Above: The SNC-Lavalin case has jolted Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan out of his comfort zone/Photo: UNI
Just when everything seemed to be going right for Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the CBI has dragged him once again to court in the 21-year-old corruption case
~By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram
Almost a year after the Kerala High Court acquitted Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of all corruption charges related to the SNC-Lavalin case, the Supreme Court has issued notice to him after the CBI filed a fresh affidavit seeking his trial.
The High Court had acquitted the Marxist strongman of all corruption charges in August last year, citing insufficient evidence. The CBI challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court which stayed his trial in January this year.
Both BJP and Congress leaders have criticised the delay in filing the appeal by the CBI. The state Congress leaders even allege that Vijayan is soft towards the BJP in the state as he is afraid that it may exert pressure on the central leadership to make the case tough for him in the Supreme Court.
With the CBI filing a fresh affidavit in the apex court, Vijayan has been dragged out of his comfort zone ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. It will now be difficult for the chief minister and his party to claim an anti-corruption image while accusing political opponents of being corrupt. Moreover, any reference to SNC-Lavalin would also bring back memories of the turf war between Vijayan and his bête noire in the party, former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, much to the discomfort of the party’s rank and file.
It was during his tenure as power minister in the EK Nayanar ministry in 1997 that Vijayan signed a contract with the Canadian company, SNC-Lavalin, for renovation and modernisation of three hydel power projects in Idukki, Kerala. The CBI told the Supreme Court that no change in the contract could have been effected without the knowledge of the power minister. Further, the contract was signed when Vijayan was in Canada. The agency also said that Vijayan had caused a loss worth Rs 374 crore to the Kerala State Electricity Board by making changes in the contract. It added that the High Court had acquitted the chief minister without taking into account the conspiracy angle in the case.
While the High Court exonerated Vijayan and two others of all charges, citing insufficient evidence, the CBI framed him as the ninth accused in the case. The Supreme Court had in January accepted the CBI’s petition against the High Court verdict and issued notice to Vijayan and two others. The CBI’s contention was that Vijayan, as then power minister, wrongly entered into contracts with SNC-Lavalin without any expert feasibility study or technical reports. It had also alleged that there was neither any global tender floated for the project nor any rates fixed.
Reacting to the new development, CPI(M) state Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said that the CBI appealing in the Supreme Court again was part of a larger political conspiracy. Speaking to India Legal, Balakrishnan said it was as part of the efforts to create a smokescreen that the CBI had been entrusted with raking up the case again. “CBI had not been able to produce any credible fresh proof in the CBI court or in the High Court. That is why they acquitted Vijayan of all charges. As of now, he is not an accused. The High Court had also asked CBI why Vijayan was framed while the Congress minister who actually signed the agreement with SNC-Lavalin was spared. It was during the tenure of AK Antony as chief minister that the contract was signed,” he said.
Asked about the CPI (M) state secretary’s allegation that it was part of political agenda engineered by the Congress and BJP, Congress Working Committee member and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told India Legal that the decision to refer the SNC-Lavalin case to the CBI was taken at the last cabinet meeting of his government in 2006.
BJP state General Secretary K Surendran told India Legal that no one with a little morality left in him would argue for exonerating a person who was responsible for incurring a loss of Rs 374 crore without a trial. Legal experts had raised doubts when the CBI court and High Court selectively exonerated Vijayan of all charges. Asking a political leader or a minister to prove his innocence in a court of law cannot be portrayed as a politically motivated decision, he said.
Surendran further pointed out that both the Congress minister the late G Karthikeyan) who handled the power portfolio and Chandy were in the know of the corrupt dealings. Without the knowledge of Vijayan, the MoU signed between the state government and SNC-Lavalin for a consultancy contract could not have been changed into an agreement for equipment supply. Moreover, Vijayan was in Canada when the supply agreement was signed, he pointed out.
The SNC-Lavalin heat will be off the chief minister for at least a couple of weeks this month as Vijayan is due to go to the US for medical tests and treatment. His office did not comment on his medical diagnosis or treatment though it did confirm that the government will bear the expenses. However, it is still not clear what treatment he is receiving or what his ailment is. Vijayan was in the US in July as well for nearly two weeks and though officially he is said to have gone to attend a few Malayalee NRI functions, speculation was rife that he had undergone treatment even on that occasion.
Whatever the outcome of the CBI’s fresh affidavit, Vijayan will have to make an extra effort to ensure that his refurbished image is not tarnished. In the least, he will have to assign his cyber warriors to defend him in the cyber world against scathing trolls.