 12, 2014 16:03:26 IST