A weak Opposition means the govt can emerge unscathed from the tree-felling scam.


New Delhi: Barely a month in power following a historic mandate, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Front government in Kerala finds itself in the midst of a tree felling scandal running into crores of rupees. But in the absence of a strong opposition, it will not be a surprise if the Pinarayi Vijayan government comes out of it unscathed as in many cases in the past, especially during the last year of the previous government. The trees were allegedly felled from revenue lands allotted to farmers under the Kerala Land Assignment Act. It is said that a 2020 October order issued by the revenue department under the previous Pinarayi government had allowed cutting of protected trees such as rosewood and teak grown by farmers in the assigned lands mainly in Wayanad district. A massive tree felling by smugglers in the guise of farmers is said to have taken place under the cover of this particular order. While such instances of felling have been reported from nearby districts too, it is not known whether the trees included sandalwood that is grown in these parts of the state. After it came to the notice of environmentalists, some of whom moved the curt, the government hurriedly cancelled the order early February, at the fag end of the Pinarayi government’s five-year term.

By that time, the damage had already been done. It is pointed out that roughly 500 trees worth 100 crores could have been allegedly cut under the cover of this order. Though some district collectors had expressed their reservations over the implementation of the order, it is alleged that the government simply ignored their apprehensions. The forest ministry then was handled by the CPI, the second largest constituent in the Left Front and whose leaders are known for their vocal support to environmental issues. Many of them have gone on silent mode this time. The lame excuse being that now the ministry is in the hands of the Nationalist Congress Party, another constituent of the front. In hindsight it is not known whether the CPI leadership had conveniently decided to forgo the ministry deliberately. Though the issue of the felling of trees was first raised in the Assembly this month by a Congress member, Rahul Gandhi who represents Wayanad in the Lok Sabha has not openly come out with any statement.

It is interesting to note that many controversial decisions of the previous government were brought to light in the final year of its term mostly by the then leader of the opposition Ramesh Chennithala. The government was then forced to retract many of these decisions which in fact it had publicised through advertisements and hoardings across the state as among its prominent achievements. But most of the controversial decisions unearthed by the Congress leader failed to elicit much support from his party men.

Moreover, the government managed to obliterate these pitfalls by highlighting its social security schemes such as free ration kit which became a hit among housewives and distribution of pension dues during the time of the pandemic. As a blessing in disguise, the Congress high command preferred not to handover the election campaign leadership to Chennithala and instead brought in ageing and ailing former chief minister Oommen Chandy, who was away from Kerala most of those five years being in charge of the party’s Andhra Pradesh unit, as its main charioteer. The rest as they say is history. A disheartened Chennithala and company failed to inspire followers with even the traditional vote bank of minorities deserting the United Democratic Front in preference of Pinarayi Vijayan who has now a dream second successive run as chief minister, an opportunity that he had denied his rival, veteran V.S. Achuthanandan in the 2011 Assembly elections.

The BJP which had trumpeted the imminent downfall of Pinarayi and the Left Front following the gold smuggling racket which triggered the slew of allegations against the government failed to live up to its expectations. The party which claimed to form a government in the state if it secured 35 seats in the 140-member Assembly, not only had to forgo its lone seat in the House, but is now caught in a whirlpool of hawala money and pay-offs for political mileage. The Kerala police have registered a case against BJP state president K. Surendran, the party’s poster boy during the Sabarimala agitation not long ago, and Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha leader C.K. Janu pertaining to an alleged cash deal before the Assembly elections in April.

A colleague of Janu had alleged that Surendran had given Rs10 Lakhs to Janu to get her back into the NDA fold before the elections. It is widely speculated that the hawala money was meant for such deals. The BJP central leadership has asked former Metro man Sreedharan, who was among its candidates in the elections, and two others to look into the matter. However, the state BJP leadership claims that no such enquiry team has been set up by the central leadership. In any way, the party stands discredited in the eyes of the people for the present.

Both Congress and BJP have threatened to launch state-wide agitations against the latest scandal. The Congress at least has a new younger face in V.D. Satheesan as the leader of the opposition. It will take time for him to prove how effective his leadership is in motivating a disillusioned and dispirited cadre. A “wounded” Ramesh Chennithal is being lured with ornamental posts at party headquarters in New Delhi. The state BJP is in a quandary. It has no leadership. Surendran’s fate is hanging by a thread. The state RSS is at loggerheads with the BJP’s central leadership.
It is a known fact that both Congress and BJP lack firepower to unleash any kind of opposition to Pinarayi Vijayan and company in the present context. Their tanks are empty.

An ideal situation for Pinarayi Vijayan and his government to roughshod the Opposition and move on swatting all allegations of corruption and nepotism that are bound to arise in the days to come. Illegal tree felling will be forgotten in no time.