It was a first of its kind two-horse race that the Kerala public is unlikely to forget soon. The race was to regain a ministerial berth in the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala by two disgraced former ministers belonging to a national party, the Nationalist Congress Party, led by Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar. This is the only state where the national party has a representative in a ministry in this whole country.
The party, which has two MLAs in the 140-member state Assembly, is part of the ruling LDF led by CPM, self-professed messiah of “politics of ethics”. The first to uphold this value system was NCP’s first choice minister, A.K. Saseendran, who resigned last March on “moral grounds”, following a case related to sleaze talk with a woman journalist. The other MLA who occupied Saseendran’s chair, Thomas Chandy, too was forced to quit within six months over allegations of large-scale encroachment of government wet land. Though the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who had vowed “not to tolerate corruption” in government, and the CPM tried their level best to shield Chandy, more a businessman than a politician, finally he had to go. A minister-less NCP first tired to “import” someone from one-man parties for the ministerial post. Merger talks were even initiated with the blessings of CPM. However, facing near revolt over the issue from both Saseendran and Chandy camps, the party announced that whoever among the two gets acquitted of the charges from the court first will return as minister.
Truce prevailed and the race began. While money-bag Chandy, who incidentally had publicly announced his choice of ministry even before the elections, plotted against rival Saseendran, he himself got stuck in the Supreme Court. However, Chandy kept his hopes live by saying he has the assurance from the Chief Minister to keep the Transport Ministry vacant till such time he or Saseendran gets cleared by the law of the land. Curiously enough, the state crime branch, which probed the case against Saseendran first, didn’t even file an FIR against him and instead initiated proceedings against the TV channel which had claimed possession of tapes containing sleaze talks. Then the state appointed a commission to look into the case. Since no one came forward even to depose in the case, the commission too exonerated Saseendran. Strange enough, petitioner after petitioner moved court, thus delaying his return as minister. It was all too obvious that Chandy was instrumental in moving the petitions.
All this while, Saseendran kept a studied silence over the incident. He had at no point denied the alleged telephone conversation, nor has he ever admitted doing so. No efforts were made to test the voice despite confirmation that such a talk did take place. At some point the lady journalist in a Facebook post admitted that she was just a slave in the hands of channel owners who used her to trap the minister. Last week a first-class judicial magistrate court in Kerala acquitted him of all charges of sexual harassment filed by the woman journalist after the woman said she was not “sure whether it was Saseendran who had misbehaved with her at his official residence”. Besides, she said she could not “ascertain whether it was Saseendran or someone else who had spoken to he over the phone”. With “morals” upheld, the 71-year-old was sworn in again as Transport Minister in Pinarayi Vijayan government with the NCP flag flying high.
Thomas Chandy was conspicuous by his absence from the swearing-in ceremony. So was Congress. “His acquittal by court doesn’t mean that what was wrong is not wrong. Everyone had heard the voice of Saseendran in the audio clip. He hadn’t denied that it was his voice. His sudden resignation was caused by guilt,” Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said in a statement. State BJP president Kummanam Rajasekharan termed it as a “body blow” to politics of ethics.
Even as many questions remain unanswered about Saseendran and his telephone episode, it has become clear that those who talk relentlessly about morality in politics are doing only lip service. It will be interesting to see the reaction of CPM if and when Thomas Chandy too gets a clean chit from the court and stakes claim to the ministry. But it is said that with the return of Saseendran, the way has been cleared for another disgraced minister to return to power. CPM strongman from Kannur and number two in the Cabinet, E.P. Jayarajan was the first minister in the Pinarayi government to resign over charges of nepotism. Now he too has been waiting to be re-inducted after the state vigilance department had given him a clean chit. Only intra-party politics can stand in the way of Jayarajan, but it is almost certain that he will make a comeback before the party congress scheduled for April.