Solar scam: Will Kerala’s never-ending sleaze drama drown Oommen Chandy?

For nearly three years, some sections of the media and the opposition in Kerala feasted on the sleaze and blackmail threats by Saritha Nair, an alleged con-woman, because it sullied the reputation of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) government, and most importantly the Chief Minister Oomen Chandy’s office. The woman, who had been in jail for several months since her arrest in 2013 for cheating, and spent most of her time shuttling between courts in different parts of the state, made salacious disclosures targeting Congress and UDF politicians and even some ministers.

The media and rival politicians in Kerala called it a “solar scam” and the government instituted an eponymous commission of enquiry.

Three of Chandy’s close aides lost their jobs, and one of them was even arrested, because of their curious proximity to the woman, who had a criminal past. However, she continued to spare the Chief Minister, and kept insinuating the involvement of some other ministers and MLAs without spelling out the clear nature of their relationship with her. But last week, deposing before the commission of enquiry, her primary target was Chandy himself. She said she bribed Chandy (Rs 1.9 crore), that he wanted her to partner with his son in a larger solar project, and that she had unfettered access to him, both at work and at home. She also alleged that she bribed the power minister, who is a close ally of Chandy. Speaking to the media outside the commission’s office, she challenged Chandy to disprove her.

Oommen Chandy. File photo. CNN-IBN

Oommen Chandy. File photo. CNN-IBN

Saritha’s allegations were unexpected because in the past she appeared to have taken great care not to drag Chandy or his family into this muck, although the opposition and some sections of the local media have been manufacturing connections between them. But when she finally made the allegations, everything else she said till then paled into absolute nothingness. Chandy is a veteran, and a chief minister who projects himself as frugal, clean and people-friendly. And it’s his head that the opposition, particularly a sanguineous CPM, has been gunning for. Saritha gave it to them on a platter.

Her deposition before the commission is not yet over; neither is her cross-examination, but Chandy has been deemed guilty and corrupt by the local media and the opposition, particularly the CPM. However, what neither of them have highlighted is that till today, all her allegations have been mere allegations and there hasn’t been a single piece of admissible evidence of Chandy’s involvement other than records of phone calls between Saritha Nair and the staff of his office, and possibly some MLAs and ministers. Apparently, many of these calls are late-night conversations. Moreover, during the last three years, she had made several flip-flops and even more outlandish allegations. Particularly noteworthy among them was her allegation that a top CPM leader promised her Rs 10 crore to implicate Chandy.

Nobody, including the media that run hour-long prime-time discussions every night on the “Solar Scam”, has any clue of what exactly happened other than what’s obvious - that Saritha Nair and her accomplice, a man who is serving life term for killing his wife, cheated people of a few crore rupees promising joint-ownership in some mega solar projects, installation of solar panels and farms, and windmills by demonstrating proximity to the ruling government, its chief minister and other ministers.

From the evidence available in the public domain, all that one can adduce is only this: she got hold of the three men at the chief minister’s office, used them at will, and apparently kept appearing there frequently. She also lost no opportunity to get close to the ministers and MLAs and got them interested in her plans to set up solar plans in their constituencies. She got letters of support and photographs with them, and even got them to freely talk to her on the phone. What the apparently vulnerable men at Chandy’s office, MLAs and ministers - if her claims are true - failed to detect was a carefully laid out blackmail-trap that they had fallen into. Some of them may have easily dropped their guard in their late night conversations. Saritha, in her various interviews had hinted at names who talked dirty with her, which may have been attempts of blackmail and possible extortion.

For three years, she has been claiming possession of evidence - both digital and physical - although nothing has materialised so far. But, for the local media and the CPM, mere allegations are enough to proclaim Chandy as guilty. A few weeks ago, her accomplice Biju Radhakrishnan, took the whole state and the commission for a ride when he made them believe that he had in safe custody a video of Saritha and Chandy having sex, but produced nothing. For several hours, the state’s media showed live the hunt for this video, which involved a six-hour drive to Coimbatore. An undeterred Radhakrishnan continued to claim that he still had the video, and at least two channels - one close to the party and other a failing outfit, headed by a man who is rumoured to be aiming for a CPM seat in the upcoming elections - played it up.

The sudden change of heart of Saritha is curious, and the UDF camp believes it is a result of a conspiracy between the CPM and Kerala’s liquor barons who lost their business because of the state government’s ill-conceived and ill-timed prohibition policy. The CPM has made it clear that prohibition will not be its policy if it comes back to power, clearly hinting that it will roll-back the ban on liquor-bars. Clearly, its return to power is absolutely essential for the survival of the liquor lobby. Saritha also needs a lot of help and money to get out of the legal quagmire that she’s in. If not a conspiracy, there’s certainly a confluence of vested interests in discrediting Chandy and ensuring that the UDF doesn’t get re-elected.

Unless Saritha produces concrete evidence of the involvement of Chandy and his family, her allegations will remain mere slander except for the motivated media and the opposition. The CPM is desperate to sully Chandy because his government recently poured cold water over the chief ministerial ambitions of its former secretary Pinarayi Vijayan by appealing against his discharge from the infamous Lavalin case by a CBI Court. The government chose to fast-track a case, that the CBI should have pursued, to foment legal trouble for Vijayan at the time of the assembly elections. Posting the case for hearing this month, the HC has already expressed its reservations on the CBI court’s discharge of Vijayan. If the HC finally sets aside Vijayan’s discharge, he will have to face trial, which will kill his chief ministerial possibility at least for some time. Firing from Saritha’s shoulders is its blowback.

However, even in the absence of any direct evidence so far, there is certainly something fishy in the the Saritha affair that Chandy and company haven’t come clean on. As the old wisdom goes, there can be no smoke without fire. How can a serial blackmailer with a criminal and slanderous background be so invincible, that too against a veteran politician, who once toppled a veteran from the Emergency era such as K Karunakaran, through bloodless treachery and his ministers? Is it sleaze, money, both or something else? He cannot continue to swear by his “conscience” and get away as he is doing now.

Chandy, his son, the MLAs and ministers who appeared to be on her blackmail list, should take a leaf from the cases of TV presenter David Letterman and entertainer Bill Cosby in America in the late 1990s. Both of them were involved in discreet sexual relationships, but bravely foiled blackmail and extortion efforts by admitting to the charges against them. Both Letterman and Cosby, with huge public images with monetary value to protect, came clean, and sent the blackmailers and extortioners to prosecutors.

It’s time Chandy and his men came clean about their vulnerability because that’s the only way to counter the alleged conspiracy plans of the CPM. If they are indeed guilty, they should be punished - both by courts of law and people.

Updated Date: Feb 01, 2016 14:18 PM

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