Solar fraud: Can Chandy escape the eclipse for long?

Solar fraud: Can Chandy escape the eclipse for long?

A senior Congress leader in Kerala says that even the sharpest of analysts often underestimate the guile and political acuity which make Oommen Chandy what he is – a master tactician with an uncanny ability to rebuild from ruins.

“He’s very unpredictable; he’s in all probability working out a strategy that could make all this clamour for his ouster look very silly,” the leader says, even as pressure mounts on the chief minister to step down in the wake of another round of allegations against him in connection with the solar fraud cases.

Pressure is key here: Chandy has managed to shepherd a discordant ruling coalition in the face of relentless pressure and a series of corruption charges, for a good part of his five-year runtime. The controversies have also brought activities of his family under the scanner. But when reporters asked him on possibilities of his resignation, after a vigilance court ordered a probe against him, the response was quintessential Chandy – “Why should I?”

The vigilance court order has since been stayed, for two months, by the Kerala High Court. The Congress high command has also backed Chandy, though it appears that it is because of the HC order. As the beleaguered chief minister holds on to a two-month extra time, the question to ask is – does he still have it in him to pull off another escape?

It’s a question which also comes with the possibilities of a change in the party’s leadership as Kerala prepares for an Assembly election in about three months. The answer will depend on how well Chandy builds his defence and exposes what he claims is a conspiracy against him, backed by the opposition Left and a lobby of bar owners displeased with the government’s liquor policy.

Saritha S Nair, a key accused in the solar fraud, has deposed before the Judicial Commission probing the scam that she had paid Rs 1.9 crore to Chandy as bribe for decisions favourable to the company she was leading – Team Solar – along with her former partner Biju Radhakrishnan. Even as Chandy responded, characteristically, by stating that his conscience was clear and recalled his willingness to sit before the judicial panel for a marathon 14-hour recording of statement, crucial audio evidence pointing to the CM’s possible connection with the scam accused started doing the rounds.

Thampanoor Ravi, a Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary and a leader identified with the Chandy camp, was heard in a recorded phone conversation, “prompting” Saritha ahead of her deposition at the commission.

“I was asked to stick to the CM’s version,” Saritha said after making fresh revelations of bribery against Chandy. Ravi has clarified that it was Saritha who called him but, significantly, has not disowned contents of the conversation.

The chief minister and his supporters – Minister for Culture K C Joseph, in particular – have tried to counter the allegations by pointing out the dubious credentials of people who are making the charges.

Saritha along with Biju had collected crores of rupees from potential investors in solar and wind energy projects which did not take off, before they were arrested, in 2013. They claimed the projects came with the backing of ministers and Chandy’s office. Biju is serving a life sentence in connection with the murder of his wife.

Chandy had, during the initial stages of outrage over the scam, denied knowing Saritha in person. In his deposition to the judicial commission, he said he “could have met” her three times. The argument over lack of credibility of the scam accused is not convincing, considering that the accused had easy access to the office of the chief minister.

Assembly session

Saritha has claimed that she had access to Chandy’s hotline number and they also had an interaction on a potential renewable energy company with his son at the helm. She has named two prominent Congress leaders – Thampanoor Ravi and MLA Benny Behanan – as Chandy’s “messengers” who offered to help her out of the cases if she kept off revelations of political connections in the scam.

A 30-page letter she had written while in police custody – establishing links of VIPs including ministers with the scam – was allegedly “cut short” to a four-page note after Pradeep Kumar, personal assistant to former minister K B Ganesh Kumar, intervened as Chandy's man.

Ahead of the legislative assembly session which commences this Friday, the CPM-led opposition is preparing for widespread protests against Chandy. CPIM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan says Chandy should step down on moral grounds.

CPM Politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan says it has become difficult to differentiate among corruption scams without going into the details because Chandy features in all of them. The chief minister, however, has already added his own touch to the morality argument; he says it’s his own conscience which steers him, not what others perceive as morality.

Chandy is battling it out on extra time, with the backing from the party’s central leadership. He does raise an important, though largely unexplored, point: there is no hard evidence against him, yet. There is, also, an uncharacteristic sense of calm in his party known for its intense factional interests. Sources in the Congress, however, acknowledge voices within the party against facing the election with a scam-hit chief minister leading the campaign.

The 72-year-old veteran is heading a government which is, arguably, one of the most scrutinised for corruption in the state’s history. When even Chandy’s political adversaries nod to his competence in political manoeuvring, there are men from his own party who do not rule out the inevitability of a reversal in fortunes.

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