KOCHI: The move by Communist Party of India (Marxist) to induct Kerala Congress (M) into the Left Democratic Front (LDF) headed by it has received a boost with the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) giving a clean chit to the party chief K M Mani in the infamous bar bribery case.
The anti-corruption agency has cleared Mani of the charge that he had accepted a bribe of Rs.1 crore from the Kerala State Bar Hotel Owners Association for the renewal of licenses of 400 bars closed by the previous Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government in its final report submitted in the Thiruvananthapuram vigilance court on March 5.
Mani had resigned as finance minister in November 2015 following an adverse remark by the state high court. Mani had severed ties with the UDF led by the Congress after the Assembly poll last year, accusing UDF leaders of back-stabbing him, and has been standing neutral since then.
The VACB said in its report that they could not get enough scientific or circumstantial evidence to prove that either the bar owners had paid or Mani received the bribe. A CD containing the telephonic conversations produced by Biju Ramesh, the whistle blower in the case, to support his allegation was found to be edited.
Ramesh, who is the de facto complainant in the case, has alleged the intervention of the LDF government behind the clean chit. The allegation gains credence in the light of the move by the CPM to take the KCM, a regional party with strong roots in the Christian belt, into the LDF camp.
He said that the VACB had sought to close the case without analyzing audio recordings he had submitted as evidence or questioning any new witnesses. The complainant, who runs a chain of hotels in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, said he had mobilized all required evidence as the CPM had promised to reopen all closed bars if he could prove his allegations against Mani and other top leaders in the UDF.
“The anti-corruption plank that helped the LDF to defeat the UDF in the May2016 Assembly polls was based on the bar bribery case and the solar scam. The CPM has cheated me by allowing the VACB to bury the case,” Ramesh said.
It may be recalled that the UDF had also alleged a secret pact between the CPM and the bar owners to malign its image during the election. Senior UDF leaders had alleged that the case was fabricated at a secret meeting top LDF leaders and bar owns held at the residence of former MLA V Sivankutty.
Curiously, the CPM leaders have not denied the whistle blower’s allegation that they had instigated him to press the case against Mani. Ramesh had also revealed that the move had the backing of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and V S Achuthanandan, whom they met after they got the assurance from the CPM secretary.
Fouls play in the investigation into the case was also alleged by one of the VACB public prosecutors K P Satheeshan, who was appointed for handling three corruption cases against Mani, including the bar bribery corruption case and poultry scam. He said that the agency had not bothered to investigate any of these cases properly and chose to close them without discussing with him.
“The VACB used me to create an impression that it was serious about the prosecution, though in reality, the agency was engaged in backroom operations for closing the cases,” Satheesan told The Hindu, a national daily.
The daily quoted him as saying that the VACB had not even questioned any of the accused in the Rs.60 crore poultry scam even one-and-a-half years after registering the case. The investigation officer had never turned up for discussion and no files were sent to him for perusal.
“In the bar bribery case, a new investigation team was appointed after shifting the officials who began the probe. However, the new team never came for discussions and no files were sent to me for legal opinion,” Satheesan said.
The case against Mani was the stumbling block in the CPM attempt to take Mani to the ruling front. The CPI had resisted the move citing the case pending against Mani. The CPM hopes that the clean chit to him in the case will convince the CPI to review its opposition to Mani.
However, the CPI, which is the second largest constituent of the LDF, has also raked up the political credentials of the KCM. CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran said the party which adheres to neo-liberal economic policies cannot fit with the LDF policies and programmes.
Kanam has asserted that his party will not allow the CPM to induct KCM into the LDF without the consent of all the constituents. He has even threatened to pull out CPI from the ruling coalition if the CPM went ahead with its agenda.
But the CPM is hopeful that the disastrous defeat that it has suffered in Tripura would justify its move since the CPI has been advocating poll tie-up with Congress and other secular parties to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party.
A senior CPM leader asked how CPI could oppose the entry of KCM into the LDF citing its neo-liberal polices when it is advocating an alliance with Congress, which had initiated these policies in the early 1990s.
The argument will hold ground if the state unit of the CPM reviews its adamant stand not to have any kind of understanding with the Congress. Political observers feel that the CPM will be forced to review its stand since the alternate line proposed by party general secretary has been getting increasing support from within the party in the wake of the Tripura poll setback.
They think that the Tripura outcome will trigger a realignment of political forces within the state and the country as a whole. The picture may emerge after the CPM congress at Hyderabad in April.