Even as the political landscape of Kerala is dominated by a fresh round of controversies thrown up by the solar scam and bar bribery scandal, the southern state is all set for another high voltage battle for grabbing the reins of power. The rival political formations – the Congress led United Democratic Front (UDF), The CPI(M) led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the BJP’s National Democratic Front (NDA)- are using “revelations” from these scandals as ammunition in the run up to the assembly polls, scheduled for May 16.
Scandals involving women, liquor barons and politicians of all hues are nothing new to Kerala. An uproar over an accident of the car in which late home minister P T Chacko was travelling allegedly with a “mysterious woman” as early as in 1964 is just one among such scurrilous episodes in the state’s political history. Fading this “accident” from public memory was the 1994 ISRO espionage case involving a Maldivian national – Mariam Rasheeda – whose alleged links with the powers-that-be effectively dislodged Congress strongman and then chief minister K Karunakaran into political wilderness.
Never before as now, women with scandalous and dubious distinctions have held sway over the state’s public domain. For, a woman named Sarita S. Nair has achieved an “envious” position in Kerala’s socio-political ambit dominating the state’s political discourse and dictating the media agenda. “Clearly”, points out CPI(M) politburo member M A Baby, “Kerala is no longer a state which once had a pride of place in the country, as a state which sparkled with high renaissance socio-cultural values born out of the movements of Sree Narayana Guru, Mahatma Ayyankali and energizing leftist consciousness which resulted in the first ever democratically elected communist government in the world.”
The former culture minister added, “Kerala was also a state which prided on its highly sensitized media culture”.
The recent socio-political events unfolding in the state have set off a cultural churning turning Kerala into a society which greedily feeds upon the salacious words and deeds of the ilk of Sarita and which does not care two hoots for any substantive discourse in matters related to the public realm. The frenzied reaction of political parties and the media over anything related to Sarita Nair and such dubious figures gives the impression that there are no other issues of serious consequence in the state. Every day “revelations” by Sarita or someone close to the powers-that-be, now grab the headlines. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the media reporting corruption involving the high and the mighty.
The series of bribery allegations leveled by liquor baron Biju Ramesh against former finance minister K M Mani, excise minister K Babu, home minister Ramesh Chennithala and health minister V S Sivakumar certainly warrant public and media attention. However, the CPI (M) led opposition’s unbridled eagerness, to accept these allegations as cardinal truths rather than subjecting them to investigation and accepted legal scrutiny, has left the ruling class and their rivals locked in a war of words leaving the general masses in utter confusion even as they eagerly wait to deliver the assembly poll verdict once again.
Similar is the case with “revelations” by Sarita and her former partner Biju Radhakrishnanan, who is serving a prison term for the murder of his first wife, regarding chief minister Oommen Chandy, his son Chandy Oommen, an array of UDF ministers, legislators and coalition leaders close to the CM for allegedly accepting fiscal and sexual favours from Sarita for extending governmental support to the Team Solar company floated by the duo. The whole polity and the legal mechanism became a laughing stock when a commission probing the solar scam deputed a police team with Biju Radhakrishnan to Coimbatore to retrieve a compact disc containing sleazy pictures allegedly involving Sarita Nair and a section of the leaders of the ruling coalition.
This does not, however, rule out the possibility of shady dealings in Kerala’s corridors of power between the solar fraudsters and liquor barons on one side and the corrupt ministers of the UDF government and close confidantes of the CM on the other side. There is no doubt that as CM, Ommen Chandy did not exercise the wisdom gained over his long political career, landing his Congress party and the UDF government in many an avoidable controversy including the solar scam and the bar bribery scandal.
However, the attempts of the opposition LDF camp and the BJP on the sidelines conveniently overlooking the ongoing judicial process and to present everything uttered by the solar scam accused and the liquor barons as proven litany of charges, is only helping the government to tide over the situation, dismissing the allegations as “unfounded and politically motivated.” With the overzealous media, especially television channels and social media, attempting to paint Sarita as some kind of a Joan of Arc and Biju Ramesh as a Robin Hood besides the general public waiting to gulp it avidly, the whole legacy of Kerala’s reputed socio-political consciousness seems to have been blown to smithereens.
The LDF opposition, which is already beginning to feel the warmth of power, is banking heavily on the ‘never ending revelations’ by the fraudsters. “This”, concede a section of observers of left parties like N M Pearson and Umesh Babu, “has exposed the chinks in the left front’s armory particularly when confronting the argument that the LDF has nothing credible to offer as an alternative to the fallen UDF camp”. According to Pearson, “with no focused vision on bringing about development initiatives which would not further jeopardize the already fragile environmental balance of the state, the LDF seems to be solely hoping on grabbing power through the ongoing solar and bar scandals”.
Even veteran Marxist and former CM VS Achuthanandan seems to have buried his differences with his bête noir and former CPI(M) state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan when it comes to towing the UDF line of development initiatives, especially when propagating the LDF’s development agenda during the political road shows in the run up to the assembly polls. Despite the professed bonhomie between the two Marxist veterans brought in by the intervention of CPI(M) central leaders especially party general secretary Sitaram Yechury, the factional feud gripping the communist party in Kerala appears to be rearing its head yet again, as the process of seat sharing and candidate selection is currently on. Undoubtedly, the official faction led by party strongman and CM hopeful Pinarayi Vijayan has gone all out to keep Achutanandan loyalists out of the CPI(M)’s candidate list. Vijayan, has also craftily handled the seat-sharing with other LDF partners with an eye on minimizing the support for Achutanandan in the post-poll scenario. With his eyes set on the Chief Minister’s chair, Pinarayi, known for his “Stalinist style of functioning” in the CPI(M), as his critics see it, appears to be daringly setting the stage for an open confrontation with the party’s central leadership especially with Yechury, in the post-poll scenario.
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has been fervently pleading with the warring leaders of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) to “bury their hatchet at least till the election”. The central leadership including party president Sonia Gandhi has been talking to all UDF leaders in Kerala to contain the malaise within the ruling coalition and retain power in the state by bringing about a cease fire especially in the Congress’ faction driven ranks in the state. “The unity in the Congress and within the UDF”, says Congress veteran and former defence minister A K Antony, “will turn the political heat on the opposition LDF in the ensuing assembly polls because the Congress led UDF in Kerala can be defeated only by the infighting within its own ranks.”
Despite such optimism and exhortations by the central leaders, fratricidal war seems to be mounting every day among the three factions led by KPCC chief V M Sudheeran, chief minister Oommen Chandy and home minister Ramesh Chennithala. In a bid to contain the increasing influence of KPCC president Sudheeran, known for his proximity to party central leadership, CM Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala has been reportedly closing ranks especially with regard to matters pertaining to the ongoing selection of Congress candidates. With Sudheeran publically picking holes in the UDF government’s recent “controversial decisions” pertaining to land allotments to religious groups and real estate companies, the infighting within the ruling coalition seems to have reached a crescendo, threatening to upset the UDF dream of retaining power.
Significantly, unlike in the past, this time around the BJP led NDA, having made impressive political gains in last year’s local body elections, is in a fighting mode. Having the reins of power at the Centre and winning the support of several Hindu communal organisations including the newly floated Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a political outfit of influential Ezhava leader and SNDP general secretary Vellapalli Natesan, the BJP seems to be working hard and hoping to at least open its account in the Kerala assembly. “The BJP and its NDA partners are fighting to wrest power and not just open its account in the Kerala assembly. We hope to script a significant and historical electoral history this time as we are sure to wrest a number of assembly seats from the UDF and the LDF in the coming assembly election,” asserts the newly appointed BJP state chief Kummanam Rajashekharan. Although the claim could sound exaggerated, analysts like S R Hariharan feel, “the BJP-BDJS combine could cause major poll upsets to the UDF and the LDF especially in assembly segments spread in the extreme north and south of Kerala”.
With the poll fever steadily rising, Kerala is also witnessing an unprecedented and rising degree of polarization on religious and social lines as against the halcyon days of a secular consciousness that prevailed in the state till the 1980s. With leaders of various socio-religious groups mounting pressure demanding their pound of flesh, all the three political formations – the UDF, the LDF and the NDA – seem to have been pushed to the back-foot to tow their line to a large extent especially in their candidate selection. The rise of the communal outfits of all hues bear witness to the fast waning secular credential of the Kerala society, which is attempting to cope with the changing socio-religious thinking and pattern of living coming up in a deeply divided, but pluralistic society. The ensuing assembly polls, no doubt, will usher in significant changes in the socio-political realm of Kerala.