Above: Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan launching the Masala bonds at the London Stock Exchange/Photo: lseg.com
The Kerala High Court is convinced of the bona fides of the chief minister’s Pinarayi Vijayan frequent foreign trips and comes down heavily on a petitioner who sought a vigilance inquiry
By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram
Dr Francis is a prominent member of an anti-corruption organisation based in Kanyakumari who likes to be known as a whistleblower. Last week, Francis found himself at the receiving end of the judiciary’s wrath when the Kerala High Court came down heavily on him for seeking a vigilance inquiry against Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for allegedly misusing public money to meet his expenses for visits made to the UAE and the US, in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
Justice P Ubaid of the High Court was convinced of the purpose of Vijayan’s trips to the UAE and the US and observed that “information revealed that most trips were undertaken for official purposes or for affairs connected with administrative matters of the state”. The Court observed that on examination of the materials made available to it, prima facie, it did not find anything to suspect the information regarding the foreign trips undertaken by him. The judge seemed more annoyed at the manner in which the counsel helped his client, the petitioner, gather information using the RTI Act. The Court flayed the counsel too for doing so.
“Every information received under the RTI Act seemed to be collected by the counsel, who filed the writ petition. The petitioner had not collected any information on his own,” the Court observed. The Court wanted to know how he intended to make use of the information collected by the counsel.
Francis alleged that the CM spent Rs 93,295 for air travel to the UAE in December 2016, and Rs 3,82,807 in connection with his US trip in July 2017, out of the government treasury though the trips were in his personal capacity.
The Court said it will examine whether the petitioner or his counsel have any personal or political interest in the matter. It directed the petitioner to file an explanatory affidavit stating why he harboured doubts that the CM’s trips were for personal purposes and whether he pursued any legal action before rushing to the Court. The case has been posted for June 27.
“The Chief Minister’s Office had not disclosed the source for such spending for his foreign trips. Being a public servant, he is duty-bound to disclose the source for all such expenses, especially while he is holding the public office. Not only that, by abusing his official position as chief minister, he made pecuniary benefit by way of reimbursements after making his above said personal visits without any public interest,” Francis had alleged.
According to media reports, the chief minister’s UAE trip in 2016 was his first official visit after assuming office, during which he visited a labour camp in Al Quoz and inaugurated an Indian school in Sharjah. In July 2018, Vijayan, along with health minister KK Shylaja, travelled to the US for a slew of programmes, including a reception at the Institute of Human Virology, Baltimore, where the state of Kerala was commended for its efficient handling of the Nipah virus, and for a meeting in Philadelphia by the Federation of Kerala Associations in North America (FOKANA).
Pinarayi’s visit to the United States, over July 5-17, 2018, was to attend the 18th Convention of the FOKANA. But, according to Francis, the chief minister undertook the trip to meet his friends and family, and to visit places of importance. He alleged that the UAE trip, over December 21-24, 2016, was to inaugurate a school building and to meet non-resident Keralites. It may be noted that Vijayan has very close and personal ties with NRI businessmen from Kerala who have vast business interests in the Gulf. Frequent visits by Kerala politicians to the Gulf had triggered speculation and rumours about their stake in the NRIs’ business activities.
Vijayan’s foreign trips have always evoked keen interest ever since his controversial visit to Canada in October 1996. It was during this visit as the state’s electricity minister, in the EK Nayanar-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, that he held discussions with executives of Canadian firm SNC-Lavalin, to ink a contract for the renovation of the hydro electric projects of Pallivasal, Shenkulam and Panniar.
Almost as a quid pro quo, the delegation from Kerala made a proposal for a grant to the Malabar Cancer Centre (MCC), as a precondition for awarding the contract worth Rs 374.5 crore. Though SNC-Lavalin was supposed to provide Rs 98.30 crore for the MCC, only Rs 8.98 crore was received. The contract allegedly resulted in the state exchequer incurring massive losses and a CBI appeal against the High Court order exonerating Vijayan is still pending with the Supreme Court in this regard.
It’s not just the chief minister who has a frequent flyer mindset. Many of his comrades, including CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Industries Minister EP Jayarajan, Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac and CITU leader Elamaram Karim fly frequently to foreign shores, mostly to attend functions hosted by the four million-plus Malayali diaspora spread across the Gulf nations, Europe and North America. Such visits have in the past triggered controversies due to the presence of people with dubious credentials.
Vijayan’s efforts to dispatch his cabinet colleagues on a worldwide tour to mobilise funds from expatriate Indians to fund the reconstruction of large parts of the state ravaged in last year’s floods had created a controversy within the state and outside. The state and the centre went into confrontation mode following New Delhi denying permission to the ministers to undertake the fund mobilisation tours. Even though the chief minister was allowed to travel to the Gulf countries, the centre made it clear that no financial assistance was to be accepted from any foreign country. Vijayan and Isaac had then accused the Centre of adopting a “dog in the manger” attitude.
More recently, Vijayan’s visits to the UK, France and Canada in the name of listing the Masala bonds issued by the state government for the “rebuild Kerala” initiative have also triggered controversies.
The irony of the chief minister, who swears by Marxism, playing to the tune struck by capitalists and even ringing the traditional bell at the London Stock Exchange to mark the listing of the Masala bonds was not lost on anyone.