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SNC-Lavalin Graft Case: Ghost From The Past

SNC-Lavalin Graft Case: Ghost From The Past
The CBI has sought Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s trial in the SNC-Lavalin case/Photo: UNI

Above: The CBI has sought Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s trial in the SNC-Lavalin case/Photo: UNI

An adverse verdict from the Supreme Court may inflict a heavy blow on Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s  political career as he is already facing the heat of public outrage over the Sabarimala issue

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram   

It’s a case that has an uncanny knack of popping up every time an election is due. The Supreme Court has posted the SNC-Lavalin matter for final hearing in the first week of April and an adverse decision could have a huge impact on Kerala politics and the CPI(M).

The graft case allegedly involves Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Canadian-based company SNC Lavalin. Popularly known as the Lavalin case, it will now become a campaign issue for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. The case has had a bearing on every election ever since it first flared up in 1997. And it will be no different this time.

The case relates to an alleged financial scandal that centred around awarding a contract for the renovation and modernisation of some hydroelectric projects in the state to SNC Lavalin at exorbitant rates, thereby causing a loss of Rs374.50 crore to the state’s exchequer.

Though Vijayan had two years ago been cleared in the matter, the CBI last July approached the Supreme Court seeking his trial due to alleged corruption. The agency said that Vijayan, who was electricity minister in the state in 1997, had travelled to Canada as a “guest” of Lavalin.

And it was there that he made the “crucial” decision to promote the firm, which was a mere consultancy firm retained on fixed-rate basis, from consultants to suppliers.

The corruption case concerns the monetary loss to the Kerala State Elec­tricity Board (KSEB) contract with Lavalin for the renovation and modernisation of the Pallivasai, Sengulam and Panniar hydroelectric projects in Idukki district of Kerala.

In 1995, Lavalin had only signed an MoU with the state government. Consultancy agreements were signed on February 24, 1996. On February 10, 1997, the agreements were changed to full-fledged supply contracts “solely at the behest” of Vijayan, the CBI submitted in its affidavit in the Supreme Court.

The High Court had on August 23, 2017, discharged Vijayan and two former KSEB senior officers. But the CBI also went to the apex court against the High Court decision. The agency said that all the accused in the Lavalin case, including the CM, should be tried. The agency questioned how the High Court could hold that there was criminal conspiracy on one hand but discharge accused persons selectively while asking others to stand trial.

The bench of Justice NV Ramana and Justice Mohan M Shantanagoudar slated the final hearing of the case in April as Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta, appearing for the CBI, urged the Court to adjourn the matter for hearing on a non-miscellaneous day. A visibly annoyed bench asked the Solicitor General, “Why on a non-miscellaneous day? Is it your intention to drag on the case? The SG told the apex court that the cases should be heard in detail and that was why he was suggesting postponement. V Giri, who appeared for Vijayan, suggested the case could be heard after the Holi vacation.

It was on the day the elections to the Kerala assembly were notified in 2006 that the then Congress chief minister, Oommen Chandy, made sure that the SNC-Lavalin graft case remained an election issue by handing over the probe to the CBI. The CBI charge sheet took almost three years and was framed just ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2009.

The Chandy-led UDF government that came to power in 2011 once again used the case to upset the LDF by reviving it five years later when elections were again due by filing an urgent petition in the High Court where the CBI appeal challenging Vijayan’s discharge had been pending.

The case has had a bearing not just on the ruling and Opposition fronts in the state but even within the ruling CPI(M) where factional leaders are used to settling scores. Party strongman and former chief minister VS Achuthanandan had even asked the Congress-led government to blacklist SNC Lavalin, a demand that the Congress quickly conceded. An internal inquiry conducted by a senior Politburo member had also found corruption in the deal.

It was in 2009 that the CBI named Vijayan as the ninth accused. In 2011, the Supreme Court also ordered the CBI to investigate the case. Later, the agency submitted before the Court that there was concrete evidence of Vijayan’s role in the case.

However, in October 2013, a CBI court observed that the charge sheet submitted by the CBI was “incomplete”.

In November 2013, the same court discharged Vijayan and six others in the case, citing lack of evidence. In January 2014, a revision petition was filed in the High Court. On August 23, 2017, the Court discharged Vijayan and two others in the charges while ordering three KSEB officials and government officials to face trial.

It was against this order that the CBI approached the apex court last July, the hearing of which has now been fixed for April.

Given the undue delay caused in dispensing corruption/criminal cases involving political bigwigs, people are, in general, sceptical of the judicial process  coming to a logical conclusion in a seemingly reasonable timeframe.

Though the case has dragged on and on and the dramatis personae have been through several ups and downs, the general impression among the public is that underhand deals had been struck, an impression that gained strength after Achuthanandan used the case to fight a proxy war against his bête noire.

However, the ace political strategist that he is, Vijayan has chosen to use attack as the best form of defence and in the process managed to virtually decimate the faction led by Achuthanandan.

The latter, too, unwittingly played into the hands of Vijayan by accepting the post of chairman of the State Administrative Reforms Commission at the age of 92 years, thus giving the impression that he is power hungry as ever. Knowing he is no vote puller, he coaxed the party to use Achuthanandan to do the job. Victory under the belt, he sidelined Achuthanandan and took over as CM himself.

However, the stain of the SNC-Lavalin case is something he has been unable to wash off. Thus, even an apex court verdict asking him to face trial would inflict a heavy blow on his political career as he is already facing the heat of public outrage over his government’s handling of the Sabarimala issue.