Monday, August 8, 2011

Court orders probe into Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy's role

Vigilance too hot for Oommen Chandy

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy has come under political pressure after a vigilance court ordered a fresh probe on whether he had a role in the decision to import palmolein from Malaysia, as finance minister in the Karunakaran cabinet.

The court asked the vigilance and anti-corruption bureau to probe the matter and submit a report within three months. The development has serious political implications, given Chandy's earlier statement that he would abide by the Congress high command's decision if there was an adverse observation by the court in the case.

The court rejected the report filed by investigators that there was no need for any further inquiry into Chandy's association in the matter. The palmolein case involves an allegation that Rs 2.32-crore loss was incurred by the state in the import of 32,000 tonnes of palmolein from Malaysia. The late Congress leader K Karunakaran was the first accused.

The case cost former Chief Vigilance Commissioner PJ Thomas his job, as he is the sixth accused in the case. Thomas was the state Food Secretary when palmolein was imported. The turn of events is expected to bring additional pressure on Oommen Chandy, given his coalition's thin majority in the assembly and also because of perceived power struggles within the state unit of the party.

Political observers say the latest setback for Chandy may give an upper hand to KPCC President Ramesh Chennithala. It was another Congress leader TH Mustaffa who had dragged Chandy's name into the case. Mustaffa pointed out that while he was implicated in the case as then food minister, Chandy who was the finance minister was not made an accused.

The Chandy camp, however, is hopeful that he has the backing of the central leadership at the moment. Opposition Leader VS Achuthanandan said Chandy should "decide whether he should continue in the post" in the backdrop of the court's directive.

"It doesn't seem like Chandy has any other option than resigning." CPM leader and former home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said Chandy ought to give up the vigilance portfolio since he was facing a probe by that department.

"If he continues to hold the vigilance portfolio when there is an inquiry against him, the probe is unlikely to progress impartially," Balakrishnan said. Chennithala said the chief minister need not resign on the basis of Monday's development.

Vigilance too hot for Oommen Chandy

The two-decade old palm oil case almost claimed an unwitting party to the deal; the Chief Minister Mr Oommen Chandy, the then finance minister.

Mr Chandy wanted to quit as soon as the verdict was out, but coalition leaders prevailed on him.

Instead, Mr Chandy may give up the vigilance portfolio as it would be embarrassing to preside over the agency that probes him.

The CM, who had told the Congress high command that he would quit in the event of an adverse judicial reference, was inclined to uphold it. But the Defence Minister, Mr A K Antony, smelt the danger.

Despite his busy schedule in Parliament, Mr Antony authorised a Congress MP to ask Mr Chandy not to act on sentiment but look at the larger UDF canvas and let the probe conclude.

The message was that but for him, the ruling UDF faced imminent collapse.

The advocate-general, Mr K.P. Dhandapani, rushed from Kochi to advise the Law Minister, Mr K.M. Mani.

The argument in favour of Mr Chandy still retains the high moral ground because none of the previous Left Ministries could find a shred of evidence to proceed against him.

The former Vigilance director, Mr K.J. Joseph, had probed Mr Chandy during the Nayanar Government and given a given a clean chit.

However, towards the fag end of the Achuthanandan Government, following the death of the first accused, Mr K. Karunakaran, there was a flurry of petitions seeking discharge from the case. But the judge thought otherwise.

The case now continues to hound Mr Chandy, whose only indiscretion was to sign on a file presented to him by the then Food Minister, Mr T.H. Musthafa, minutes before a Cabinet meeting.

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