The tough talking chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, may have managed to weather a major storm by forcing Indian Administrative Service officers in his state to call off their planned strike on Monday, but it remains to be seen whether the civil servants will fall in line without causing his government any further embarrassment.
The Kerala IAS Officers Association, with 152 members including the chief secretary and district collectors, had decided to take a half-day casual leave on Monday to protest what it termed abuse of power by the Vigilance and Anti-corruption Bureau, whose chief has initiated corruption inquiries against several senior officers. The IAS officers have accused the vigilance chief of targeting them and said his actions have affected their morale.
The proposed protest was said to be unprecedented in the history of the Indian civil services and would have been a blot on the seven-month-old Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front government in the state. It was called off early on Monday after Vijayan, at a meeting with representatives of the association headed by Chief Secretary SM Vijayanand, criticised the officers for bringing discredit to the government. Addressing a press conference later, Vijayan warned that his government would not countenance any misadventures to weaken it. With this, he sent out a clear message that he was not willing to buy the officers’ contention that the protest was directed not against the government but at Vigilance Director Jacob Thomas.
Thomas has initiated corruption investigations against several senior IAS officers. In October, vigilance checks were conducted at the homes of additional chief secretaries KM Abraham and Tom Jose. Then, on January 5, the Vigilance Bureau questioned Jose in connection with a disproportionate wealth case.
The following day, Thomas implicated additional chief secretary Paul Antony as an accused in a case relating to the appointment of former Industries Minister EP Jayarajan’s nephew as managing director of the public sector Kerala State Industrial Enterprises. The nepotism controversy had resulted in Jayarajan’s resignation from the cabinet in November.
The strike call
The decision to go on mass casual leave was taken during a meeting of the Kerala IAS Officers Association in Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday. The association requested its members to take half a day off work on Monday to express their “sadness, frustration, and professional dissatisfaction” at the vigilance director’s actions and to show solidarity with their aggrieved colleagues.
Members of the association have accused the chief minister of aggravating the situation by not taking their complaints seriously. They pointed to Vijayan’s outburst against Chief Secretary SM Vijayanand during Monday’s meeting, when the strike was withdrawn, as an example of his blind support to the vigilance director. Vijayan reportedly asked Vijayanand whether he was acting as a “super chief minister”, in response to which the miffed official offered to resign if the chief minister didn’t trust him.
Vijayan also rapped KM Abraham for conducting the meeting that decided on the protest leave at the secretariat.
The twin snubs have irked the officers. According to a report in The New Indian Express, they will meet later this week to decide on their future course of action.
The chief minister’s decision to throw his weight behind the vigilance director may be a calculated political move to buttress his position as a crusader against corruption and nepotism, having led his party to power on the promise of corruption-free governance.
The current controversy might help him stave off demands by the Opposition to sack Electricity Minister MM Mani, whose petition to an Idukki court to discharge him in a case relating to the 1982 murder of a Youth Congress leader was dismissed in December.
But Vijayan may have to take a call on the fate of another senior member of his cabinet, J Mercy Kutty Amma, who is facing corruption charges. The vigilance bureau earlier this month conducted a quick verification of the minister of fisheries and cashews, based on allegations that she had misused her office to facilitate a Rs 10-crore scam with regard to the import of cashews.
Though the chief minister has been firm with the protesting IAS officers, it must now be seen how he deals with the contempt brewing in the party and the government. The Opposition has already begun to train its guns on Vijayan for failing to control the officers.
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala of the Congress accused Vijayan of sleeping on the complaints of the IAS officers. “The chief minister is responsible for the current state of affairs in the administration,” he told a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram on Monday. “The IAS officers have raised a serious allegation that the vigilance director is misusing his position to settle scores. It should be examined. Vijayan is the weakest chief minister that Kerala has ever seen. He doesn’t have control over even the officials under him.”
According to social activist and Aam Admi Party leader CR Neelakandan, the controversy has dented the chief minister’s image. “It has cast aspersions on his political decision-making capabilities,” he said.
Former IAS officer K Suresh Kumar, however, questioned the civil servants’ protest decision. “It is impossible to justify the protest by IAS officers,” he said on Monday. “A minister has quit following allegations of nepotism. A vigilance probe would find whether the officer too erred. If he didn’t do anything wrong, why are the officers overly worried?”