There is no other issue that has weighed down the Pinarayi Vijayan government in Kerala as much as nepotism. It has hardly been fifteen months since the Communist Party of India-Maxist (CPM) led LDF government took the reins in Kerala but yet another minister faces charges of nepotism.
KK Shailaja, Minister for Health & Social Welfare, could become the latest casualty as pressure mounts on her to quit over what even the Kerala High Court observed as blatant abuse of power and nepotism in appointing a CPM man with 12 criminal cases against him and others close to the ruling party as members at the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR), overlooking other eligible candidates.
As the minister refuses to budge, the Opposition led by the Congress had been stalling the proceedings of the house over the past week.
That Shailaja is the second minister in the present cabinet to face nepotism charges, after EP Jayarajan who resigned in October 2016, is indeed an unprecedented situation. Never in the history of any Left government in Kerala had such an unsavoury situation arisen where inside the first two years itself, ministers have been charged with nepotism and abuse of power.
A single bench of the Kerala High Court, while staying the appointment observed, “...it has come out that the additional third respondent who is appointed as a member of the Commission is an active worker of the political party which is in power in the state, the only inference possible is to hold that the enlargement of the time limit by the minister was intended to appoint the additional third respondent as member of the Commission and the same was not an excise of power in good faith for the purpose for which power was conferred on the minister."
The division bench of the high court later expunged the highly damaging remarks made against the minister by the single bench, citing the technicality that the minister was neither an official party to the case nor was she heard before the court made such remarks.
But the heat is on the minister since it is very clear that impropriety had certainly been committed. Legal experts feel it would not be a surprise if she gets impleaded too in due course of time.
The gravity of the situation could perhaps be understood in the desperation shown by the Additional Advocate General, who appeared on behalf of the state, when he pleaded first with the single bench and then the divisional bench to remove the adverse remarks, stating that the minister will have no option but to resign if the remarks stayed.
Just when it seemed Shailaja’s day had been saved by the removal of the comments from the judgment, matters took an uglier turn on Thursday with the Lok Ayukta registering a case against the minister following a complaint from the leader of the Opposition in the House Ramesh Chennithala.
“The high court might have expunged the adverse comments as per the request of the government. But that in no way takes away the seriousness of the malpractice committed by the minister. The Congress will not rest till the minister resigns. There can be no compromise on this," Congress MLA and vice-president of the party VD Satheesan told Firstpost.
With the Lok Ayukta making it clear that prima facie the charges of nepotism and abuse of power against the minister look good enough for an investigation, there are tough days ahead for Shailaja.
Many activists are ready to give the benefit of doubt to the minister as far as corruption is concerned because Shailaja has the tag of an honest politician. But they say the minister’s problem lies elsewhere.
“It is very unlikely that Shailaja would have personally benefited from this. But rather, she would have just implemented what the party wanted her to do. Whenever the Left comes to powers, often ministers are found to be such puppets which work from with orders from the AKG Center (party HQ). But then too, there was some efficiency around it. Such blatant promotions of persons with criminal precedence because they happen to be party members have never been seen before," noted political commentator NM Pearson told Firstpost.
The CPM meanwhile is backing Shailaja to the hilt, not just inside the State Assembly but outside it too.
“There are so many people who would love Shailaja to resign on this issue. I can only say that such people are only daydreaming. The minister will not resign on this matter come what may," CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan told mediapersons on Thursday.
The case against Shailaja
It was on 8 November, 2016 that the government called for applications for appointment of members at the KSCPCR. The notification clearly said that 5 pm of 30 November would be the last chance to submit the forms and that no application would be entertained after that at any cost.
But on 12 January, 2017, the government issued another notification saying that the deadline had been extended to 20 January.
Jasmine Alex, working as teacher at the School of Indian Legal Thought at the Mahatma Gandhi University, who had put in her application, was a bit taken aback by this second notification because the intial government notification was based on the assumption of the number of vacancies that would arise at the Commission beginning 7 January. Hence, there was no logic in extending the deadline which meant getting more applications, which in turn would affect the entire selection process. So she decided to challenge it.
She approached the Kerala High Court, which found truth in her argument after closely scrutinising the whole process. The Court on 19 January asked the government not to finalise appointment as per the second notification and on 7 April asked the state for the detailed list.
But in spite of the stay, the government went ahead with the appointment on 2 May, much to the shock of the judiciary which later on found that the entire process was sabotaged at the behest of the minister to include a party man and a few others close to the party.
The court took no time in annulling the entire process and came down heavily on the minister who had pushed the application dates to accommodate and favour the new candidates. Nepotism was too obvious to be overlooked in this situation.
Many say that appointing someone with 12 criminal cases, of which 6 are still pending, in an area as delicate as child rights is not only a blatant violation of the International Convention of Rights of a Child (to which India is a signatory) but also against the rules of the Child Rights Act 2005.
It also showed that the minister was actually subverting the law at her will, though the AG argued that he had committed the error of not informing the minister of the stay from the court, an argument the court took with a pinch of salt.
“See, it was very clear that date has been changed to include persons close to the ruling party but with no credentials and the court readily agreed to our claim. Also, the court found merit in our argument that a qualified person like Jasmine was left out because she had approached the court from the beginning. This is just outright nepotism," said Advocate Santosh Mathew, Alex’s lawyer.
A tale of goof-ups
It is not just the present fiasco that has come to haunt Shailaja. Rather, Shailaja’s has been a tale of goof-ups.
The inability of the health department under her to foresee fever and vector-borne diseases taking control over the state in the last few months so much so that the deaths due to dengue and other fever-related cases had risen to unseen numbers, speaks of her total inefficiency.
Many feel that the health department caught completely off-guard with their preparedness in dealing with such crisis only reflects on the poor managerial skills of the minister.
Monsoon is usual annual phenomenon in Kerala and the vector-borne diseases have been a part and parcel of the changing climatic conditions in the state. But in spite of knowing what is likely to happen, the health department failed to kick off its preventive measures in close cooperation with other departments.
“There is no surprise that Shailaja is caught in a nepotism issue. It reflects the terrible unprofessional attitude of the minister and the way she has conducted her office. How will you otherwise explain the appointment of a person with 12 criminal cases? Was the minister sleeping when the files came infront of her? People are dying of fever, but the state doesn’t even care. Look at how the medical colleges admission has been in total shambles," noted activist advocate A Jayashankar told Firstpost.
This was perhaps the same question that the high court raised regarding the admissions to self-financing private medical colleges.
Here too, the Directorate of Medical Education, which had to facilitate the admission of students based on the National Eligibility & Entrance Test (NEET), sat on the procedures for months till the high court gave a rap on knuckles, asking if the government was dilly-dallying the whole process so as to derail the admissions and help the college managements sell seats at a higher rate to students after many remain empty.
The uniform fee structure for students on merit quota to self-financing colleges was fixed at Rs 5 lakh by the fee regulatory body which was then ratified by the Kerala High Court in July.
But the Association of Self-Financing Private Medical Colleges went to the Supreme Court and managed to get an order increasing the fees to Rs 11 lakh before the government could finish the admission process.
It is here that many, including the Opposition parties, allege that the government had colluded with the private colleges by giving them enough time to get an order from Supreme Court. The contention of the private colleges association was that the government had entered into an agreement with two colleges differently where fees were revised to Rs 11 lakh, making the Supreme Court ruling in favour of the association.
Here, the allegation against the government is that it had concealed information that those two colleges had a ‘slab-based’ fee structure where the rest of the fees were as low as Rs 25 thousand, and Rs 2 lakh in the place of others which had a uniform 5 lakh fee structure.
With the government keeping quiet, the apex court had no idea about it.
Armed with the new orders, the association jeopardised the admission process, causing distress to a number of students and the government stood a silent spectator. “See, we will have to concede without doubt that the health department has been a complete disaster and the minister a laughing stock for one error after another. Nepotism is just the tip of the iceberg. People have been dying everyday because of fever and this minister has not been able to do anything to arrest it. Its just gross inefficiency and most of us feel because the minister is caught somewhere in between protecting the interest of the party and governance of her department," veteran journalist Sunnykutty Abraham told Firstpost.
Updated Date: Aug 29, 2017 14:31 PM