The Front Lines

Kerala’s chief minister attempts to overcome a wave of corruption allegations

Oommen Chandy, who for the past five decades has been consistently elected to the assembly from his home constituency, is one of the few popular Congress chief ministers in India. vipin kumar / hindustan times / getty images
01 April, 2016

On 27 January, Kerala’s chief minister, Oommen Chandy, was grilled for 14 continuous hours about the “solar scam” that has rocked the state for the past three years. None of Kerala’s 13 former chief ministers had ever endured such a public ordeal. It was a low point for Chandy, who heads the state’s Congress-led United Democratic Front government, and who has had a nearly spotless five-decade-long political career.

These interrogations—conducted by G Sivarajan, a retired high court judge who heads the judicial commission probing the scam—pertained to the close contact between Chandy’s office and the businesswoman Saritha Nair. Three years earlier, Nair had been accused of cheating hundreds of people of crores through a fraudulent company dealing in solar panels.

Two of Chandy’s aides had already been arrested before he came under scrutiny himself. The main allegation against the chief minister, which he denies, is that he introduced Nair and her partners to politicians and bureaucrats, thus helping them carry out their scam.

The day after Chandy’s deposition, Nair dropped a bombshell on the chief minister by telling the commission that she had paid him a bribe of Rs 1.9 crore for his help. Immediately after this revelation, a court in Thrissur ordered a probe against Chandy and his power minister. The next day, though, the state high court stayed the probe for two months, giving Chandy some much-needed respite in the run-up to the state election, to be held in May. But Nair’s allegations, and an earlier scandal pertaining to bribes allegedly paid for bar licences, had left Chandy’s government in murky waters.

Chandy seemed unruffled, repeatedly saying his conscience was clear. “All the allegations are baseless,” he said in a February speech at the launch of the UDF’s electoral campaign in Thiruvananthapuram. “Kerala will vote us back on the basis of unprecedented development projects.” Plunging into campaign mode, he sought to shift attention away from questions of corruption and focussed on development work, such as the Rs 1,500-crore Smart City project and the Rs 6,000-crore Metro rail in Kochi, the Rs 7,000-crore Vizhinjam harbour project and the Rs 3,000-crore international airport at Kannur. Most of the projects Chandy spoke about were actually started by the previous government under the Left Democratic Front—which ruled Kerala from 2006 to 2011. Chandy had then carried many of these forward to more advanced stages.

Chandy’s optimism that voters in the upcoming election will focus solely on development might be misplaced. A pre-election opinion survey conducted during the first week of February by the Malayalam television channel Asianet News—of which I am the editor—predicted a debacle for the ruling UDF, with more than 70 percent of 15,778 respondents saying that corruption would be the most important issue. Kerala is no stranger to such anti-incumbency sentiment; control of the state has swung back and forth between the UDF and the LDF almost unfailingly for the past four decades. But this election, which will pit a scandal-weakened UDF against its usual LDF opposition, will be different from previous ones due to the presence of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has so far been largely absent from Kerala’s politics.

The Congress high command, weakened since it lost control of the centre in 2014, has not acted against Chandy in the way it has against former chief ministers. In 1994, when the then chief minister K Karunakaran faced charges of involvement in an espionage case centred on the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Congress prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, replaced him with AK Antony. In 2004, after the UDF was routed in the state’s Lok Sabha election, Sonia Gandhi, who had assumed leadership of the Congress, ensured that Antony yielded the chief-ministership to Chandy.

Today, Chandy, who for the past five decades has been consistently elected to the assembly from his home constituency, Puthupapally, is one of few popular Congress chief ministers in the country. He has a strong support base among Kerala’s middle and upper classes, and also among minority communities, who form 42 percent of population.

Within the UDF alliance, the support for Chandy was evident in the lack of dissent or criticism from its members, such as the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (M). In the past, these allies have flexed their muscles from time to time to influence Congress leaders. But Chandy has astutely managed his relationships with these groups, as well as several others. Even in February, when he was neck-deep in the solar scam, he had no qualms about letting the revenue department issue an order gifting a combined 19 acres of property to various groups, including churches, the Nair Service Society and the OBC Ezhavas’ Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalanayoga.

The only sign of the high command’s discomfort with Chandy came in mid February, when Rahul Gandhi visited Thiruvanathapuram to kick off the UDF’s campaign. In Kerala elections, the Congress usually declares a campaign leader, who is appointed chief minister if the alliance wins. This time, however, Gandhi announced that the UDF campaign would be collectively led by Chandy and the state’s home minister, Ramesh Chennithala, and the president of the state’s party unit, VM Sudheeran, leaving the choice of chief minister open.

The LDF, meanwhile, hopes for a reprise of Kerala’s traditional alternation between the two fronts. Within this alliance, an intense rivalry continues to play out, between the veteran Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders VS Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan. While 92-year-old Achuthanandan remains the state’s most popular leader, Vijayan dominates the party organisation. In the past two assembly polls, the state leadership had, at first, denied tickets to Achuthanandan in order to prevent him from becoming chief minister. But on both occasions, a public furore had forced the CPI(M) politburo to overrule the state party’s decision, and let Achuthanandan contest. Vijayan did not run in those elections, and Achuthanandan served as chief minister in 2006, until the UDF took power in 2011, after which he became the opposition leader.

This time, too, it appeared at first that Achuthanandan would not contest, and that, if the Left won, Vijayan, who launched the LDF campaign in mid February, would be appointed chief minister. But the former’s hopes were kept alive by Sitaram Yechury, who replaced Prakash Karat as the CPI(M)’s general secretary in April last year, and who is an admirer of Achuthanandan. In early March, the CPI(M) politburo thwarted Vijayan’s hopes of riding smoothly to the throne when it decided that both the leaders would contest the election. On 13 March, the CPI(M) state committee overwhelmingly voted to endorse the politburo’s decision to let both men contest—leaving open the question of who would become chief minister if the LDF were to win. “We do not decide CM candidate in advance,” Yechury, who led that meeting, told the media afterwards. “Let the decision come after the election.”

The newly strengthened position of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Kerala makes this year’s election considerably more unpredictable than previous ones. The BJP hopes to make inroads into the state, where it has never won an assembly or Lok Sabha seat. The results of various recent contests—including the by-election to the Neyyattinkara assembly seat in 2014, the Lok Sabha election in 2014, and the local bodies election in 2015—show that the BJP has begun to eat into the two major alliances’ vote banks. The Congress wrested Neyyattinkara from the CPI(M) largely due to the nearly fourfold rise in the BJP’s vote share in the constituency—from 6.1 percent in 2011 to 23.6 percent. Later, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP’s vote share rose from the 6 percent it received in 2009 to more than 10 percent. The BJP’s performance was best in Thiruvananthapuram, where its candidate, O Rajagopal, came a close second behind the Congress’s Shashi Tharoor, with a rise in vote share of 21 percentage points. At the municipal and local levels, too, the BJP’s influence is growing: the party’s tally of seats in village panchayats rose from 450 in 2010 to 933 in 2015, and in city corporations rose from nine in 2010 to 51 in 2015.

Though the battle between the LDF and the UDF will remain the central contest in this election, the rise of the BJP has complicated the usual swing between the alliances. Even if the BJP doesn’t win any seats, it has established itself firmly enough in most constituencies to influence the outcome of the election. And the fact that some of the BJP’s recent gains have come largely at the cost of Left votes could offer some immediate hope to the embattled Chandy.