By P. Sreekumaran
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Two political explosions in quick succession over the last few days have left the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) Government gasping for survival. After many a false alarm, the stunning developments could well portend the beginning of the unravelling of the Utterly Demoralised Front.
First was the stunning disclosure made by Kerala Congress(B) MLA, K. B. Ganesh Kumar on the floor of the State Assembly against three members of PWD Minister V. K. Ibrahim Kunju’s staff. Kumar levelled serious corruption charges against the threesome. Kunju belongs to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the most powerful ally of the Congress in the ruling UDF. It was an unprecedented event in that it is the first time that an MLA supporting the government has made allegations against the Government in the House.
Stunned IUML leaders have denied the allegations and accused Kumar of making baseless charges out of frustration at not being re-inducted into the state cabinet. The IUML has since forced the Oommen Chandy Government to stop Kumar from attending the UDF Legislature Party meetings in future– punishment for having violated what they called coalition dharma!
The more serious political bomb blast came in the form of an FIR against Finance Minister and KC(M) president, K. M. Mani, filed by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau(VACB) in the infamous bar bribery case. The case is that Mani accepted a bribe of Rs one crore from the Bar Owners Association (BOA) office-bearers to ensure a favourable decision on reopening the closed bars. The FIR says that “The findings of the quick verification necessitate an extensive investigation by registering a case to unearth the entire transactions.” The Vigilance Bureau is learnt to have gathered enough documentary evidence to prove that the Finance Minister has accepted the bribe. What had turned the legal tide against Mani — hinted at earlier in these columns – was the evidence given by the driver of Biju Ramesh, working president of the BOA who first made the allegations against K M Mani, and the accountant. The driver is learnt to have deposed that he took the BOA office-bearers who handed over part of the Rs one crore to Mani. in Biju’s car. The office-bearers had a bag while they were on the way to Mani’s residence, but the bag was missing when they came back after meeting Mani, the driver reportedly deposed.
Worried UDF leaders, including Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala, both belonging to the Congress, and IUML strongman and Industries Minister P K Kunhalikkutty, among others, have launched damage control measures to minimize the impact of the FIR against Mani, which has the potential to cause the collapse of the UDF Government.
The Home Minister has already had a one-one meeting with Mani, who is furious over the filing of the FIR. Ramesh has tried to pacify Mani with the argument that the filing of the FIR was unavoidable as a Supreme Court ruling made it mandatory to file an fir if there is a cognizable offence as in this case; and that the mere filing of an FIR does not mean that Mani has been proved guilty! But Mani is learnt to be far from mollified and sees a conspiracy against him by a section of Congress leaders close to the CM. The ‘conspiracy’, KC(M) leaders close to Mani, say is because Mani has nursed an ambition to become the Chief Minister. By launching the conspiracy, the Mani loyalists claim, the FM’s detractors in the Congress have realized the twin objective: thwarting Mani’s dream of becoming CM with the support of the opposition Left Democratic Front led by the CPI(M), and staved off the threat to Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s gaddi.
The damage control operation has been initiated because Congress leaders are worried about the KC(M)’s future moves. Speculation is rife that the KC(M) could withdraw support to the UDF Government if things become uncomfortable for Mani.
That there are attempts to influence the Vigilance team is clear from a slew of developments. The Advocate General is learnt to have called the vigilance officer who is part of the probe team to his office to tell him to ensure that the probe does not create problems for the government. The concerned officer reportedly informed the Vigilance Director about the development. The VD is learnt to have told the officers not to be intimidated by such pressures and do things strictly according to the law. Such crude attempts to scuttle the probe also amount to contempt of court. So much for the assurance of the Home Minister that there would be no interference with the ongoing investigation!
But damage-control won’t be easy for the mediators for two reasons: first, the High Court is maintaining a hawk-like vigil in the case; secondly, Vigilance Director Vinsen Paul has toughened his stance, armed as he is with the High Court’s virtual grant of autonomy and immunity to him in pursuing the case. The HC order is that the VD need not consult the Government in the matter of taking decisions in the case.
In case the Vigilance Director wilts in view of the unrelenting pressure which is being exerted on him, then Mani could emerge unscathed from the deep political and legal hole he finds himself in at present.
But if the ‘Man of the Moment’ refuses to blink, then it could well be curtains for the UDF Government, which began its innings with a ringing commitment to eradicate corruption, but looks like ending up by putting a premium on corruption and misgovernance.
An alert and aggressive opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) is, however, in no mood to let the government off the hook. The CPI(M)-led LDF has upped the ante by turning up the heat on the government in two ways. The LDF is making things extremely difficult for the beleaguered government inside the Assembly. It has further turned up the heat on the government by making fresh allegations against the Finance Minister. CPI(M) MLAs Sivankutty, Thomas Isaac and CPI MLA V S Sunil Kumar have accused Mani – in writing on the floor of the assembly – of helping various business houses by ‘tweaking taxes’. Also, outside the assembly, the LDF has resorted to an agitation which is likely to be intensified if the Finance Minister fails to resign.
Whatever the denouement, the coming days could see the political temperature going up further and the tense political stand-off coming to a head. (IPA Service)