Above: VS Achuthanandan has taken on the corrupt, both inside and outside his party/Photo: Praveenp/wikimedia.org
The Kerala High Court order in the matter is a thumbs-up to former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan in his relentless battle against corruption
By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram
A day after he stepped down as the Opposition leader in the Kerala assembly on May 22, 2016, VS Achuthanandan—VS, as he is popularly referred to—had said that he would continue his relentless fight against corruption and communalism until his last breath. Though the words seemed like the swan song of a 95-year-old politician, those who were aware of VS’s tenacity and dogged spirit knew that he could never be taken lightly.
Recently, VS proved that there is a lot of spunk left in him when the Kerala High Court impleaded former Kerala Finance Minister KM Mani in the petition filed by VS, who is now the chairman of the state Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC). The Commission is challenging the directive of the Vigilance Court to obtain prior government sanction for conducting further investigations in the bar bribery case.
It is VS’s contention that the bar bribery case was registered in 2014 at a time when no prior sanction from the government was required for further investigations. The High Court has posted the next hearing to November 15 in the case filed by Mani against the continued investigation.
The Vigilance Court, in its order, had asked him to obtain prior sanction in accordance with the recent amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act.
The amended provisions, which came into force on July 26, 2018, do not apply to the facts of the present case, his petition stated.
By challenging the Court’s order at this juncture, VS, in fact, is taking on his old disciple and current bête noire, state Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who introduced the amendment to the Act to make it tougher for ordinary citizens to bring the accused in corruption cases to justice. During his long political career, VS had to battle political bigwigs, including Mani, ministers R Balakrishna Pillai and PK Kunhalikutty, and Vijayan. By announcing that he would continue to fight against corruption, VS made it clear that he would not hesitate to fight the tainted even in his own party. Read Vijayan, an accused in the SNC Lavalin corruption case.
There is a reason his pursuit of Mani is relentless. Ever since Mani was forced to resign from the Oommen Chandy cabinet in 2015 after the bar bribery scandal, the CPI(M) leadership, especially Vijayan, had been wooing Mani into the CPI(M)-led LDF fold with an eye on the substantial Christian votes in central Kerala where the party is weak. But the resistance from the CPI and VS was a major roadblock.
Vijayan, in turn, laid a trap into which his one-time guru walked. After ensuring that VS was stripped of every important post in the party, including the CPI(M) Politburo and Central Committee membership, Vijayan offered him the ARC chairmanship which he accepted. In one stroke, Vijayan had neutralised VS, and even managed to dent his image. “It should be noted that the ARC was constituted just to accommodate him, incurring a huge burden on the state’s exchequer. With two retired chief secretaries as commission members and a former additional chief secretary as member secretary and all of them drawing huge salaries, perks and claiming other paraphernalia, the state has to shell out over Rs 300 crore for five years for literally doing nothing of use to the public. It is against this backdrop that VS’s so-called fight against Mani has to be seen,” a senior CPI(M) leader told India Legal.
The graft charge against Mani was raised by the bar owners association’s working president, Biju Ramesh, who had alleged that Mani had demanded Rs 5 crore as bribe and accepted Rs 1 crore for reopening around 400 closed foreign liquor bars. As the LDF and BJP launched a strong agitation, seeking Mani’s resignation, the Chandy government tried to protect him. The opposition’s efforts to stop Mani from presenting the annual budget in 2015 also resulted in mayhem in the assembly. It was the adverse observations of the High Court that prompted him to resign. But the vigilance department under the UDF and LDF governments tried to save Mani from the charges.
The LDF government under Vijayan, which had come to power through launching a series of agitations in the bar bribery scandal showed little interest in continuing with the case. Instead, it opened all the closed bars.
It was a setback to the former finance minister when the Thiruvananthapuram Vigilance Court rejected the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau report giving him a clean chit in the bar bribery case. Inquiry commissioner and special judge (Vigilance)
D Ajithkumar refused to accept the agency’s report and directed that further investigation into the case be carried out after getting necessary sanction from the government under the new amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act.
VS has a legacy of hunting his political opponents by dragging them to courts. It was his 18-year-long legal fight in the Edamalayar power project case that culminated in the Supreme Court sentencing then power minister and Kerala Congress (B) leader R Balakrishna Pillai to one year of rigorous imprisonment. It was during VS’s stint as opposition leader that he pursued Muslim League leader and minister PK Kunhalikutty in the icecream parlour sex racket case. Kunhalikutty had to resign from the cabinet. It was again VS who pursued his own disciple and party strongman, Vijayan, in the SNC Lavalin corruption case. And it was VS who brought to public attention the large-scale encroachment on pristine shola forests of Mathikettan by land grabbers in Idukki district in 2002. The involvement of Mani’s family members in this case was made public by VS who racheted up public opinion against the former finance minister.
It was on the floor of the assembly in 2016 that VS unleashed a scathing attack on Mani as he sought his arrest in the bar bribery case. Quoting from the Bible, he taunted the deeply religious and church-going Mani, “What does it mean to gain the whole world but lose your soul?”
Even at this ripe age, VS has everything to gain and nothing to lose.