A two-decades-old corruption case has returned to haunt the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ahead of the assembly polls.

The High Court of Kerala on Friday cleared an early hearing on the petitions pending against the acquittal of the party’s prospective chief ministerial candidate Pinarayi Vijayan, and six others, in the SNC Lavalin case.

The order came on the day Vijayan launched a “Nava Kerala Yatra” from the state’s northern tip of Kasargod with “corruption-free Kerala” as one of its major slogans.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front government, which is battling a slew of graft cases, had moved the court a couple of days before the CPI(M) yatra, apparently to pre-empt the campaign.

Vijayan’s counsel’s defence that it was a political move did not cut any ice with the court, which found substance in the government argument for early disposal of the case as it involved public money, and agreed that the discharge of the case without even trial was a violation of the Supreme Court verdicts.

The CBI case

The CBI case was that the state suffered huge loss as a result of a criminal conspiracy hatched by Vijayan to award a Rs 374 crores contract for the renovation of three power plants during his term as power minister between 1996 and 1998 without inviting global tenders to a Canadian firm.

The case was quashed by the Special CBI Court, with the observation that the prosecution had failed in proving the charges of fraudulent intention, abuse of official position, cheating and conspiracy.

The government argued that the court did not consider the evidence produced by the CBI, and that Vijayan was responsible for the loss as the deal, flouting various norms, was finalised at his instance.

Vijayan and other accused had justified the decision to grant the works at a higher cost, citing a promise given by the Canadian firm to arrange a grant of Rs.98.4 crores from various agencies for building a cancer centre in north Kerala.

However, the company backed off the promise after completion of the renovation works. The CBI found that the state lost the grant as the accused had failed to sign a binding agreement with the Canadian firm while granting the contract for the renovation of the three power plants.

The Rs 374 crores spent on the renovation was also considered as a loss by the Comptroller and Auditor General as the work did not yield any extra power to the Kerala State Electricity Board.

The case had dragged on because of CBI’s failure to serve a warrant on SNC Lavalin and its senior vice president Clause Trendel. The trial court split the chargesheet and proceeded against others on Vijayan’s plea against delaying the trial.

The CPI(M) leader wanted speedy disposal of the case stating that it had marred his political career for nearly two decades. The party had denied him a ticket to contest the assembly election at least twice citing the case pending against him.

But why now?

The revival of the case comes at a time when the party is gearing up to make up the loss by projecting him as its chief ministerial candidate. The party allowed him to lead the Nava Kerala Yatra as a strong signal to his detractors in the party as well as its allies, who want 93-year-old Achuthanandan to lead the LDF once again.

Achuthanandan, who had used the case in the past to weaken the challenge to his leadership, has so far not commented on the UDF government’s move to revive the case on the eve of the election. However, Vijayan and his supporters believe that the nonagenarian leader may break the silence at the opportune time and upset their apple cart.

The CPI(M) may find it difficult to defend Vijayan as it has prepared its campaign for the coming assembly election mainly around various scandals during the current term of the UDF government, such as the solar scam and the bar bribery case.

Party insiders feel that the anti-corruption campaign may not go down well with the people as the UDF is bound to use the Rs 374-crore corruption case to counter them.

Observers feel the Congress has taken a calculated gamble in filing an interim petition in the case because in all likelihood, the verdict would be delivered by the end of March when Kerala begins to face the heat of the assembly election campaign. But that is only if the Hight Court quashes the CBI court’s acquittal of Vijayan.

However, if the court upholds the CBI court’s interpretation of the chargesheet, the sole gainer will be Pinarayi and the coalition he was expected to lead, as it will certainly make him the sole contender for chief ministership, should the LDF go on to win.