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A year in office: Controversies galore, but Kerala government highlights fight against corruption

A year in office: Controversies galore, but Kerala government highlights fight against corruption

On Saturday, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said he wanted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to inaugurate the Kochi Metro Rail Service – a joint venture between the Central and state governments – on May 30. With this, he deftly avoided a controversy that had seemed certain after the state’s tourism minister, Kadakampally Surendran, had announced hours earlier that the chief minister would proceed with the launch even without the presence of the prime minister. Vijayan’s timely action denied the Bharatiya Janata Party a weapon with which to target the state government.

Despite this, Vijayan has not shown much tactical thinking since he led the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-headed Left Democratic Front to power in the Assembly elections last year. As a result, his government, which completes a year in office on Thursday (May 25), has seen many controversies and crises.

It has been criticised for a reported rise in sexual offences against women and children, and for the actions of its police force. There has been a very visible rift with an important ally. Even its decision to have six advisors ran into trouble. There was opposition to the appointment of Harvard economist Gita Gopinath as financial advisor to the government as it was alleged that Gopinath was an advocate of neo-liberalism, which is against the basic tenets of Marxism. The hiring of former director general of police Raman Srivastva to advise on police affairs was also criticised on the grounds that Srivastava had allegedly made an anti-Muslim statement during riots in Palakkad district in 1991.

Despite the controversies, Vijayan addressed a press conference on Sunday at which he focused instead on the Left Democratic Front government’s achievements, saying it had made considerable progress in rooting out corruption – its main promise during last year’s elections in which it won 91 seats in the 140-member House.

Police face most flak

Among the various government departments, the Kerala Police have drawn the most criticism in the past year.

The use of the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act against various activists has been termed an act of suppressing dissent and punishing those whose views differ from that of mainstream political party workers.

In April, the alleged manhandling of a woman demanding an investigation into the death of her son, a college student who was found hanging in his hostel room, had caused an uproar. KK Mahija had complained that policemen had hit her and dragged her on the road when she and her relatives tried to organise a protest in front of the Kerala Police Headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram.

Similarly, there have been protests against the arrest of film watchers – including 12 delegates at the International Film Festival of Kerala in December – for not standing up for the national anthem before movie screenings in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling.

The police have also faced flak for a reported rise in cases of sexual abuse of women and children.

The police administrative, too, has seen its fair share of controversy. Three days after taking office, Vijayan had replaced Director General of Police TP Senkumar with Loknath Behra. But the former took the case to court and after an 11-month legal battle, the government suffered a big blow when the Supreme Court on April 24 ordered that Senkumar be reinstated.

Ally trouble

While facing numerous controversies, the government has also had to contend with a rift with coalition partner, the Communist Party of India.

In November, the ally had spoken out against the killing of two Maoists by the police in Malappuram district, calling it a ploy by the chief minister to get funds from the Centre. It has also opposed the government’s decision to go ahead with a long-pending hydropower project in the ecologically sensitive Athirappilly Falls, and the use of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act by the police against activists.

The rift widened when the revenue department, which is under the Communist Party of India’s E Chandrashekharan, began a drive to reclaim government land that had been encroached upon in Idukki district. As part of the drive, revenue officials demolished a giant metal cross on a plot of land in Pappathichola in April. Denouncing the action at a public meeting, Vijayan said it would give the impression that the Left Democratic Front government was against the Christian faith.

Though the differences persist, both parties seem to have reached an agreement to avoid bickering in public.

Lack of transparency

Yet another controversy erupted with Vijayan’s decision to cancel his customary media briefing after each cabinet meeting, leading to speculation about his alleged lack of trust in the media. He argued that the briefing should be done by the public relations department and not by the chief minister.

The government also refused to disclose the details of cabinet meetings under the Right to Information Act.

On this matter too, the Communist Party of India questioned the chief minister’s stand, reminding him that the Left parties had played a key role in ushering in the Right to Information Act. In the wake of public pressure, the government decided to publish all cabinet decisions on government websites within 48 hours.

Counting successes

Putting the controversies behind him, the chief minister told the press on Sunday that a corruption-free system was his government’s biggest achievement in its first year in office.

Vijayan said that by adopting a zero-tolerance approach to corruption, the state had made a transition to good governance. “We have seen politicians clinging to their seats of power,” he said. “The scenario is changing and we could bring in a healthy political culture.”

Referring to the resignation of two of his cabinet colleagues to buttress his point, he added, “The government has sent out a strong message that there will be no political godfathers for wrongdoers.”

Just five months into the new government, Vijayan’s party colleague and aide EP Jayarajan was forced to quit as industries minister on charges of nepotism – he allegedly appointed his relatives in key positions in public sector companies. AK Sassendran, who was transport minister, was next to go after a television channel aired a recording of an alleged conversation between him and a woman in which he is said to have sought sexual favours.

In past months, Vijayan has also seen some success in his efforts to bring peace to Kannur district, where a string of murders of cadre from both the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the BJP and Sangh Parivar has proved to be one of his greatest challenges. The chief minister organised all-party peace meetings that were attended by both sides. Success on this front would be the biggest feather in Vijayan’s cap.

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