While smaller partners of the LF have kept quiet, CPI has openly admitted to lapses.

 

New Delhi: However harsh it may sound, the truth is that the state CPM, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in particular, is responsible for the current predicament of the Left Front in Kerala. The complicity of the central leadership of the Marxist party in landing the state government in such a sordid mess also cannot be overlooked.

A Front, which was all too poised for a historic successive second term a few months ago, has been pushed against the wall and forced to live by the day through flippant and totally unconvincing arguments by CPM’s debate warriors on various Malayalam channels.

With barely seven months left for the Assembly election, a battery of Central investigating agencies–Customs, ED and NIA–are camping in the state; most of them, till the other day the people of Kerala were made to understand, at the invitation of the Chief Minister himself.

The three are probing into various cases that have come up following the busting of a gold smuggling racket allegedly involving the office of the Consulate General of the UAE, set up mainly to facilitate easy visa sanctions to hordes of migrant workers, in state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

The latest entrant to the list, the CBI, which is in the state to investigate alleged financial irregularities in an ambitious housing project–Life Mission–for the poor launched by the ruling Left Front in 2018 has obviously not come at the behest of the state government or the Chief Minister.

The case pertains to criminal conspiracy and Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) violations in the construction of a 140-apartment complex in a municipality in Wadakkanchery in central Thrissur district. The agreement for the project was signed between UAE Red Crescent, an affiliate of the International Red Cross, and a Kerala-based building company UNITAC. The MoU for the project at Wadakkanchery was signed between Red Crescent and Kochi-based private builder UNITAC on 11 July 2019 in Thiruvananthapuram by the project’s CEO U.V. Jose and representatives of Red Crescent, in the presence of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who is chairman of Life Mission.

The state secretariat of the CPM has termed the Central government’s decision to initiate a CBI probe into the Life Mission project as “politically motivated” and has vowed to deal with it legally and politically. However, so far, there are no signs on how the party or the government are going to take on the forces that are at work to “dislodge the Communist government”.  There are only reminders about the “Vimochana Samaram” in 1959 that toppled the first elected Communist government in the country.

But the crux of the problem lies elsewhere. What began as a simple case of gold smuggling–a favourite pastime of many a Malayalee– has snowballed into a political embarrassment, though the CPM leadership refuses to admit so, for the government with links leading to the very office of the Chief Minister.

What could have been passed off as yet another smuggling case assumed importance the moment it came to light that one of the prime accused, Swapna Suresh, has had the backing of the Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, M. Siv Sankar.

The smuggling case happened while the same Siv Sankar, also in charge of the state IT department which comes directly under the Chief Minister, was in the news regarding an IT contract with a US firm, Sprinklr, for processing data regarding Covid-19 patients in the state. The Opposition questioned the relevance of hiring a US company when the state has the tech knowhow and raised doubts about the safety of the data in the hands of a foreign company. However, the Chief Minister brushed aside those apprehensions saying “extraordinary situations call for extraordinary decisions”.

When the Opposition persisted with its allegations of data misuse, the Chief Minister not only defended Siv Sankar, but also allowed him to go on record through interviews in various TV channels that the decision regarding Sprinklr was “his own” and the government had nothing to do with it.

This was hitherto unheard of in governance circles. It did not stop there. Siv Sankar, a senior bureaucrat, was asked to go to the party headquarters of the CPI, the second largest partner in the Left Front, and brief its state secretary regarding the deal with Sprinklr. It was an unprecedented act which gave Siv Sankar an aura of a Super Chief Minister.

With the emergence of Swaprna Suresh in the wake of the smuggling case and reports that her appointment as head of a prestigious IT project of the state was done at the behest of Siv Sankar, the bubble burst. Still the Chief Minister continued with his defence of Siv Sankar by refusing to order a government enquiry into the allegations but half-heartedly asked Siv Sankar to go on a long leave, though CPM spokespersons claim that he was suspended.

As the Opposition criticism about the involvement of the CMO in the smuggling scam became shriller, the Chief Minister tried to distance himself and his office from the actions of Siv Sankar by saying he was in the dark about the many underhand deals of his Principal Secretary. This only added fodder to the public perception that Pinarayi Vijayan was sleeping on the job. The more CPM and the Chief Minister tried to convince the public that Siv Sankar acted on his own, the more the suspicion grew.

This was followed by revelations of involvement of a Minister, a known Pinarayi confidant, too, in the smuggling racket. K.T. Jaleel, Minister for Higher Education, Welfare of Minorities, Wakf and Hajj, was found close to Swapna Suresh and she in turn had allegedly used Jaleel to smuggle gold under the cover of import of Quran. Though Jaleel vehemently denies having any knowledge of smuggling of gold, the ED and NIA have already questioned him a couple of times.

It is while defending Jaleel that Pinarayi Vijayan and the state CPM made the biggest blunder. It was with shock and disbelief that Kerala heard a communist chief minister equating the demand for the resignation of Jaleel as an “insult to the Holy Quran”. Jaleel may have got away by trying to play the Muslim card by saying “if distributing Quran was a crime, let them (meaning BJP government at the Centre) hang me.”

But CPM displaying the Quran card was an unpardonable mistake. Its brazen attempt to appease the minority community with an eye on Assembly elections shocked even party cadres, not to speak of party sympathisers across the state. That it has not gone down well with even the Muslim community is evident from the fact that Chief Minister and the party after flaunting the argument for a few days gave it a quiet go-by.

It is learnt that the central leadership of the CPM which has so far carefully restrained itself from criticising Pinarayi Vijayan openly, broke its silence this time. It has pointed out that the party by fanning passions in the name of Quran was simply playing into the hands of BJP which is trying to woo the majority Hindu community in the state. In fact, many in the party feel that ever since the gold smuggling and related cases surfaced, the BJP has been gaining ground, a trend similar to that of the Sabarimala agitation days. Many in the party also feel that the Chief Minister’s “tactless” behaviour at his daily press conferences has only added to alienate his government from the masses. On the political side, it has cemented the argument that Pinarayi Vijayn has not walked the distance from party headquarters at AKG Centre to the state secretariat. Vijayan was the state party secretary for almost 14 years before he became the chief minister in 2016, upstaging arch rival V.S. Achuthanandan in the last lap.

There is no denying the fact that Pinarayi Vijayan’s government is perhaps the first in the state to face such tough times in its tenure. And in most of the cases, the government had come out with flying colours. It had tackled the worst ever floods in a century, prevented the deadly nipah virus from spreading in the state and has effectively contained Covid-19 to worldwide appreciation. The government has launched many welfare schemes. Except for grave lapses in police administration, the government had a smooth run for the past four-and-a-half years till the gold smuggling racket was busted and a whole slew of administrative irregularities came tumbling out of the cupboards of the Chief Minister’s Office. Had it not been for the smuggling case, many of these would not have come out. Rather it would have continued to happen.

In fact, many in the party point out that dilution of ideology has contributed to the current malaise afflicting the party and the government.  Never in the past serious criminal charges have been raised against party leaders’ children. Their close association with top Malayali industrialists in the Gulf is well known. It is these very same industrialists who have bailed out the children from embarrassing situations. Those very industrialists have been expanding their business empires in Kerala. Old timers say that today’s CPM is not what it was in the seventies or even in the eighties. At some stage, the party knowingly or unknowingly allowed the stature of Pinarayi Vijayan to dominate over the party and the government which was not the case during the previous Left governments. There was always a party apparatus to keep a strict watch on the functioning of the government. In Pinarayi’s time this has not happened, rather whatever was there was discontinued. There has been no one at the senior level from the party at the CMO ever since M.V. Jayarajan went to Kannur to head the district committee.  In the absence of any such watchdog, the persona of Pinarayi has bordered on deification, unheard of among party leaders of yore. The government advertisements that appear regularly in national newspapers and the flex boards and posters speak for such a trend.

If Pinarayi Vijayan is credited for all the good things that have happened in the past four years, then he should be held responsible for the lapses too. That is not happening right now in the government and CPM set-up in Kerala. There is a proverb in Malayalam “Padikkal konde kalam udakkuka”, which roughly translated means a case of someone spoiling the chances at the last post. Chances for a second term are now slowly receding. While smaller partners of the LF have kept quiet, CPI has openly admitted to the lapses. Its state secretary Kanom Rajendran has said that the spillover of the gold scam has dented the image of the Left Front. But the Big Brother will not agree. The dominance of Pinarayi over the party is so much that in the past four-and-a-half years, not a single voice of dissent was heard at the state committee meetings. People in the know say that the same is the case with Cabinet meetings where Vijayan’s is the final word. It is time for the state and central leadership of the CPM to take things into its own hands. Otherwise, there is every chance that the last bastion of the Left will also become part of Communist history.