Former Kerala chief minister and Congress leader Oommen Chandy is facing one of the biggest tests in his six-decade-long political career with the state government on Wednesday announcing criminal and vigilance inquiries against him in the solar scam case. The investigation will also consider allegations of sexual abuse against him.
The 2013 case revolves around a woman and her partner, Biju Radhakrishnan, who allegedly cheated investors to the tune of Rs 7 crores by offering to make them partners in their company, Team Solar Renewable Energy Solutions Private Limited, which sold solar energy products to institutions and households. Chandy, who was then the chief minister, is accused of using his office to help the two. The woman later alleged he had sexually abused her on several occasions.
In January this year, a Kerala magistrate court convicted Radhakrishnan and the woman and sentenced them to three years in prison on a complaint filed by one of the investors.
After the scandal broke, Chandy’s popularity plumetted. With the Opposition and the media keeping the case in the spotlight till the Assembly elections in 2016, the Congress suffered a humiliating defeat. It won only 22 seats in the 140-member House. Making the most of the public disenchantment with Chandy, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front rode to power on the promise of corruption-free governance, taking 91 seats.
A defiant Chandy on Wednesday vowed to relinquish public life if the investigation proved there was even 1% of truth in the allegations.
Announcing the decision to start inquiries by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau and a Special Investigation Team, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the Justice G Sivarajan Commission had directly blamed Chandy and members of his personal staff for helping the accused people. The commission of inquiry was set up in October 2013 by the Chandy government.
Vijayan added that Chandy’s aides Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, Aryadan Mohammed, Benny Behnan and Thampanoor Ravi would also be investigated. All of them belong to the powerful “A” faction of the Kerala Congress – the other dominant faction in the state unit being the “I” group led by Ramesh Chennithala, who is leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.
The ruling Left considers Chandy the biggest threat among the state’s Congress leaders.
For the Congress, the developments are a bitter blow, given that it had only just launched a campaign against what it claimed were the Left Democratic Front government’s “anti-people policies”.
It retaliated on Friday with the Thrissur District Congress Committee reportedly lodging a police complaint against Vijayan, seeking action against the chief minister for naming the woman accused during his press conference. The law states that victims of sexual abuse cannot be named.
Wednesday’s developments followed a reprieve to Chandy from a Bengaluru court in a solar scam-related case on October 7. The court had quashed an earlier order directing Chandy and four others to pay Rs 1.6 crores to a city-based real-estate consultant who was allegedly cheated after being promised a solar power project in Kerala.
Vendetta, says Congress
The Congress has accused the government of carrying on a campaign of political vendetta.
On Thursday, Chandy asked why the ruling Left had not released the Sivarajan Commission report in full. He wrote in a Facebook post:
“The decision not to publicise the inquiry commission’s report reeks of suspicion. I have filed an application under the Right to Information Act to get a copy of it. I will begin legal action after getting it. Those who wish to malign me with frivolous allegations will have to pay [a] heavy price.”
Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, who was home minister in the Chandy government and is also under investigation, accused the ruling Left of using the report for political gains. “That is why the chief minister divulged the partial contents of the judicial commission report at a press conference,” he told reporters in Kottayam on Thursday.
Political commentator Sunnykutty Abraham said it was impossible to judge whether Chandy had erred without reading the full report. “Since 1957, Kerala had seen 135 judicial inquiry commissions,” he said. “Except this one, all 134 judicial commission reports were tabled in the legislative Assembly along with the action taken report.”
Threat to supremacy?
But the damage may already be done for Chandy. The impact of the sexual abuse charges may be particularly difficult to shake off.
The woman had testified before the Sivarajan Commission that Chandy had abused her at his official residence several times. Based on her statement, the commission had observed that such acts should be considered corruption and suggested that cases be registered under the Prevention of Corruption Act against all those accused of sexually exploiting the woman.
Chandy had denied the allegations when he appeared before the commission in January. “Some business interests are trying to blackmail me and defame me in society by raising such allegations,” he had said.
With such serious charges against him, the two-time chief minister faces an uphill task winning back the trust of voters. It will also have to be seen how he now asserts his supremacy in the Kerala Congress, which is set to hold organisational elections and pick a new president soon.