As the central agencies tighten their grip on the Pinarayi Vijayan government, the opposition parties have created momentum for themselves, especially insight of the local body polls and the assembly election next year. However, the LDF government has decided to hit back at the UDF opposition.
Apart from the investigations against IUML leaders KC Kamarudheen, Ebrahim Kunju, and KM Shaji, the state government has decided to open the old wounds of Congress members. On Friday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has given his node to Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau to probe against Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala, former ministers VS Sivakumar and K Babu. However, since the probe includes the Opposition leader, the government will have to seek permission from Governor Arif Muhammed Khan.
The case under question is the bar bribery case that rocked the Oommen Chandu government and cost KM Mani his ministerial position. Biju Ramesh’s allegations had shaken the Congress party involving top members, including Ramesh Chennithala, the then KPCC President. Meanwhile, current KPCC President Mullappally Ramachandran and Ramesh Chennithala had alleged that this was a state measure to stop the opposition’s political momentum as well as to divert attention from the LDF government’s many allegations.
The bar bribery case is quite problematic. There have been many conspiracies and allegations placing many at the heart of the matter and pitting Congress members against each other. A very controversial private investigation of 2015, which was leaked last month, revealed that KM Mani — the then Finance Minister — was the victim of a conspiracy to “install Ramesh at the helm of UDF government.” The leak also emerged at a time when Mani’s son Jose K Mani and his party joined the LDF government, calling into question the timing of it all.
Moreover, the investigation into the allegations had also produced no real evidence in the case. Former Vigilance Director Vinson M Paul — who is the current Chief Information Officer — had recently told media persons that he had not changed his stance since then. When he was the Vigilance Director, he had noted that there was no evidence to charge cases against the accused. The same was echoed by follow-up investigations, especially in regards to Biju Ramesh’s statements.
The origin of the case began with Biju, a former acting President of the Kerala Bar Hotel Association, alleging that former Finance Minister KM Mani and several Congress leaders had collected bribes for expediting the relicensing of over 300 bars closed by the then CM Oommen Chandy. In his official statement, recorded under Section 164 of CrPC, the hotelier claimed that he had paid Rs 1 crore to Ramesh Chennithala at the KPCC office, Rs 50 lakh to Babu, and Rs 25 lakh to Sivakumar. Biju Ramesh had made a similar allegation, albeit against only one person, to a media organisation. This had called into question the need to corroborate the liquor baron’s official statement. However, further inquiries by VACB and Lokayukta found no evidence to support the claims even though there was external pressure to take action based on the statement. Lokayukta had taken cognizance of the complaints, and they have dismissed the case.
The opposition members have called out the latest allegations as a repeat performance, and they note that there is nothing fresh about it. They add that Biju does not provide any new evidence or support to his claims, especially since the VACB had already found the earlier statements to be untrue. Moreover, the only piece of “supporting evidence” had been the voice recording “proving” KM Mani’s part in the case. However, the audio note was sent for forensic verification in Ahmedabad, and the report claimed that it was edited. This stopped the investigation in its tracks, seeing as how the only two evidence in the case seemed to be untrue and false.
The Opposition leaders have stated that the VACB has sought the approval of the government by “concealing the fact that a preliminary investigation was already done and the litigation of which is pending before different courts including the Kerala High Court.” Meanwhile, the current KPCC President Mullappally Ramachandran had stated that if the investigation should proceed, it should also reach Mani “since Biju Ramesh had named him primarily.” This would seem to be a hit at how Mani’s Kerala Congress is a part of the LDF. However, reportedly, Mani is kept out of the current investigation.