political churn

Media power: With Thomas Chandy's exit, this Kerala government has now lost 3 ministers in 18 months

The state transport minister is the latest to step down after media reports of alleged land grab.

The 18-month-old Pinarayi Vijayan government in Kerala suffered another jolt with the resignation of transport minister Thomas Chandy on Wednesday. Chandy is the third minister to quit the cabinet after the unceremonious exits of CPI(M)’s EP Jayarajan on October 14, 2016 and NCP’s AK Saseendran on March 26 this year. All the three ministers were forced to resign in light of media exposés on them and Chandy had, in fact, been appointed as Saseendran’s replacement.

Chandy’s Nationalist Congress Party is a member of the ruling Left Democratic Front, led by Vijayan’s Communist Party of India (Marxist).

In September, Malayalam television news channel Asianet News broke the news of Chandy’s alleged involvement in the encroachment of Marthandam Lake in Alappuzha district. The report alleged that Chandy had reclaimed a portion of the lake to construct a parking spot and approach roads to the Lake Palace Resort, a holiday destination he co-owned. Other media organisations soon followed this up and brought out more details of the alleged irregularities committed by the minister. Opposition parties asked the chief minister to remove Chandy from the cabinet.

An investigation report by the district collector confirmed that Chandy and his business associates violated rules pertaining to the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008.

Though Chandy initially refused to step down, he was forced to do so after a division bench of the Kerala High Court rejected his plea to cancel the district collector’s report on Tuesday.

Media exposes

Chandy, who was the richest minister in Vijayan’s cabinet with disclosed assets worth Rs 92.37 crore, held the minister’s post for just eight months after taking oath on April 1. He had replaced 72-year-old Saseendran who was forced to relinquish office after Mangalam Television had aired an audio clip of an alleged explicit phone conversation between a woman and the politician in March.

The channel later confessed that the minister was honey trapped by a woman journalist who spoke to him over the phone posing as a home-maker. But Saseendran had already stepped down by then.

Vijayan’s cabinet suffered its first major shock when CPI(M) heavyweight EP Jayarajan resigned barely six months after the formation of the government following charges of nepotism. Jayarajan, who held the industries, commerce and sports portfolios, had enjoyed close rapport with the chief minister.

Trouble began for Jayarajan when the leading daily, Malayala Manorama, published several reports detailing how he had allegedly gone out of the way to appoint relatives in key positions in the public sector companies. The CPI(M) state secretariat asked the minister to step down when the issue snowballed into a political controversy.

The Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau absolved him of all charges as it wrote off the corruption case against him early this month.

Keeping the press at bay

Vijayan, who has had to oust three ministers from his cabinet over media reports, has interestingly always kept the press at arm’s length.

He reportedly wanted to delay Chandy’s resignation fearing that the media would use it to tarnish the reputation of his government. When Chandy turned up for the cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning, it surprised all the leaders present as the High Court had rejected his plea the previous day and the coalition parties in the government had demanded his resignation.

Chandy’s presence threatened to trigger a storm, as ministers belonging to the CPI, the second-largest party in the Left Democratic Front government, abstained from the cabinet session as a mark of protest. After heated discussions in the coalition, Chandy announced his resignation.

A few days ago, Vijayan was reportedly asked his colleagues in the CPI(M) and other coalition partners whether it would be good to cave into the agenda set by the media.

“Jayarajan and Saseendran had resigned based on media reports,” Vijayan was quoted as saying by Madhyamam newspaper. “There were no cases against them. All the allegations against them had been proved wrong. “Media outlets are now churning out sensational reports against Chandy. His resignation would set a bad precedence for other ministers in future.”

Vijayan has been strategically keeping media away ever since he assumed office in May last year.

One of his first decisions was to cancel the decade-old practice of conducting the customary media briefing after the weekly cabinet meetings. Instead, he began to rely heavily on social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, to announce cabinet decisions and the government’s stand on various issues.

Vijayan had snubbed mediapersons who went to cover the peace talks between him and the Sangh Parivar leaders at the Mascot hotel in Thiruvananthapuram in July. “Get out, who invited you here,” he had told them, drawing widespread condemnation.

But Vijayan did not apologise for his remarks.

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