NEW DELHI // Kerala’s chief minister is fighting for political survival amid widespread protests over a corruption scandal.
Oommen Chandy has been accused of taking millions of rupees in bribes to expedite government approvals for solar-power projects in the state. A judicial commission has been investigating the so-called solar scam since 2013.
Mr Chandy was handed a temporary reprieve on Friday, when he convinced the state’s high court to suspend for two months the order of a special court tasked with hearing anti-corruption cases. On Thursday the special court had ordered a formal police investigation to be opened into Mr Chandy’s alleged corruption.
That order was a response to a petition raised after Mr Chandy had started giving testimony to the judicial commission on Monday.
Mr Chandy, who belongs to the Congress party, has routinely rejected allegations of corruption. On Monday, speaking before the commission for 11 hours, he said he had fired three of his staffers because of their connection to the so-called solar scam.
“But unfortunately, opposition parties magnified those aspects and used them as a political weapon to attack me,” Mr Chandy said. “If there is an iota of substance in the allegation, I will quit public life.”
He refused, however, to take a lie-detector test. “What is the need for that? I have not done anything wrong,” he said.
The scandal surfaced in June 2013, when Saritha Nair, one of the directors of a company called Team Solar, was arrested for defrauding her investors. Despite later saying that she had bribed ministers to expedite government approvals for projects, she was accused of failing to begin projects on time and of failing to provide details about where investments went.
Investigations into Ms Nair’s business found that she had been in regular contact with three officials in the chief minister’s secretariat.
Ms Nair and her co-directors had persuaded investors to put money into Team Solar by flaunting their connections to Mr Chandy’s office. The investors were cheated of between 60 and 70 million rupees (Dh3.2 to Dh3.8m), according to police officials who were probing the Team Solar fraud case.
Ms Nair was in prison for nine months before being released on bail.
Mr Chandy claims to have only met Ms Nair three times. But other evidence, including Ms Nair’s own testimony, contradicts this.
When Ms Nair was eventually deposed before the commission, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, she said she had paid Mr Chandy a bribe of 19 million rupees, via one of his closest aides. She further said that a civil servant in the chief minister’s secretariat had instructed her to pay the sum in two instalments.
The aide collected 11 million rupees from Ms Nair in a car park of a mall in Delhi, and the remaining money from her home in Thiruvananthapuram, she said.
Ms Nair also claimed that she had met Mr Chandy on more than three occasions, and that she had also paid bribes of 10 million rupees to Kerala’s power minister. She alleged that Mr Chandy’s son was involved in facilitating the bribes as well.
The charges against Mr Chandy will weaken an already beleaguered Congress party, which lost the general elections in May 2014 after the federal Congress-led government faced numerous accusations of graft.
The case has already given the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress’ main rival and the party ruling the country, ammunition for political rhetoric, especially given that state elections in Kerala are due to be held later this year.
“One cannot hope much from the Congress high command because it has looked the other way on corruption,” Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s commerce minister and a BJP spokesperson, said on Thursday. “The charges against the chief minister and the power minister are of a very serious nature, and we demand their resignations.”