Nothing seems to be going right for the Left Democratic Front in Kerala, which tasted victory barely two months ago, promising to set everything right once in power. The recent resignation of high profile lawyer M.K. Damodaran from the post of legal adviser to the Chief Minister has come as a real embarrassment to communist bureaucrat Pinarayi Vijayan. The discomfiture for the CPM is all the more severe since it came in the wake of a petition filed in the High Court by the state BJP president, Kummanom Rajashekharan, challenging the constitutional validity of such an appointment. The main opposition party, the Congress, cut a very sorry figure as it failed even to raise any worthwhile objection to such an appointment. Thus the onus was on the BJP, which has just one MLA in the 140-member Assembly, to set the wrong right. “Great victory for the people of Kerala. Our fight against the corrupt will continue,” tweeted a jubilant Kummanom Rajashekharan.
The appointment of Damodaran, a known Left sympathiser, was mired in controversy from the beginning. The question was raised that since the state has an Advocate General, what role the new adviser would play. Won’t it create two power centres? Going by the Constitution, can a state have two Advocate Generals? Initially, the LDF tried to explain that Damodaran was an adviser to the Chief Minister and not to the government per se. Moreover, he was not accepting any remuneration for his services. But interestingly, the appointment order issued on 9 June mentioned that Damodaran held the rank of an additional secretary, which means that other than creature comforts that go with the post, he would have easy access to important government documents. And as Kummanom Rajashekharan pointed out in his petition, Damodaran could even elicit explanations from any government department by virtue of being adviser to the CM. This was a dangerous situation since Damodaran was appearing against the government in the High Court in several sensitive cases. Damodaran could easily misuse his position to the betterment of a slew of clients, many of them with questionable antecedents, Rajashekharan pointed out. And when CM Pinarayi Vijayan defiantly informed the state Assembly that Damodaran in his capacity as adviser to the CM had every right to take up cases elsewhere, it was clear what was in store. Within a few days, Damodaran nonchalantly appeared for notorious lottery king Santiago Martin in a case filed by the Enforcement Directorate for embezzlement of crores of rupees meant for the state exchequer. Ironically, Martin is known for his closeness to the CPM, especially Pinarayi Vijayan.
Many see the appointment of Damodaran as a reward by Pinarayi for bailing him out of the Lavalin case, which has been haunting him for over two decades. The SNC-Lavalin Kerala hydroelectric scandal was related to an infrastructure contract with the Canadian company in 1995, which resulted in an alleged loss of Rs 3,745 crore. Vijayan, who was Minister for Electricity in the E.K. Nayanar ministry from 1996 to 1998, has been named as one of the accused and it was Damodaran who was representing him in the case. Though the argument that Damodaran needs such an advisory post to bolster his career is definitely too farfetched, it is well known in politico-legal circles that Pinarayi and Damodaran are thick as thieves. But the departure of Damodaran is bound to have a sobering effect on Pinarayi, who in the past two months has been behaving not like a Chief Minister of a state but like a party secretary—some say, headmaster. The state CPM, which has been keeping stoically mum all these days, has broken its silence by saying that the party has no intention to interfere in the matter. However, state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who belongs to the Pinarayi camp, refused to be drawn into the controversy of senior party leader and former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan complimenting Kummanom for the removal of Damodaran, one of his bête-noirs.
Achuthanandan, who has been lying low since being denied the post of Chief Minister, which he thought was in his grasp following the party’s splendid victory under his leadership, has found his voice again. The state government, under considerable pressure from the CPM central leadership, has reluctantly decided to appoint Achuthanandan, newly christened “Kerala Castro” by party general secretary Sitaram Yechury, as chairman of the Administrative Reforms Committee.
The post carries a Cabinet rank with all the paraphernalia attached to it, and more than anyone else, archrival Pinarayi Vijayan knows the consequences. As expected, the very same day V.S. shot off a letter to the Chief Minister, asking him to rescind the government decision to remove government pleader Susheela R. Bhat, who was handling the crucial Harrison estate and Karuna estate cases. For the past 10 years, Susheela Bhat had been handling cases pertaining to land deals in the High Court and many of them are at a critical juncture and are scheduled to come up for hearing very soon. Over the years, she has fought several cases connected with the encroachment of government land by plantation companies. In many of them, she was able to impress upon the court that the encroached land belonged to the government. VS, in his letter, said the decision to remove Bhat from the post would backfire on the government in high-profile revenue-related cases against business houses such as Harrison and Tata, when they are in the final stages. Bhat has blamed the land mafia for her removal. “My fight for the past 14 years has been against the land mafia.
Five lakh hectares of government land has been encroached by them,” she said. She said that even during the last United Democratic Front government, there were attempts to influence her. She doubted the sincerity of the government in removing her when many important forest and revenue cases were coming up for hearing.
The LDF came to power promising to rectify all the wrongs perpetrated by the previous UDF government. But in these two months, there is no sign of such efforts.
This is not going to augur well for Pinarayi and company.