Brightens chances of coming to power for a second consecutive term.

 

New Delhi: Contrary to expectations, the ruling CPM-led Left Democratic Front practically swept the local body elections in Kerala. The LDF retained control of most of the three-tier gram, block and zilla panchayats while capturing five out of the six corporations. The only consolation for the Opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) came in the form of control of 45 of the 86 municipalities. The BJP, which had hoped to take control of the Trivandrum Corporation (in fact, party leaders had boasted during the campaign that the next time PM Modi comes to Thiruvananthapuram, a BJP Mayor would receive him at the airport), has to once again be satisfied with second place. In Thrissur, too, its hopes lie crumbled. The party has also failed to retain its vote share, but stands to control more gram panchayats. While the results have given way to rumblings within both Congress and the BJP with many asking for a change in leadership, the CPM is upbeat about its chances of coming to power for a second consecutive term in the state, which, if it happens, will be historic, for Kerala has never voted back a ruling coalition in the past 64 years of its formation; the only exception being that of CPI’s C. Achutha Menon who had a longer sting thanks to the Emergency. His first term was from 1 November 1969 to 1 August 1970 and the second 4 October 1970 to 25 March 1977.

For the past five months or so, the Pinarayi Vijayan government was pushed to the wall by various central investigation agencies that had initially come to investigate the gold smuggling racket involving the UAE Consulate General’s office in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. As the investigations into gold smuggling progressed, it opened up to “financial irregularities” in various other projects initiated by the state government. It has come to light that those key players involved in the smuggling were in fact closely connected with the powers that be in the state and has had a say in many of such projects of the state government. One of the key players turned out to be the Principal Secretary of the Chief Minister and hence there were allegations of the very involvement of the CM’s office in the racket. The Chief Minister all along contended that he was not aware, and later modified that to not responsible, of the doings of his personal staff and after initial hesitancy removed M. Sivasankaran, the Principal Secretary, from his post for his personal relationship with the main accused in the gold smuggling racket Swapna Suresh.

The Enforcement Directorate has found financial irregularities in state government’s flagship projects such as Life Mission, a housing project for the poor and homeless, K-FON for free internet connections for the poor, manufacturing electric vehicle projects in the state, etc.

In the past five months, not a single day has passed without more revelations of corruption and mismanagement apparently leaked out by the investigating agencies to “discredit the Left government”. Added to this is the arrest of CPM state secretary’s son for drug-money laundering related cases which forced Kodiyeri Balakrishnan to go on a long leave.

Whatever may be the truth, a general perception was created that Pinarayi Vijayan government was not that “clean” as was claimed by the CPM and its partners. Hence, there was a feeling that the people will vote against the government in the local body elections. Or, at least the Congress and the BJP thought so. It did not happen. All they can do now is to look forward to the coming Assembly elections due in April 2021. Five months is a long time in politics. Congress and BJP know it better than anyone else. Embers of hope can still be kept hot.

The immediate fallout of the civic elections is a “letter of grivances” that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has shot off to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Five months ago, if Vijayan and his comrades were thumping their chest over the Chief Minister’s daring invitation to central investigation agencies to “come and probe anything” related to the state government “since we have nothing to hide”, now cries foul, saying the agencies have crossed all limits of decency. In his letter sent on Wednesday, Vijayan alleged that the central agencies are “conducting fishing and roving enquiries to find out whether there is any chance to allege any offence in a situation where the agencies have not been able to find anything specific against the state government”. Urging Prime Minister Modi to take immediate action, Vijayan wrote, “Orchestrated campaigns to defame the political leadership of the state government are being carried out in a consistent manner, seemingly with the cooperation of certain officials of the investigating agencies. This is evident in the news leaked out regarding alleged contents of a sworn statement recorded before a magistrate at the instance of the Customs Department.”

Interestingly, on Thursday, the ED questioned the Chief Minister’s Additional Private Secretary, C.M. Raveendran, in the gold smuggling case.   Raveendran had dodged questioning thrice in the past citing Covid-related illness. While Sivasankaran is an IAS officer, Raveendran is a long-time party worker and has served almost all senior CPM leaders in the state for the past 45 years. It is said that he knows the inside out of Pinarayi Vijayan. Saying the main aim of the central agencies is to tarnish the image of the state government, Vijayan further wrote to the PM, “The ED had crossed all limits while probing the case. In a cooperative federal setup, central investigation agencies have to follow the contours of constitutional division of powers. Any transgression of the same, by conducting roving inquiries and proceeding on fishing expeditions to review projects of the state government with the intention of fault finding is not within the province of the central government investigating agencies.”

In his own state, the Opposition has alleged that Vijayan has unleashed the state vigilance and anti-corruption Bureau against many of their leaders on flimsy grounds. They also call it political witch-hunting.

When media persons ask Vijayan about these cases, the standard reply is that “the Vigilance is doing their job. I have nothing to do with it”. Wonder whether Prime Minister Modi would reply to Vijayan’s letter the same way!

Whatever be the case, a rejuvenated Chief Minister has decided to launch a Kerala Yatra from Tuesday. This has given speculation that Pinarayi Vijayan might stake claim to lead the party again in the coming Assembly elections, something which was being debated within the party. It is learnt that while a section of the politburo owes allegiance to Vijayan (it is said that A/Cs in AKG Bhavan in Delhi works thanks to funds from Kerala) there is another section, mainly from Bengal, which think that his government is in league with crony capitalists and a wrong example for a Marxist government. The recent gains in other states have emboldened them to speak up. In these panchayat elections, posters with Vijayan’s pictures were absent throughout the state. He is also not in the nick of his health. But it looks like all these are pushed back. Next five months are going to be interesting in Kerala, something worth watching.