Monday, February 15, 2016
To coin a new phrase, Whither Kerala?
For the first time in history a woman of colourful reputation, backed by a jail term, has become the fulcrum of power in the state, holding the chief minister, several ministers, MLAs and police bosses to ransom. To understand the enormity of this achievement, we must remember that the present chief minister, Oommen Chandy, is the shrewdest political manipulator Kerala has ever seen. He plotted the ouster of the influential K.Karunakaran and of the popular A.K.Antony from chief ministership, thus clearing the way to his own rise to the top. He also subdued his alliance partners K.M.Mani and Kunjalikutty, masters of machinations in their own right, the moment they showed signs of asserting themselves. Such a genius of intrigue being upstaged by a charming cheat?
But Sarita Nair is no ordinary woman. A B.Com graduate and mother of two, she dances and a film or two featuring her are in the works. She began life with a bank job which she used to take loan seekers for a ride. Articulate, intelligent and bold to a fault, she seems ready for a fight whoever the adversary. She was made for politics.
But she went into business. With a partner (now in jail for, among other things, killing his wife), she floated a company to provide solar energy to all kinds of enterprises. Finding shortcuts through political influence was the preferred modus operandi of the company. Chief Minister Chandy was one of her early contacts and she used the link to line up some big deals. When the bubble burst she said vast sums of money were paid to VIPs while some VIPs tried to exploit her as a woman.
In the initial stages Sarita never made any charges against Oommen Chandy himself. But he must have been rattled within. He made two uncharacteristic mistakes. The first was to say that he did not know Sarita Nair and never met her. In no time photographs appeared on screens and in newspapers showing Sarita whispering things into the ears of the Chief Minister. Subsequently Chandy said he might have seen her two or three times. Against published and telecast evidence, the Chief Minister sounded like telling untruths. In the eyes of the public, he lost.
His second mistake was another untruth. Commentators started saying that Chandy was reaping what he had sowed when he used the ISRO spy case of 1994 against K.Karunakaran. Chandy challenged the media to cite a single instance of his attacking Karunakaran over the ISRO case. In no time, the channels showed a young Oommen Chandy softly but in strong words saying that the ISRO case had so badly damaged Karunakaran's and the Congress's reputation that his continuance in office would be fatal for the party. When the news clip was brought to his attention, he smiled and brazened it out by denying any link between 'then' and 'now'. In the eyes of the public, he lost heavily.
Sarita Nair, having initially "protected" the Chief Minister, later turned against him because, she said, there was no sign of his returning to her, as promised, the money she had paid to his nominees at various times. Indicating that there was some truth in her claims, a couple of the Chief Minister's close personal aides had to abruptly leave their jobs in the early stages of the scandal. Now, openly and directly, Sarita said she had paid a bribe of Rs 1.9 crore to the Chief Minister's personal representative in Delhi. Denials by party spokesmen filled the air. Then, before a jungle of television cameras, raising her finger as well as her voice, Sarita challenged the Chief Minister (without mentioning his name) to file an FIR against her. People were stunned.
In the last week or so the master tactician in Oommen Chandy seems to have recovered. Vigilance and police reports have come out exposing "conspirators" behind Sarita Nair. The needle of suspicion points to government leaders, primarily because some of the ministers are known for corruption. But counter disclosures help fill the air with confusion, giving the Chandy group some breathing space.
The real tragedy is Kerala's. Till a decade ago the "Kerala model" was internationally lauded for its achievements in the social sector. The state's educational advancement and village-covering health services were the envy of others. All that is gone. Now money rules. Perhaps Kerala will fare better if Sarita Nair becomes the next Chief Minister. It certainly will not fare worse.