Column | How concentration of power around M Sivasankar put the CMO under scanner

Several IT experts secured contract jobs with Kerala govt bypassing PSC
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When India went into a lockdown to check the spread of COVID-19 on March 23, the Kerala government issued a guideline for the 14 essential services to be exempted from the new regulations. One item stood out on the list – fab labs. What made fab labs an essential service? The answer to that question lies in the concentration of power around M Sivasankar, the then principal secretary in the Chief Minister’s Office.

The fab labs that function in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram are essential in providing the technological underpinning to the startup ecosystem in Kerala. We can’t blame the government for rooting for the unchecked functioning of the Startup Mission and fab labs even in the lockdown. Still do they qualify to be an essential service?

Sivasankar was also the chairman of the Startup Mission. The information technology department was his fiefdom. He could have his way as the principal secretary in the Chief Minister’s Office. That influence was evident in the guideline issued on March 23.

Did Sivasankar, a former SFI leader in the Palakkad Engineering College, misuse his credibility as a loyalist of the chief minister? The gold smuggling case in the Thiruvananthapuram airport has raised that uncomfortable question before Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. That power equation has emboldened the opposition to bring about a no-confidence motion against the government.

The Left rulebook

The chief minister had sought to lambaste the opposition for targeting the government. Yet the Congress demand in Kerala is not very different form the demand raised by the CPM in Madhya Pradesh when the chief minister’s private secretary came under a shadow a year ago. Madhya Pradesh CPM secretary Badal Saroj sought a CBI probe into the allegations against the chief minister’s private secretary.

The CPM also noted that the allegations pointed to a possible role of the chief minister in Madhya Pradesh.

When the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh faced allegations in 2015, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury and CPI general secretary Sudhakar Reddy wanted the leaders to quit offices and face investigations.

Back to the Kerala context. “We cannot accept the chief minister’s stand that he isn’t responsible for whatever happens right under his nose. If he has any commitment to the people, he should resign. We have a tradition of chief ministers and Union ministers owning moral responsibility.” Don’t mistake these words to opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala or BJP state president K Surendran. These are the words of former CPM general secretary Prakash Karat while he inaugurated a protest meeting in front of the state secretariat in August 2013 to demand a CBI probe into the solar scam.

Doval’s interest

Unlike the Sprinklr controversy, the row around the smuggling case was not started by the opposition. One of the chief minister’s loyal officers was giving the opposition what they were looking for.

If the officer faces an inquiry by the customs or the National Investigation Agency (NIA), not just a department-level probe, that would cast a shadow over the entire chief minister’s office.

The hints dropped by the National Investigation Agency about terror links could mean that the probe could take any course. The BJP-led central government may use the opportunity to dent the credibility of both dominant political alliances in Kerala.

The interest shown by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is curious. The Kerala cadre officer of the 1968 batch was a young additional superintendent of police when he ventured out to suppress the Thalassery communal riots. Pinarayi Vijayan was one of the young leaders of the CPM who were actively trying to fire-fight on the ground.

Doval and Pinarayi are on either side of the NIA now.

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