Thursday, January 29, 2009

An editor who has been tormenting the political class

Journalists in Kerala may be reluctant to count as one among them but no other editor has tormented the state's political class as he has, says Shaju Philip, Correspondent of the Indian Express, in a report which profiles T. P. Nanadakumar, Editor of Crime magazine.

Nandakumar's journal was one of the first to expose the SNC Lavalin scandal. It was on a petition filed by him that the High Court ordered an investigation of the scandal by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Shaju Philip's story can be accessed here: "Why Kerala politicians see red and yellow in his journalism".

Monday, January 26, 2009

Is Abdulla Kutty paying the price for being earnest?

Gulf Today

TWO weeks ago after the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) suspended AP Abdulla Kutty the young member of parliament is far from contrite. All indications are that he plans to plod a lonely furrow.

Abdulla Kutty, who has held the Lok Sabha seat from Kannur since 1999, was suspended after he commended Gujarat's Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister Narendra Modi as a model of developmental leadership.

He first endorsed Modi while on a visit to Dubai last month.

Responding to questions on his return home, he reiterated his appreciation of Modi's developmental efforts.

His statements embarrassed the party as Narendra Modi was the man at the helm during the anti-muslim riots in Gujarat.

Earlier, he had irked the party leaders by opposing "bandh" (forced work stoppage) as a form of agitation. They were also probably unhappy with his overt religious pursuits.

When the CPI-M area committee sought an explanation, he defended his statements, saying he endorsed only Modi's development policies, not his communal policies. Not satisfied with the explanation, the suspended him from membership for one year.

In the CPI-M's penal code, a year's suspension is the second highest punishment, the first being expulsion. Every form of punishment is conceived as an opportunity to the member to admit his mistake and mend his ways.

Abdulla Kutty's suspension rules out the CPI-M nominating him to contest the Lok Sabha election due in the next few months.

There has been speculation that the party was planning to drop him anyway.

His statements since the suspension suggest that he is preparing to leave the CPI-M. There has been speculation in the media about his joining the Congress. The BJP's state leadership has extended him an open invitation.

From what he has said and done no firm conclusion can be drawn about his willingness to enter the Lok Sabha elections as the candidate of any other party.

Last week, speaking at a function organised by an affiliate of the Indian Union Muslim League, he said when the Congress weakened communal forces had gained ground in the country and when the League weakened extremists had gained strength in the muslim community.

He also revealed that he was seeking enrolment in the territorial army, an outfit which enables civilians to get military training in peacetime and do active service in wartime.

Kannur, first represented in the Lok Sabha by Marxist veteran AK Gopalan, was known as a Communist fortress. After his time, Mullappalli Ramachandran, a young Congress leader, captured it and held it for 14 long years. The constituency has a large number of Muslim voters, and the Congress party's alliance with the league played a part in Ramachandran's successive wins. In 1991, the CPI-M, looking for a candidate who can make inroads into the muslim vote bank, picked Abdulla Kutty.

He was only 31 then and had little political experience. The party presented him as a wonder kid, who was born to win.

Abdulla Kutty is from an orthodox agricultural family whose members were Congress sympathisers. Like other young people of his village, he dreamed of migrating to the Gulf region.

After finishing school, on the advice of an older brother, who was working in the Gulf, he joined an industrial training institute to acquire a technical qualification before leaving for the dreamland. At the institute, he became a member of the Students Federation of India, a CPI-M affiliate, and was elected general secretary of the students union. That changed the course of his life.

Later, as a student of the Sree Narayana College, Kannur, he helped the SFI to capture its campus from the pro-Congress Kerala Students Union and went on to become general secretary of the Calicut University Union.

In 1996, as the CPI-M candidate, he won a district panchayat seat, which was previously held by the Congress. The same winning streak helped him to enter the Lok Sabha, ending Mullappalli Ramachandran's unbroken run.

While Abdulla Kutty progressed quickly from campus politics to national politics, within the party he could not go beyond area committee membership.

Like Suresh Kurup, A. Sampath and S. Sivaraman, all of whom became MPs at a young age, he found that upward movement within the organisation is not as easy as getting into the Lok Sabha.

How Abdulla Kutty's departure will affect the CPI-M's electoral prospects in Kannur is a question that remains to be answered. --Gulf Today, January 26, 2009.

Lavalin developing into CPI-M's Bofors

My commentary under this heading, which deals with the CPI-M's current troubles in Kerala, was circulated by Indo Asian News Sercice. It can be seen at SULEKHA.COM

Monday, January 19, 2009

A murder case that confounded investigators now haunts judges

The Abhaya murder case has confounded criminal investigating agencies for 17 years. It has now sown dissension in the judiciary.

Recently two judges of the high court voiced seemingly conflicting views on the case, prompting the Central Bureau of Investigation to seek clarifications. Some injudicious observations that emerged from the bench while all this was going on have invited criticism from within the legal fraternity as well as from outside.

Sister Abhaya, a second year pre-degree student, was found dead in a well in the compound of a convent in Kottayam in March 1992. Successive teams of investigators sought to write off the case as one of suicide, but public opinion mobilised by an action council, headed by a social worker, Jomon Puthenpurackal, frustrated their efforts.

The action council and Abhaya’s parents alleged that the Catholic Church was trying to protect the persons responsible for the murder in the convent.

From the local police, the case was transferred first to the Crime branch of the State police and then to the Central Bureau of Investigation. One after another four CBI teams investigated the case.

Varghese P Thomas, deputy superintendent of police, who headed the first CBI team, concluded that Abhaya was murdered. Shortly afterwards he quit the agency alleging his superior had been putting pressure on him to close the case as one of suicide.

From time to time reports surfaced about manipulation of records and destruction of evidence. As the investigation dragged on for years without tangible results and a magistrate observed that unseen hands were obstructing the investigation, many wondered if the truth would ever come out.

Each time the unseen hands appeared to be succeeding, Jomon Puthenpurackal moved the courts. He appeared before the courts so often that one judge ordered that he be barred as a vexatious litigant.

Eventually, the high court began to monitor the investigation closely. Dissatisfied with the work of a team from outside, last year the court entrusted the investigation to the agency’s unit in the State.

The new team, the fourth deputed by the CBI, decided to subject to narco analysis three suspects as well as the State police official. Relying on the narco analysis report, it arrested two priests, Father Thomas Kottoor and Father Jose Puthrikayal, and a nun, Sister Sephi on November 19.

The Catholic Church immediately raised a howl of protest, alleging the CBI had arrested innocent persons to appease public opinion. It organised public protests and called upon the faithful to pray for the arrested persons.

Former Supreme Court judge KT Thomas deplored use of narco analysis, an investigating method which the developed nations have given up. Former State police chief KJ Joseph also joined the Christian chorus against the CBI.

On December 31, Justice K. Hema, while granting bail to the three accused, picked holes in the CBI investigation. She ordered that “a more competent officer” must supervise the investigation.

On an application by the CBI, Justice R Basant, who was monitoring the investigation, clarified that Justice Hema’s order did not hamper continued investigation by the present team.

While dealing with another case the next day, Justice Hema took umbrage at a fellow judge clarifying her order. This prompted Justice Basant to ask the chief justice to entrust monitoring of the investigation to a division bench.

With television channels instantly reporting the judges’ remarks and soliciting comments, the open airing of differing views developed into a major public controversy. Kerala Kaumudi daily, in an editorial, sharply criticised Justice Hema’s order.

Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan, responding to questions, told the media it was not a good precedent for judges to clarify their own orders. At the same time, he pointed out it was not unusual for two judges to express different views.

The High Court Advocates Association adopted a resolution voicing deep concern and anguish over the tendency among judges to comment on issues unconnected with the matter before them.

Justice Balakrishnan and the Advocates Association mentioned no names, the words they used clearly implied disapproval of Justice Hema’s conduct.

Young members of a left-wing group staged a demonstration outside the court against grant of bail to the Abhaya case accused. They burnt an effigy of Justice Hema.

The high court will decide today (Monday) on whether or not to proceed against Kerala Kaumudi for contempt. Advocate General Sudhakar Prasad has advised against it.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 19, 2009.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Highly inflated poverty figures embarrass government

The Centre and the Kerala government have been arguing for years about the number of people below the poverty line in the State. Now the State government is at loggerheads with local self-government institutions too on this issue.

According to the National Sample Survey, India’s population below the poverty line (BPL) in 2004-05 was 22 per cent.

While in absolute terms the BPL population was substantial, the authorities said poverty was on the decline. In 1993-94 the BPL population had been estimated at 36 per cent and in 1999-2000 at 26 per cent.

In 2007, Central estimates put the number of BPL families in Kerala at 1.55 million, including 590,000 who were classified as extremely poor. It was on that basis that the Centre allotted food grains for distribution at subsidised rates through the public distribution system.

The Union Agriculture Ministry had worked out this figure on the basis of the Planning Commission’s poverty estimates for 1993-94 and the population projections made by the Registrar General of India in March 2000.

Kerala disputed this figure. Civil Supplies Minister C Divakaran claimed that there were 2.02 million BPL families in the State and demanded that the Centre allot food grains on that basis.

The Centre rejected the demand. It actually reduced the allotment as the State was not lifting the allotted quantities.

Kerala has the most extensive public distribution system in the country. It was built up decades ago when there was severe shortage of food grains and a large section of the population stood in need of subsidised rations.

As remittances from migrants working abroad boosted the State’s economy, those who could afford to buy good quality grains from the open market stopped making purchases from PDS outlets.

BPL families are entitled to various kinds of benefits under Centrally-financed schemes. For instance, at present, a BPL family gets a subsidy of Rs 50,000 for construction of house. If the family belongs to a Scheduled Caste the subsidy will be Rs 75,000. A Scheduled Tribe family will get Rs 100,000.

Also, a BPL family is entitled to a grant of Rs 5,000 for renovation of house. If it belongs to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, it will get twice that amount.

Sometimes the State modifies the Central scheme and extends benefits to more people. Under the guidelines drawn up by the Centre, only 1.18 million families in Kerala were eligible to join its free health insurance scheme for BPL families. The State decided to extend coverage to one million more families figuring in its BPL list.

The State government will pay the annual premium of Rs 550 for these families.

To make available the benefits of such schemes to more people, the State has been urging the Centre to revise the norms for identifying BPL families. Alternatively, it wants the States to be allowed to fix their own norms, taking into account local conditions.

The Centre has rejected the idea of using different standards for identifying BPL families in the different States. However, the Union Rural Development Ministry has been toying with the idea of revising the Central norms to bring them in line with the criteria adopted by Kerala.

Officials from State were invited to make a presentation before an expert committee set up the ministry to revise the norms. A newspaper report quoted a ministry official as saying, “The Kerala model is progressive and sensitive. There, poverty is understood in its totality.”

While the Kerala pattern of BPL identification is thus gaining national recognition, things have got out of hand in the State. Panchayat institutions, which were asked to draw up revised BPL lists, have came up with the highly inflated figures, making for a total of 4.8 million BPL families in the State.

Evidently, panchayats members inflated the number of persons below the poverty line in their wards with a view to cornering as much benefit as possible for their constituents.

The revised BPL lists have come as an embarrassment to the State government because, when added up, the number comes to more than twice the figure of the last count. If the government accepts this figure, it will amount to admitting that poverty, instead of going down, is going up.

Local Self-government Minister Paloli Mohammed Kutty has now asked the panchayats to rectify the anomalies. The process may take up to two years.--Gulf Today, January 12, 2009.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Major parties in disarray as Lok Sabha poll approaches


The Congress, which heads the coalition government in New Delhi, and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the government of Kerala, are troubled by internal dissensions as they prepare for the parliamentary elections.

All elections in the State are a trial of strength between the Left Democratic Front, led by the CPI-M, and the United Democratic Front, led by the Congress. In the Assembly elections, the voters put the two fronts in power by turns. The results of the parliamentary elections are not equally predictable.

Traditionally, the Congress-led front has an edge over the rival alliance in the Lok Sabha elections. However, in the elections of 2004, the LDF grabbed 18 of the state’s 20 seats, leaving one seat each to the UDF and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.

In the Lok Sabha, all LDF members supported the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in pursuance of the Left parties’ decision to back it with a view to preventing the BJP’s return to power.

Last year the Left parties withdrew their support to the UPA as the government went ahead with the civilian nuclear agreement with the United States, brushing aside their objections.

The break with the UPA has saved the CPI-M from the embarrassment of having to approach voters in Kerala as an ally of the Congress, its traditional rival in state politics.

The outcome of the next Lok Sabha elections, expected to be held in April-May, is very important to both the Congress and the CPI-M.

The Congress, which drew a blank last time (the lone UDF seat was won by the Indian Union Muslim League), has to show that it is still a force to reckon with in the state.

The CPI-M needs a respectable tally from the state, one of its three strongholds, to realise its dream of forging a third alternative capable of keeping the Congress and the BJP out of power at the Centre.

The party faces a severe internal challenge as a result of the return of sectarianism, which appeared to have subsided after the state conference, held last year. The dissidents are few in number but have the potential to damage the party’s prospects, as evidenced by the results of the by-elections to the Shoranur municipal council.

When MR Murali, former municipal vice-chairman, was expelled from the party last year, he and eight other councillors resigned. They contested the by-elections that followed on the banner of Janakeeya Vikasana Samiti and trounced all but one of the CPI-M nominees.

When the Samiti members take their seats, the CPI-M, which it has controlled the Shoranur municipality for three decades, will lose power. So far the authorities have not set a date for their swearing-in.

Further north, at Onchiyam, another CPI-M stronghold, dissidents have come out of the party and floated an outfit named Marxist Party.

The rebels at both places are erstwhile supporters of Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. The revolt can, therefore, be seen as a spill-over of the sectarianism. Their defiance indicates the willingness of lower-level functionaries to challenge the state leadership. This is something unheard of in the history of communist parties.

The Congress, too, is dogged by internal problems. Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy and State party president Ramesh Chennithala, the duo in command of the party, had a quiet time after K. Karunakaran and his son, K. Muraleedharan, walked out with their followers. After a brief spell as a regional outfit, they joined Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party.

Last year Karunakaran returned to the Congress fold while Muraleedharan, who is state NCP president, stayed back.

Karunakaran’s return did not change the equations in the state Congress. Nor did it lead to revival of factionalism. However, he is openly seeking the NCP’s induction into the UDF. Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala are resisting the demand.

Muraleedharan is threatening to contest all Lok Sabha seats if the UDF does not accommodate the NCP. The party may not be a winner, but it can be a spoiler.

In the prevailing circumstances, the CPI-M cannot hope to repeat the spectacular performance of 2004. It may be VS Achuthanandan, and not Pinarayi Vijayan, who has to pay the price for the party’s failure. The party can interpret the poor electoral performance as a sign of dissatisfaction with the government’s working.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 5, 2008.