L’affaire Lavalin: Questions Galore for the CPI(M) to Answer

- KK

The response of the CPI(M) and the Kerala Government led by it to the CBI charge-sheet against CPI(M) politburo member and Kerala State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan raises some serious questions. The charge-sheet relates to alleged kickbacks taken by Vijayan (then the Power Minister in the LDF-ruled State Government) to favour the Canadian company SNC-Lavalin for contracts awarded 12 years ago.
In 1996, the then Congress-led UDF Government through the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) signed an agreement with SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian power consulting company, towards replacing and modernising three major hydroelectric projects in the State. When the LDF took over the Government, Pinarayi Vijayan as Power Minister led the renegotiation of the earlier contract and also visited Canada with then CM E K Nayanar to finalise the new deal. In doing so, it is alleged that the LDF Government disregarded the recommendations of its own power reforms expert panel, headed by former CITU national president E Balanandan (who passed away earlier this month). The Balanandan panel had reportedly recommended an alternative deal with the public-sector BHEL at a far lower cost.
It is also alleged that Vijayan arranged for kickbacks from Lavalin to the tune of Rs 98 crore sum towards a super-speciality hospital at Thalassery, the home constituency of chief minister Nayanar. Eventually, this amount apparently never reached the hospital; instead Rs 9 crore from Lavalin went to a private firm in Chennai that had the contract for setting up the hospital building, and the fate of the rest of the money is unknown.
A CAG report in 2005 held that due processes had been bypassed to rush through the renegotiated deal, and that the Rs 374.50 crore spent on it was a huge public loss. The CAG also held that power generation in the three projects had, far from increasing, actually fallen since the deal with Lavalin. The CBI probe was eventually ordered at the behest of the Kerala High Court. Now, the CBI has completed its probe, named Vijayan as one of the accused, and sought permission to prosecute him (on the grounds that the Governor's permission is required to prosecute a former minister).
Vijayan is the first Left leader in the country to be charge-sheeted by the CBI. In itself, this is a serious enough cause for concern for all on the Left. The Left has hitherto enjoyed the well-deserved credibility of being free of the rampant corruption that grips most other parties. The Lavalin case marks a serious blow to that credibility and the CPI(M) now stands on the dock.
Yet, instead of answering the corruption charges and initiating disciplinary action against the accused, the CPI(M) has chosen to ‘celebrate’ it with a public campaign. The party has pressed its entire organisational machinery in Kerala to defend Vijayan and rubbish the CBI investigation as an act of political conspiracy on the part of the Congress-led Centre. But by all accounts this is not going to absolve the CPI(M) in the eyes of the people in Kerala or elsewhere. In Shoranur (in Prakash Karat's home district of Palakkad), a platform launched by CPI(M) dissidents recently swept the municipality polls. During the party's 'Nava Kerala Yatra' to defend Vijayan, the latter was apparently even pelted with slippers at one place.
It must be noted that the Lavalin case is no isolated instance of corruption that haunts the Kerala CPI(M); rather, it ought to be seen in the context of CPI(M)'s Kerala leadership dabbling in huge money-spinning enterprises like theme parks, super-speciality hospitals, shopping malls etc., and that of other accusations of graft in which party leaders and institutions are mired. Even the CPI(M)’s Malayalam organ Deshabhimani faces charges of accepting Rs.2 crore's worth of 'bonds' from a notoriously corrupt lottery tycoon; the party tried simultaneously to justify and disown this deal (claiming the deal was innocent but returning the money). In another incident, the party was forced to expel a senior functionary in the same organ when he was accused of taking a bribe of Rs.1 crore from a private financial institution in return for a promise to persuade the Government to overlook its illegal operations. Last year, the Kerala HC has ordered a fresh probe into these complaints.
Chief Minister Achuthanandan has of course distanced himself till now from the ‘defend Vijayan’ campaign; but even as VS stays away from the Vijayan-led
‘Nava Kerala Yatra’, the LDF government in Kerala has not granted permission to CBI to prosecute the latter. The matter has been referred to the Advocate General, without laying down any time frame. In effect, this is a tactic by the State Government to delay the pursuit of the case.
Had leaders of any other ruling party in any other state been implicated in a corruption charge, all Left forces would naturally have been at the forefront of a concerted campaign on the issue of corruption, taking the State Government to task for shielding any of its accused leaders. In the Lavalin instance too, those committed to defending the credibility of the Left must demand that the CPI(M)-led Kerala Government must stop standing in the way of the course of justice, and must allow the CBI to prosecute Pinarayi Vijayan and others accused in the matter. And activists and well-wishers of the Left in Kerala will also have to take up the larger task of rebuilding the Left and retrieving its credibility.