Congress: Party as a Dirty Joke

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From Kerala to Himachal Pradesh, Congress is synonymous with the politics of sleaze and plunder

To the Kerala Chief Minister’s Office—which faces the bronze statue of 19th century civil servant and educationist T Madhava Rayar, who alone, it is said, watches over the restive offices that have seen much deceit—Saritha S Nair is said to have had easy access for over two years, from 2011 to May 2013. Officers in the old secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, which houses the CMO, used to jokingly refer to one of the entry points from where Nair, a businesswoman who is now the prime accused in a sleaze-and-bribery scandal rocking the Chief Minister Oommen Chandy-led Congress coalition, would swagger in with great frequency, as ‘Saritha Gate’. Nair, in her deposition before the judicial commission enquiring into alleged irregularities in the ambitious solar energy project involving her and the CMO, has claimed that she used to visit the office at least twice a week during the period.

“Where is Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president who had torn into pieces an ordinance supposed to protect the corrupt in 2013? Doesn’t he know that a free trial isn’t possible of the scams of his government here [so long as] Chief Minister Chandy is still at the helm? Is he afraid of the state satraps?” asks Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, state secretary of the main opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist). He is referring to several scams that hit the state government, the latest being the one involving the highly vocal and shrewd Nair.

This scandal, mostly referred to as the ‘solar scam’, first surfaced in June 2013, and for a long time, Chief Minister Chandy had claimed that he had never met or known a person by the name Saritha Nair. He said as much in response to a question on the floor of the state Assembly. But with skeletons and evidence tumbling out, Chandy, a politician with great survival skills in the cut-throat world of Congress politics in the state, admitted during a recent marathon 14-hour interrogation by the judicial commission that he may have met Nair some three times. A day before Nair was to depose before the judicial panel, Congress leader and Chandy confidant Thampanoor Ravi spoke to Nair to tutor her on where she had met the Chief Minister: twice in the office and once on a public stage. “The tapes [of the chat between Nair and Ravi and also the one between her and another Chandy loyalist and legislator Benny Behanan] reveal the extent of proximity that the solar scam prime accused had with Chandy and his circle of loyalists… Saritha has also alleged that she was sexually abused and used by some of these Congress leaders,” says a senior Congress leader from Kerala who has been tight-lipped about the issue so far. Speaking to Open, asking not to be named, he says that the current dispensation has brought a bad name to the state. “Especially for young entrepreneurs who want to set up businesses in Kerala,” he adds, emphasising that the Congress government is adopting an “ostrich-like attitude” in the face of potential, incriminating evidence.

Within a day after Chandy dared the media and political rivals to produce “at least a shred of evidence” against him, Nair came out with a document that carried the signature and stamp of the Chief Minister—which she said was a favour she extracted from Chandy for one of her investors. The investor in question, EK Baburaj, an NRI who had filed a case against Nair and others for cheating him, had said that he was impressed back then by Nair’s proximity to the Chief Minister. Nair’s company, Team Solar, owes crores of rupees to investors. Nair claims that she couldn’t offer solar solutions to her investors because the projects didn’t take off even after she paid bribes to the Chief Minister and other senior ministers, including Aryadan Mohammed. Incidentally, several of the Chief Minister’s staff had to quit for alleged links with Nair, who spent nine months in jail over the solar scam. She had been involved in such fraudulent deals and had even been jailed before, and what surprises political observers is the rapport she enjoyed with the chief minister, who, however, had denied any wrongdoing.

Nair, who deposed before the commission over several rounds (including one last week), also alleged that she had paid Chandy a bribe of Rs 1.9 crore, besides paying off several other Congress ministers and legislators. She also claimed before the commission that she was asked to help finance and set up a company for energy conservation with the Chief Minister’s son Chandy Oommen and his relatives on its board of directors.

The Chandy government has also been under attack over the past few years over some of his ministers accepting bribes from liquor barons to tweak liquor policy and to offer new licences for their bars. KM Mani, the state’s former finance minister, had to step down last year over allegations of taking bribes from representatives of the Kerala Bar Owners Association. In late January, a new disclosure by Biju Ramesh, working resident, Kerala Bar Owners Association, that he had given Excise Minister K Babu Rs 10 crore as a bribe for the renewal of licences of liquor bars, led the minister to put in his papers after a vigilance court directed that an FIR be filed against him in the bribery case. However, the Kerala High Court stayed the order and the Congress- led United Democratic Front decided that he needn’t resign.

In a move considered a travesty of governance, the UDF also appealed to Mani to return to the cabinet. “Mani has not yet returned to the cabinet, but all this appears to be a ploy by the Chief Minister to remain in the post since he himself is under a shadow of corruption,” says a senior police officer in the state, describing it as “a case of the tainted clinging on to each other”. A vigilance court had directed that an FIR be registered against Chandy and Aryadan for the scam, but a High Court later ruled that it wasn’t necessary.

Chandy has said that he didn’t want to resign to make way for a free and fair trial because, for him, conscience is above morality. While it is difficult to fathom the philosophical content of that statement, what is clear is that he doesn’t want to go, especially in an election year. “What gives him the edge is that the Congress high command led by Sonia Gandhi can’t raise a finger against him because they are in such bad shape nationally. Then leaders across factions are involved in various scams. Which means he doesn’t face much threat from within,” says a Congress leader who disapproves of the ways of Chandy, who had in the mid- 1990s fought tooth and nail to force then Congress Chief Minister K Karunakaran to resign over what turned out to be a fictitious espionage scandal.

This Congress leader agrees that Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has a point when he questions the “credentials of Rahul as a leader who had tried to project himself as a figure of high morality when he tore up an ordinance in 2013”. In September 2013, Rahul Gandhi publicly tore up an ordinance meant to overrule the Supreme Court order on disqualifying convicted MPs and MLAs. Meanwhile, Congress leaders allege that the CPM in the state, led by Balakrishnan, is hand- in-glove with Nair and the liquor lobby to sully Chandy’s image. In return, they claim, the CPM, if it comes to power in polls due in a few months, will dilute the existing liquor policy that disallows bars unless located in top-end hotels. “How can they say that? It was Chandy and Nair who delayed their appearance before the solar commission… Chandy had to finally depose and Saritha understood that Chandy was not going to protect her, as agreed upon earlier,” avers Balakrishnan.

With the Congress shrinking to its lowest ever Lok Sabha tally of 44 MPs in the 2014 General Election, the power that the First Family of the party used to wield has drastically reduced. During her entire reign, Indira Gandhi had meticulously sidelined powerful regional leaders to centralise power. Her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi followed in her footsteps later when she remote- controlled UPA I and UPA II, remaining the most powerful leader of her party. A former Union minister says, “Since the Congress is in power only in a handful of states, the chief ministers there had great clout within the organisation thanks to their access to campaign funds and money.” In a 2014 paper, University of Virginia Professor John Echeverri-Gent had stated that the Nehru-Gandhi family is able to retain its hold over the entire Congress and dictate terms to state units because it controls the campaign funds. “Now there seems to be a major shift with corporate houses shifting allegiance towards the BJP-led Government, and like how the late Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy exercised his power within the Congress briefly thanks to his access to funds, Congress CMs, who are a few, have now emerged very powerful. The likes of Virbhadra Singh of Himachal Pradesh and Chandy of Kerala and, to some extent, Siddaramaiah of Karnataka and Tarun Gogoi of Assam, are able to do that,” notes a Congress leader from Delhi.

The central leadership of the Congress has been helpless in reining in or seeking a replacement for Virbhadra Singh as Himachal’s Chief Minister despite him coming repeatedly under attack for graft. Singh has earned the wrath of the opposition and some of his own party leaders for several acts of alleged corruption. He is said to have used the ghost account of Anand Chauhan, an LIC agent, to deposit money. Last September, Singh became the first serving Chief Minister to be raided by the CBI over a disproportionate assets case. In a similar case earlier, RJD chief Lalu Prasad had resigned as Bihar’s Chief Minister before the agency turned up to arrest him. According to Income Tax officials and the CBI, Singh had amassed ‘illegal assets’ worth Rs 6 crore when he was Union steel minister from 2009 to 2012, and the amount reflected in his income tax returns and bank documents. According to documents reviewed by Open, Singh had parked unaccounted- for income in LIC policies (through Chauhan) in his name, in the name of his wife Pratibha Singh and other members of the family by showing the money as agricultural income. Singh, who owns an orchard 100 km off Shimla, had claimed in his IT returns that he earned Rs 6 crore from his 3,000 apple trees spread over 105 bighas—much higher than the revenue typically earned from apple farms.

Besides this, Singh had allegedly used one V Chandershekhar to route his unaccounted- for cash through him and various associates back into his bank account ‘in the name of unsecured loans’, according to documents reviewed by Open. According to various reports, Singh and his family members took Rs 5.90 crore from one Chandershekhar between June and November 2011. Out of this, Rs 2.40 crore was paid to Virbhadra Singh, Rs 1.50 crore to his wife Pratibha Singh and Rs 2 crore to his son Vikramaditya Singh. Once this matter became public, Singh claimed that this was an unsecured loan for renovation of his Rampur Palace from Chandershekhar, who has several business interests in Himachal Pradesh. Singh and Chandershekhar have claimed that they are being targeted by the CBI at the behest of the Centre. However, a senior Congress leader based in Delhi says that Singh should at least step down until he is proven innocent. “His continuance is a tight slap on the face of the Central leadership,” he says.

In Assam, like in many other Congress states riven by corruption and factionalism, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had admitted that there was corruption in almost every department of his government. In a ruse to protect himself from attack, he had stated that “we need to check the system to stop corruption”. Various Congress leaders in the state have claimed that Gogoi was the kingpin of corruption and “has lately become untouchable thanks to his unaccounted wealth”. While Open couldn’t independently verify these claims, the Congress high command is widely perceived as ineffective in handling misgovernance in the state. “It is clear that Rahul Gandhi’s anti-corruption tirade works only against weaklings within the party. Others can’t be forced to fall in line,” says the second Congress leader.

The party high command also faces the threat of what some leaders call ‘fast diminishing importance’ in various poll- bound states, including Tamil Nadu, where the party is looking at forging an alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Congress had contested the last Lok Sabha polls on its own and had drawn a blank. It had contested the last Assembly elections along with DMK but secured just five seats in the 234-member Assembly (the alliance fell through later). Now, though DMK chief M Karunanidhi had said that Congress would be invited to join the alliance led by his party for the upcoming polls in Tamil Nadu, at least two Congress leaders from the state have told Open that “we will however, have to settle for lesser seats than last time”. In West Bengal, where the Congress is a feeble electoral force, it is looking at potential tie-ups. Some leaders favour an alliance with rival CPM, which has also weakened rapidly over the years.

In Karnataka, the law and order situation has been spiralling out of control over the past year under Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. He was unable to stem the violence that erupted over the holding of the birth anniversary celebrations of Tipu Sultan last year. Several activists are of the view that Bengaluru, the state capital, has seen rampant racist, anti-African attacks. Rahul Gandhi, who had flown down to Hyderabad Central University to protest anti-Dalit crimes following the death of Dalit student Rohith Vemula has not yet shown any effort to save Bengaluru’s image as a cosmopolitan city after a shocking incident on 31 January. For no fault of hers, a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman was beaten, stripped and made to parade naked on the streets of the state’s capital while the police stood by and watched.

Rahul Gandhi may yet troop down to Bengaluru to express solidarity with Africans on Indian soil, but to raise a finger of suspicion against Congress chief ministers who have earned criticism for abetting corruption or playing truant may not be easy. Attributing popular resentment to slander is a convenient option, but a helpless one at that, especially for a leader who had famously called for greater transparency and a crusade against wrongdoers within his party. And at a time when the party’s electoral prowess is seeing a fast decline, troubles in the handful of states it rules have given the grand old party an image to be ashamed of.