The resignation of the second most important Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader in the Kerala cabinet, industries minister E.P. Jayarajan, on allegations of nepotism, didn't surprise many in Kerala because Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had promised stern action against him when he was notified of this misdemeanour. However, what amazes one is the groundswell of support that Pinarayi and his government have earned through this drastic decision.
If American-style popularity polls are held in Kerala, the Pinarayi government would win hands down. What makes his action appear dazzling is the record of his predecessor Oomen Chandy, whose last phase in office was marred by unprecedented corruption charges against him and his ministers. Each time, Chandy tried to shamelessly to cover up and defend not only himself, but also others. In comparison, Pinarayi lost no time in meting out the maximum punishment possible to one of his closest party comrades.
Today, Pinarayi is an all-round hero in Kerala. Ever since he took over as CM four months ago, he has been assiduously building an image of a tough, incorruptible administrator who meant business although three honorary appointments (his honorary legal, media and economic advisers) had taken some sheen off. However, since the state didn't pay for them and they remained just personal advisers, there was no violation of law, rules of business or conventions.
He appointed some of the finest officers in his team, roped in a no-nonsense stickler-to-rules DGP, who was victimised by the previous UDF government, as his vigilance director, and read his tough code of conduct to his ministers and government staff. It's too early to see if his apparent determination has led to any tangible difference, but even sections of the media that were antagonistic to him earlier have started praising him.
That's when the Jayarajan-bomb exploded. The industries minister appointed a close relative, who is also the son of a party MP and a former state minister, as the managing director of a state-run corporation under his ministry. Another member of his immediate family also landed a similar job in another organisation. Under intense media pressure, Jayarajan tried to whitewash the scandal by cancelling the appointment, but it was too late. He was already found with his hand in the honeypot.
The malpractice by Jayarajan also exposed CPM's appointment secrets. A number of PSU appointments apportioned among relatives of party leaders, proxies and other dependants became a media story that threatened to mar the party's claim as a crusader against corruption.
Pinarayi's only way out of a snowballing mess was to act against Jayarajan, and it had to be quick. That risk of people comparing Pinarayi's response with Oommen Chandy's was obvious. There was absolutely no room for any alternative manoeuvre--Jayarajan had to go and face investigation.
That was a difficult proposition for many reasons. One, Jayarajan was Pinarayi's right-hand man, the party's principal fund-raiser and a Kannur-toughie (a legendary daredevil from the party's sanguineous stronghold of Kannur) and the number two in the cabinet; and two, in the CPM, none of such appointments are allowed without the concurrence of the state leadership. In other words, Pinarayi had to go against his heart and also hide the possibility that Jayarajan may not have acted on his own. Axing him could enrage him and make him a loose-cannon that could undermine not only Pinarayi, but also the party; but not acting against would puncture the moral high-ground of the government.
And Pinarayi acted in style and decisively. Jayarajan resigned and a number of motivated positive stories appeared in the media saying that Pinarayi rebuked him and showed no mercy. A vigilance case also has been initiated. Jayarajan is a serial offender and had undergone disciplinary action earlier as well and therefore an early return cannot be ruled out. In all probability, what Jayarajan has been handed is a negotiated deal; but for the outsiders, it's tough action by Pinarayi.
The party, the government and Pinarayi are the sure winners. CPM leaders and proxies can happily swagger that "LDF is not UDF". The decision will also give fresh impetus to public demand to dig deeper on the Chandy government's corrupt deals and take action against them. At least in the foreseeable future, there is no redemption possible for the Congress and the UDF because with Jayarajan's sacking, Pinarayi has now raised the bar very high.
Meanwhile, there is a clear emerging consensus on Pinarayi's image--a tough, straight-talking, wily administrator who suffers no nonsense. A man who had been earlier portrayed as a bloodthirsty and vindictive party leader is the contemporary mascot of Kerala for statesmanship and good administration. And compared to the past, he smiles a lot. VS Achuthanandan will now pale into insignificance.