Allegations involving his personal staff and a couple arrested for financial fraud dent Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s image and add to the troubles of the Congress-led coalition. By R. KRISHNAKUMAR

CHIEF MINISTER Oommen Chandy is a sober, solid politician. Beneath the affable exterior and democratic manners lurks an extremely smart political animal—in its element during times of crisis and with a knack for looking after itself and those with whom it has a common cause. He has an easy manner with people, receives them with a welcoming smile at any time of day and gives each of them a patient hearing. Crowds throng his home, office and the public venues he visits.

He has shown that he is well informed on any issue; that he can set an agenda for his party or his government and implement it to the letter, whatever the hurdle; and that he can govern effectively. He has also displayed a talent for bullying his rivals, ever so gently but eventually forcing them into a corner such that there is no escape route except through the gaps he has thoughtfully left open for them.

His doting followers and an unblemished public record are, no doubt, his greatest assets. Besides, he has a reputation for openness and accessibility and has distinguished himself as the master tactician behind many a successful battle that the State Congress party has fought, be it between the party’s own factions or against its political rivals.

All this has earned Oommen Chandy a lot of enemies too, but thus far their efforts to seek the elusive skeleton in his cupboard have proved futile. He has, instead, baffled foes and friends alike with his boundless energy, dedication to party work and keen people skills, qualities that have contributed to making him, arguably, one of the most popular Chief Ministers in India.

His office is open to anyone who needs help, and it is the cynosure of all eyes with its 24x7 live (but soundless) webcast that is visible in any part of the world. The message of efficiency, transparency and openness that all this conveys goes well with the many initiatives of his government, especially in e-governance and as part of the Chief Minister’s own “mass contact programme”.

The innovative annual mass contact programme, held at huge venues in every district, is on a scale that has stumped his opponents and that offers people in their thousands an opportunity to cut through bureaucratic tangles and directly meet their Chief Minister for solutions to personal grievances.

The Chief Minister’s office won the prestigious United Nations Public Service Award for this programme in May this year, with a first place in the category “Preventing and Combating Corruption in the Public Service” in the Asia-Pacific region.

If all this made Oommen Chandy the mascot of his government and a daunting opponent of his political foes, startling revelations in the media in June found the Chief Minister’s perceived strengths themselves becoming a powerful weapon in the hands of the opposition.

Preliminary police inquiries revealed many of the reports to be true—especially the reports that some of the Chief Minister’s handpicked personal staff members or private aides had come under the spell of a man-woman duo who allegedly defrauded several people of crores of rupees under the pretext of setting up solar energy panels and wind farms.

The scandal came to light in early June, on the eve of an Assembly session, following the arrest of Saritha Nair, 40, and Biju Radhakrishnan, her business associate and former “live-in partner”. The latter initially eluded the police net but was subsequently arrested in Coimbatore on the charge of murdering his wife, Rashmi, in 2006. Saritha, it came to light, had nearly two dozen cases against her in various police stations in the State. Both face charges of, among other things, financial fraud and forgery of documents that they used to dupe their clients into investing money in several clean energy schemes for homes and industries. None of these schemes is known to have seen the light of day despite the company reportedly being in operation for nearly a decade.

The duo’s modus operandi eventually turned out to be a political bombshell for the Chief Minister himself and for his party and the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition.

Saritha seemingly befriended, pretended to know or got herself acquainted with a number of influential people, including four members of the Chief Minister’s personal staff/private aides, a handful of Ministers and MPs and others in key positions. She then used her real or contrived proximity with these people to coax potential clients to part with their money by dropping names, showing them photographs and false documents, and making phone calls in their presence to, for example, the Chief Minister’s aides, to establish her and her accomplice’s credibility, the scheme’s genuineness and their influence in the corridors of power.

Among the documents reportedly used by Saritha to convince prospective customers that their investment plans had the government’s support was one that allegedly had the Chief Minister’s signature. It was also suggested that Oommen Chandy might have met Saritha briefly after a conference of Chief Ministers in New Delhi. Though the government denied this, matters turned worse for the Chief Minister when Biju Radhakrishnan claimed in a television interview that he had used the good offices of M.I. Shanavaz, a Congress Member of Parliament, to gain an audience with the Chief Minister some months earlier.

The Chief Minister admitted that Biju had met him and wanted to talk to him about some “personal matters”, which, therefore, “he did not want to disclose”. Biju had claimed in the interview that he had used the opportunity to complain to the Chief Minister about one of his former Cabinet colleagues, Forest Minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar, who he alleged “had a relationship with Saritha and was wrecking his personal life”. (Ganesh Kumar has denied the allegation.)

Telephone records revealed that Oommen Chandy’s aides had been in constant touch with Saritha. Four of them reportedly spoke with her or answered calls from her on the landline phone at the Chief Minister’s office/residence or on their personal mobile phones (widely known to be used by Oommen Chandy on a regular basis in Kerala and in New Delhi). There were at least 200 calls in the month of May.

It was also reported that people, including Ministers and other VIPs, regularly called the Chief Minister or got calls from him from the mobiles of his private staff—people who were his constant companions in Kerala and New Delhi.

For an opposition waiting to pounce on any dent in Oommen Chandy’s impeccable image, this was a golden opportunity to expose the dangers of the transparency and openness practised in the Chief Minister’s office. Opposition leaders were quick to point out that the fact that the Chief Minister’s office had a reputation for being most transparent should not be taken to mean that it was truly open or transparent—or free of corruption.

At the time of writing this report, the Chief Minister had ordered a police inquiry and had asked two of his aides to step down. But the opposition wants nothing less than the Chief Minister’s resignation and a judicial inquiry. Assembly proceedings were disrupted and street fights erupted between opposition party activists and the police in many places.

The scandal has emerged just when the ruling and opposition parties were about to launch their preparations for the Lok Sabha elections. The UDF has survived several internal troubles in recent months, the latest being on the demand to include Pradesh Congress Committee president Ramesh Chennithala in the State Cabinet as the Home Minister. Incidentally, the coalition’s government survives on a slim majority of just a handful of MLAs.

Earlier, too, the ruling coalition’s unity had been put to the test over conflicting demands of coalition partners for more Cabinet posts; over complaints of “minority appeasement” against the government by prominent Hindu community organisations; and over the demand for Ganesh Kumar’s resignation over personal allegations, which eventually involved the entire Cabinet and ended in a divorce for him and his eventual resignation.

In most such instances, it was Oommen Chandy and his clean reputation more than anything else that came to the rescue of his coalition and government and helped smoothen ruffled egos. But there are signs now of the fissures deepening, especially after the latest trouble within the Congress over the demand for Ramesh Chennithala’s entry into the Cabinet. Chandy and his supporters cleverly shot down the demand, but the trouble lingers and threatens to revive the group war within the party after a gap of about eight years.

The unexpected mess that Oommen Chandy finds himself in for not keeping his house in order seems like a bad omen for his party and the ruling coalition.