Kerala has been witness to some once in a lifetime scenarios for a while in the last one year, starting with the pandemic. Since July of this year, Kerala has been a battleground for many central agencies — National Investigation Agency, Central Bureau of Investigation, Customs and the Enforcement Directorate — trying to dive deep into the various scams that have alleged connections to the Chief Minister’s office. CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s former Principal Secretary M Sivasankar is in jail and Additional Private Secretary CM Raveendran is under the central agencies’ scanner for their alleged Benamidar dealings and corruptions.
Amongst all of this, the state is also witnessing a one-of-a-kind political showdown — between the opposition parties and Assembly Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan. Recently, an investigative agency had submitted in Court via sealed covers that a prominent member with constitutional authorities had a part in the infamous dollar and gold smuggling. The claims were based on the statements provided by the prime accused Swapna Suresh and PS Sarith.
Following this, Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala had asked the CM to reveal the identity of the individual, whose name and alleged participation had “shocked the Court”. However, BJP state president K Surendran took the less subtle route and alleged that the accused is none other than P Sreeramakrishnan. Thus begins a long and winding journey down the rabbit hole. The problem here isn’t that allegations are being thrown at each other; it is that an assembly speaker is at the heart of the trouble.
The Speaker is the representative of the assembly and its principal spokesman. He/she directs, manages, and adjudicates the verbal fisticuffs within the assembly. The problem, however, is that the seat of the Speaker is a very important Constitutional position. When Sreeramakrishnan speaks about not being a “holy cow that is above any suspicion”, he can be referring to himself but not to his position. The Speaker cannot be under suspicion and that damages the credibility he needs to possess in the assembly, and the current situation has dragged the speaker as well as the legislative assembly into the mud.
Earlier, Sreeramakrishnan had used his powers to send a breach of privilege notice to the Enforcement Directorate who had sought records of the Life Mission Project. However, with MLA VD Satheesan accused Finance Minister Thomas Isaac of infringing on the rights of the House for having revealed a CAG audit report much before it was tabled in the assembly. The opposition parties had pushed the issue further to the point that the Speaker had to refer Isaac’s case to the Ethics Committee. Moreover, Sreeramakrishnan had got himself in the middle of the fight between the opposition and the government after he had given the Vigilance department the go-ahead to probe into Ramesh Chennithala’s alleged part in the bar bribery case.
Soon after that, Speaker Sreeramakrishnan would once again grace the limelight and the media, having to clarify the allegations against him levelled by the opposition. He had claimed that people are attacking him and the “constitutional system on the basis of guesses and rumours and that was shameful”. However, senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala claims that he has the facts. The accusations against Sreeramakrishnan aren’t simple — they range from exorbitant spending to illegally handing contracts to being a major player in the dollar smuggling case.
In the case of the latter, the Speaker had admitted to knowing Swapna but also added that he cut ties as soon as he learnt about her background. He denied all claims of participating in the smuggling or helping them and invited the agencies to quiz him on it. The next set of allegations weren’t that easy to dodge. He tried to explain away his actions by claiming the benefits of the projects concerning the assembly — including the work given to Uralungal for revamping Shankara Narayan Thambi hall and the e-niyamasabha (paperless assembly) project.
The Opposition Leader has alleged that a lion share of the Rs 100 Crore-worth works at the Kerala Legislative Assembly has gone to the Uralungal Labour Contract Co-operative Society (ULCCS). This has received flak especially since Uralungal is under the ED scanner for CM Raveendran’s alleged Benami dealings concerning the ULCCS. Moreover, Chennithala has claimed that the Speaker has disbursed Rs 13.59 Crore as interest-free mobilisation advance to Uralungal for the e-niyamasabha project. On the other hand, MLA Ebrahim Kunju is under investigation — amongst other things — for having passed a mobilisation advance to the company that constructed the Palarivattom flyover. However, he had given the advance with interest.
Allegations and accusations are not rare in politics, and they become commonplace as elections approach, but it is a rare occurrence to see the Speaker of the assembly at the heart of so many allegations. Moreover, with the Speaker facing so much flak, it calls into question the integrity of the position and its effect on the assembly proceedings. The person that needs to play referee cannot be the judge of his own situation. While the internal auditing system needs to probe into the financial aspects of the allegations, Ramesh Chennithala has urged Governor to order an urgent investigation into the matter. Regardless, Sreeramakrishnan and his title are both deep in the rabbit hole and there seems to be no light at the end of it.