OB vans parked end to end, television cameras crammed for space and jostling reporters vying for a sound bite. An ignorant observer can be forgiven for thinking that a high-flying celebrity is about to make an appearance at the lobby of the Kerala State Housing Board building in Kochi. A while later, a young woman steps out of the elevator and is mobbed by waiting reporters. Clad in an electric blue sari, Saritha S. Nair handles questions from seasoned reporters with what seems to be practised nonchalance. Saritha, 38, is one of the key accused in the solar panel scam, which has been rocking Kerala politics for the last three years. And, the scene at the housing board building, where Justice Sivarajan Commission of inquiry into the scam is based, has been animated for the past few days.
Saritha and her second husband, Biju Radhakrishnan, launched Team Solar Renewable Energy Solutions Private Limited in 2011, promising people assistance to set up solar power units. With the duo dropping enough hints about their connections with the high and mighty of Kerala, many people invested in their projects. Still, the scam was in the minor league, worth around Rs.12 crore. After some of the investors who lost their money approached the police in 2013, Saritha and Biju were arrested and 33 cases of cheating were registered. The chief minister's office was in the eye of the storm and two members of his personal staff Tenni Joppen and Jikkumon Jacob and his security guard Salim Raj were fired. In an interview with THE WEEK in 2013, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said lapses by a few members of his staff had led to the controversy. A few months later, Biju was convicted in the case of his first wife Reshmi's murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
During her eight-month stay in jail and upon her release on bail, Saritha has made several allegations about paying bribes and providing sexual favours to a number of leaders of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), but never substantiated the charges. But with the media lapping up her every word and deed, Saritha now enjoys celebrity status and her appearances before the solar inquiry commission often end up being public spectacles.
It was during one such appearance on January 27 that she dropped a bombshell against Chandy. Saritha said she had paid him Rs1.9 crore as bribe through his Delhi-based aide, Thomas Kuruvilla. She said she had paid Rs.40 lakh to power minister Aryadan Mohammed. A day later, S.S. Vasan, a vigilance judge in Thrissur, while hearing a public interest litigation on the issue, ordered a first information report to be registered and an investigation to be opened against Chandy and Mohammed. Both of them approached the High Court against the order and got it stayed. The High Court severely criticised the vigilance judge for the manner in which he handled the matter. He opted for voluntary retirement following the criticism, but changed his decision a few days later at the instance of some judges of the High Court.
Although Chandy won reprieve from the High Court, his government has been lurching from one crisis to another. On February 1, Saritha submitted, before the solar commission, CDs which purportedly contained her conversations with Thampanoor Ravi and Benny Behanan, Congress leaders known to be close to Chandy. The leaders could be heard asking her to stick to the CM’s version of events in the solar scam. Although the veracity of the CDs is yet to be proved, they have turned into a major embarrassment for the Congress party.
It was only a few days earlier that Excise Minister K. Babu had to resign following adverse remarks by the same vigilance judge on the bar bribery scandal. Babu, too, had obtained a stay order from the High Court and rejoined the cabinet. Yet, allegations of corruption are levelled against UDF leaders almost on a regular basis by bar hotel association leaders, tarnishing the reputation of the government.
However, with the Congress high command throwing its weight behind him, and the major coalition partners unwilling to rock the boat, Chandy seems to be putting up a fight. His challengers within the party, including state Congress president V.M. Sudheeran and Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala, have declared support for the chief minister, at least for the time being. “Some factions in the Left Democratic Front are scheming against the chief minister,” said Sudheeran. “The CPI(M) wants the Lavalin case, in which [CPI(M) Polit Bureau member] Pinarayi Vijayan is an accused, to go undiscussed.”
ON JANUARY 15, the day Vijayan launched his Kerala march from the northern district of Kasaragod (leaders of most parties are taking out marches ahead of the assembly elections), the High Court upheld a plea by the state government for an early hearing on revision petitions filed against a CBI court verdict acquitting him in the Rs.374.5 crore SNC Lavalin corruption case. It will now be taken up by the High Court and as Kerala moves into election mode, it could be a major headache for Vijayan and his party.
Chandy's latest travails in the solar scam began soon after the High Court order in the Lavalin case. He deposed for 14 hours before the solar commission on January 25, but the bribe allegation was not raised then. Chandy told THE WEEK that it was a plot by the bar lobby, the solar scam accused and the left front. With the government standing firm on its policy of shutting down bars other than in five-star hotels, the bar hotel owners have been on the warpath. Senior CPI(M) leaders have already spoken about reviewing the liquor policy.
Chandy challenged his detractors further in a news conference on February 3, in which he reiterated the conspiracy theory. He said he would relinquish public life if Saritha could prove any of her charges against him.
While she holds forth formidably before television cameras, Saritha does not seem to be that confident during her examination by the solar commission. Her answers are brief and barely audible. During her deposition on February 2, Saritha mentioned she had faced sexual exploitation, but refused to give more details, stressing her right to privacy, although on several occasions in the past, she had revealed such details. She told the commission that she would give details and supporting evidence in sealed envelopes at her next deposition scheduled for February 4.
Saritha was in a defiant mood talking to journalists before leaving for Coimbatore to appear next day at a judicial magistrate's court in a cheating case filed by a private firm in the city. She said she would spare no effort in exposing Chandy's involvement in the scandal. “I have nothing more to lose,” said Saritha.
With assembly elections round the corner, leaders and supporters of the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front must be feeling a sense of déjà vu. In the last two elections the UDF lost, it was hurt by scandals centred on women. For the third time in a row, a woman seems to be reprising the spoiler's role for the ruling alliance.