Monday, April 13, 2009

Lavalin scandal in the poll campaign and beyond

Gulf Today

The Lavalin scandal did not figure prominently in the United Democratic Front's (UDF) election campaign, which is drawing to a close. That, however, does not mean the Left Democratic Front (LDF) can breathe easy.

Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan's remark that the Lavalin issue has petered out is indicative of the party's satisfaction over the apparent success of party's bid to limit its electoral impact.

The case relates to a deal which Vijayan, as Electricity Minister in the last LDF government, had negotiated with the Canadian company, SNC Lavalin, for modernisation of some power stations.

The moment the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which investigated the scandal, decided to arraign Vijayan, who is a member of the CPI-M politburo, as an accused in the corruption case, the party launched a propaganda offensive alleging the Congress-led government at the Centre was implicating him with a political motive.

Initially, the CPI-M had tried to pin the blame for the deal on the previous UDF regime, which had first signed a contract with Lavalin.

What the UDF government signed was a consultancy agreement, worth only Rs260 million.
Vijayan's negotiations resulted in a supply contract worth Rs 3.75 billion.

Loopholes in the new contract enabled the company to get away without fulfilling its contractual obligations.

The bid to discredit the CBI investigation as politically motivated was part of a calculated strategy to contain the fallout from the scandal. Another part of the strategy was to delay the government's response to the agency's request for permission to prosecute Vijayan and the former bureaucrats who figure in the list of accused.

The government could have acted quickly on the request after consulting the Law Department. But, acting at the party's instance, it decided to seek the opinion of the Advocate General.

A non-government organisation petitioned the high court in an attempt to speed up the process. The court allowed the government three months' time to take a decision. It also left the door open for the government to seek more time if necessary.

Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who is in a minority in the council of ministers, while talking to newspersons, made no effort to hide his displeasure over these developments.

By delaying a decision on the CBI's request for permission to prosecute Vijayan, the party was able to avert the possibility of his arrest before the election.

Half way through the campaign the UDF realised that the Lavalin issue had been pushed back by the controversy over the CPI-M's ties with Abdul Naser Ma'dani's People's Democratic Party (PDP), which hogged the most attention.

Although the alliance decided to push the issue to the top, its big guns did not highlight it in campaign speeches even afterwards. This was what prompted Pinarayi Vijayan to state that the issue had petered way.

The PDP issue also did much damage to the CPI-M. When it found that the camaraderie with Ma'dani was doing more harm than good, the party leaders stopped sharing the dais with him. They advised Ma'dani to campaign separately.

It will be wrong to presume that Lavalin became a non-issue in the election. It remained before the public throughout as lower level leaders of the UDF and the media harped on it all the time.

In retrospect, the CPI-M strategy appears to have misfired. The attempts to question the credibility of the investigative agency and delay the prosecution conveyed the impression that party had something to hide.

Whatever the opinion the Advocate General gives, the CBI will be able to go ahead with the prosecution of all accused, including Pinarayi Vijayan. On several occasions, the Supreme Court has stated that the CBI can go ahead with a corruption case even if government sanction is not forthcoming.

The agency approached the government for permission because it is charging the accused with criminal conspiracy, besides corruption. Even if the cabinet decides against granting permission to prosecute Vijayan, the governor can accord sanction.

There is also the possibility of some public interest group challenging the government's decision to refuse sanction for prosecution. It will then be for the court to take a final decision.

There is one scenario in which the CPI-M can stave off Pinarayi Vijayan's prosecution.
That hinges on the possibility of the emergence of a new central government, which is dependent upon on the party's support for survival and therefore willing to take a politically motivated decision to get him off the hook.

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