The just-concluded Assembly session, the last during the Pinarayi Vijayan government's tenure, should have demonstrated to the UDF the limits of the gold smuggling scandal as a campaign weapon.
Every time the UDF had raised the issue in the Assembly this January, as adjournment motions and as a resolution to remove the Speaker, the ruling front gleefully played the victim of a media witch-hunt and a BJP-Congress political conspiracy to undermine Kerala's growth.
No value addition in gold
To begin with, the UDF had nothing new to say. The charges its leaders had brought to the Assembly - that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan knew what his former principal secretary M Sivasankar was up to and that Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan had suspiciously close links with gold smuggling accused - were the ones hurled before the local body polls.
This is not to say that the LDF and its dominant party, the CPM, had anything new to say. It was just that, bolstered by the victory in the local body polls, the CPM leaders could repeat their old arguments with commendable conviction.
Further, the CPM's festival-sized celebration of the results, and the ideological chaos induced in the UDF by the results, had generated its own logic that caused a sudden mood swing in favour of the Left. Result: The gold smuggling charges that were sought to be revived in the Assembly looked almost redundant.
CPM's wild counter attack
To the CPM's credit, the party never really looked as if it was on the defensive. Except for a small phase right after the scandal broke out when the chief minister refused to face the media, the CPM had been boldly, even wildly, aggressive.
The charges set off by the exposure of the gold smuggling racket were aimed at tarnishing the image of the chief minister. But the chief minister responded as if Kerala was in serious trouble. What was essentially a personal attack on him, the chief minister turned into a personal attack on Kerala. He removed himself from the picture and talked of Kerala's hurt, about the danger in store for Kerala.
In other words, Pinarayi Vijayan refused to take part in a game he was asked to play and, instead, organised a political tournament of his own, and forced others to play by his rules.
So when bribery charges related to the Wadakkancherry Life Mission flats cropped up, the LDF said this was an attempt to sabotage the construction of homes for the poor, and later when central agencies summoned Life Mission files, the CPM mounted a massive counter campaign saying there was a conspiracy to smother Kerala's flagship welfare programmes.
This blistering counter attack prompted a forced error from the Congress and the BJP. These opposition parties, lest they be seen as insensitive to the poor, had to repeatedly emphasise that they were never against the Life Mission but only against the Wadakkancherry project. The LDF government held the opposition's approval of the Life Mission as further validation of its governance.
Silence is gold
The other aspect of the LDF strategy was its determination not to go into specifics. All direct posers were ignored.
Why the intelligence wing fail to alert the chief minister about Swapna Suresh, why the chief minister failed to understand the motives of Sivasankar's foreign trips, why Finance Minister T M Thomas Isaac remained silent though he knew about a Rs 4.5 crore bribe, why the GST was waived for Unitac Builders, why the Life Mission failed to sign agreements with Unitac at each stage of the construction as mandated in the MoU... none of these questions that have been constantly put to the rulers have been answered.
At least in the light of the local body results, the strategy of selective silence seems to have worked for the LDF. And they stuck to it in the Assembly, too. It was all a grand media and political controversy. “Where is the proof other than some newspaper reports,” the opposition was asked. The opposition had nothing to show.
Moral of the story
Also, the revival of the old charges in the Assembly gave the chief minister and the speaker an opportunity to take the high moral ground. “If I say that my hands are clean, it is because my hands are truly clean. And I have the strength of heart to say so,” the chief minister said.
Vijayan looked so assured in the Assembly that it was with a smile, and just a mild good-natured taunt, that he brushed aside questions of even his daughter's involvement in the gold smuggling case.
Speaker P Ramakrishnan positioned his decision to allow a motion against himself as a sign of hope for democracy in the country.
“I take great pride and rejoice at the fact that a resolution seeking to remove me from office has been taken up for discussion. At a time when voices of dissent are not allowed to rise in the country, this is a day when we are celebrating dissent. I could have rejected the motion but I thought it was better to allow it,” he said on January 21, the day the motion against him was moved in the Assembly.
At this stage, when the investigations have not progressed beyond Sivasankar, any UDF attempt to once again rake up the gold smuggling scandal could be perceived as insensitive, even anti-Kerala.
It is high time the UDF realised that political strategies are highly perishable and learned to put an expiry date on them. The CPM, for instance, seems to have understood its importance.
For quite some time, the party was vocal about the growing influence of Muslim League in Congress affairs. Just when there was widespread criticism that their strategy was sounding communal, like a reckless attempt to startle Congress-inclined Hindus, this political line was taken off the shelves.
Not one LDF MLA was heard speaking about the League dominating Congress during this Assembly session.