In Kerala, sunny side down

The solar scam seems minuscule compared to other scandals. So why is it kicking up so much dust?

The real pity about the so-called solar scam is that solar energy got a bad name. It could have worked wonders in a sunny state like Kerala. Malayalis have now begun to doubt the bonafides of the sun itself. All because one woman and her partner were caught doing bad business, using, among other things, political connections. Going by the parameters of a proper Indian scam, this one is minuscule, involving, reportedly, less than Rs 10 crore over 3-4 years, which is piffle, even for a petty economy like Kerala's. That could well be the weekly slush intake of notorious government departments like excise and sales tax. No public money was involved. Some individuals took a routine investment risk on a solar energy project. When results were not forthcoming, a few of them filed police complaints. Many did not, because they were gambling with black money. And some got their money back. Though Sarita S. Nair has been made out to be the kingpin, she is the junior partner in the company, Team Solar. Biju Radhakrishnan, the senior, leaned on her for that extra edge in marketing. The few dozen people from various walks of life who invested money in the company include priests, hard-nosed businessmen and NRIs, which shows either that the business looked good enough, or it took little for them to part with big money on a sham project.

If it is just another story of a few gullible people getting swindled, how come Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is about to lose his chair on account of it? Thereby hangs a tale of sex, politics and the media. On the one hand, media investigations exposed the close association of a personal assistant of the CM with Team Solar, as also Nair's extensive network of political connections, both in the ruling party and the opposition. On the other, it was the media's perception of Nair as a sex object that gave the case the prominence it received. One is tempted to say that if there was no Nair, or if her objectification by the media had not met the Malayali oglers' benchmark, the scam would hardly have been news. The media went in for shockingly sexist overkill. Radhakrishnan, the first accused, who also faces a murder charge, is hardly in news. The media accessed what is said to be over 60,000 phone calls made by Nair, the second accused. However, the calls of the first accused, the brains behind the operation, have found no takers, even though they might provide vital information.

In the hypocrisy of the male bastion that is Kerala, it is more condemnable to sleep with a woman than, say, murder her. Nair's phone calls were projected with the nuance of illicit sex and the politicians who had chit-chatted with her or lent her patronage for dubious or other reasons scurried for cover. Then came another bomb: Shalu Menon, actor and dance teacher, had connections with Team Solar. Politicians — including the home minister, who had extended routine PR patronage to her — had to tie themselves into knots to explain themselves. The media readied a new candidate for slaughter, the young daughter of a starlet, for her alleged association with Team Solar.

The whole exercise had only one target: Oommen Chandy. There is no doubt that Chandy was not sufficiently vigilant about what went on in his office. Team Solar used their proximity to Chandy's personal assistant to hoodwink at least a few investors. Chandy is in a catch 22. His open-door policy and citizen contact programme are his USP. A shadow has been cast on them through allegations of Nair's visits to his office. Though it is a politically incorrect thing to say, he is the first performing chief minister Kerala has seen in several decades — with all his inherent Congressman-like faults. His style of work as a chief minister who is on his toes and ready to meet people face to face has set alarm bells ringing amongst the political class as a whole, because he is setting a dangerous precedent. The bureaucracy is equally upset because he is going over their heads to the people and handing out decisions. He has perhaps more enemies within his own party than outside. The solar scam is designer-made for them. But the CPM, which must fire the first shot, is in a fix. If it seeks to replace the Chandy government, it faces the fatal certainty that V.S. Achuthanandan will be the new CM, which would be nothing but pressing the self-destruct button.

Zacharia is a Malayalam writer

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