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The unfolding solar scam in Kerala has put the ruling UDF and chief minister Oommen Chandy on the defensive. With assembly polls in May, will the state see the comeback and resurgence of other parties?
By Naveen R Nair in Thiruvananthapuram


The solar scam unfolding in Kerala could well make the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) meet its Waterloo in the 2016 assembly polls in May. With Chief Minister Oommen Chandy now being di-rectly accused of taking a bribe, the Congress is certainly staring down the barrel. For a party that has already been bruised badly in the just-concluded local body elections, this was just not what the doctor had ordered.

High Command’s Blessings: Chandy receiving Sonia Gandhi during her visit to Kerala in December 2015
High Command’s Blessings: Chandy receiving Sonia Gandhi during her visit to Kerala in December 2015

The CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) had already been on an upbeat mood following the unexpected gains in panchayat elections in 2015. This comes as a shot-in-the-arm for the Marxists who had otherwise been struggling to make a comeback in one of its oldest bastions in the country.

Though money-wise, the solar scam might pale in comparison with what some UPA ministers have made, it is a story of sleaze, blackmail and misuse of government machinery to cover up the trail. This makes it quite a messy scam.

CM UNDER FIRE
Though half his cabinet has always been under the needle of suspicion for taking kickbacks and other favors in the alleged `10-crore scam, this was first time that Chandy has been feeling the heat.

High Command’s Blessings : SFI activists ask for Chandy’s resignation during a march in Thiruvananthapuram.
High Command’s Blessings : SFI activists ask for Chandy’s resignation during a march in Thiruvananthapuram.

With Saritha Nair, the prime accused in the case, deposing before a judicial commission set up by the same government that she had paid `1.9 crore to the CM, the game changed dramatically. For the first time in the state’s history, a vigilance court ordered an FIR to be filed against a sitting CM. Chandy, who had always claimed innocence, lost face, only to be saved at the last moment by a High Court stay order for two months.

The Congress in Kerala, though divided right in the middle, still backs Oommen Chandy as its members know there is no one to replace him for the assembly polls.

Chandy claims that it is a political conspiracy by the CPM aimed at the upcoming assembly elections. But Nair’s allegations against Chandy seem candid enough and not the type to be brushed aside as political conspiracy, especially when the CM himself has left too many loose ends, an argument that even the local Congress leaders agree in hushed tones.

What is biting back Chandy is his inability to stand by his own testimonials. Initially, he went on to make a statement in the assembly that he had never met Nair in person. He retracted his words, agreeing that he had met her thrice but only in public domain. But with Nair now saying that she had met Chandy on a number of occasions, seeking favor for her infamous Team Solar company that duped customers of crores of rupees, the CM’s claims seem to have few takers.

Chandy had always maintained that the solar scam is a private case of forgery and does not involve any loss to the exchequer. An argument that may stick technically, but when the CM’s office itself is alleged to have promoted a fraudulent firm leading to the resignation of two of his trusted staff members, Chandy cannot shy away from taking the blame. This has been the argument of the LDF, till Nair’s new claims gave fresh impetus to the allegations.

WARHORSE CHANDY
The Congress party in the state, though divided right in the middle, still backs Chandy as its members know there is no one big enough to replace him, an old warhorse, in an election year. Also, any change of guard will only upset the apple cart that survives on a slender ceasefire between two warring groups in the party. Though the high command had ordered an internal inquiry, Sonia Gandhi too has come out openly to say that she trusts Chandy for his “clean record and unflinching faith in the Congress ideals’’. After all, when the entire nation withdrew its hand from the mother and son in 2014, it was Chandy who sent a 12-member-strong (out of a nationwide 44 MPs) contingent to bolster numbers in parliament.

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Again, with at least three other ministers facing credible corruption charges in the present Kerala cabinet, the Congress sees no point in toppling Chandy for the moment. Nair had also alleged that she had paid `40 lakh to power minister Aryadan Mohammed, against whom also the vigilance court has ordered a probe.

All these fresh allegations struck just after the bar bribery case, which forced finance minister and political heavyweight KM Mani to put in his papers. K Babu, the excise minister, also had rendered his resignation to Chandy, only to return on the strength of a stay order. So with the majority of his cabinet stained with corruption charges, Chandy remains numero uno among a pack of rotten apples.

LDF’S OPPORTUNITY
For the LDF, this is perhaps the best opportunity to step on the gas and it is doing it the best way it knows. While opposition leader VS Achuthanandan and CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan keep conducting press meets calling for Chandy’s resignation, the youth and student wings have taken to the streets in protest. The capital had become a battle zone with SFI and DYFI cadres cla-shing with the police in front of the Secretariat. This is a usual signal from the Left forces that they are in for a long haul till the polls. The CPM has also launched campaigns to obstruct Chandy wherever he goes and wave black flags in protest. With this, the party hopes to make the solar scam, which is already helping TV channels spike their TRPs, a big election issue.

If the LDF had hoped to go to the polls with the bar bribery case, what it has in hand now is a much bigger issue, nothing short of a “brahmastra” (weapon), directly implicating the CM, who till now had been riding on a clean image.

With just a few months left for the state to get into election mode, both the UDF and the LDF have unleashed rallies across the state. The Congress rally or the Kerala Raksha Yatra led by state president VM Sudheeran has evoked a lukewarm response in most constituencies. But the LDF’s Nava Kerala March has seen people flocking to the grounds to hear CPM strongman Pinarayi Vijayan tearing into the Congress.

The BJP, CPI, Muslim League and even the newly formed Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) of the Ezhava community have had their share of rallies across the state.

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For a state which has been witnessing a shift in power every five years, it would not be surprising if the LDF comes to power in 2016. But what will be more significant will be the performance of the BJP. For a party that has struggled to even achieve a paltry six percentage vote share in the last elections, this could be the best opportunity to break the jinx along with its newly formed alliance with the BDJS.

A couple of seats for the saffron brigade, if predictions go right, could mean a huge loss of face for the Congress as the BJP is expected to eat into its vote share more than the CPM. This pattern was clearly evident in the 2015 local body polls.

With Nair bringing out fresh revelations every day before the judicial commission, it is unlikely that the Congress will get enough time to do damage control. Will the solar scam have any impact on the voters or will Kerala go back to its old style caste-community voting pattern? Only time will tell.

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