Kerala Legislative Assembly Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan himself became the focal point of a debate in the House during the Budget Session as the Opposition targeted him over his alleged links to a few accused in the smuggling of gold through diplomatic baggage and even illegally moving out dollars to the Middle East ostensibly for an education venture.
The Speaker has been cornered over his friendship with Swapna Suresh who has been arrested for alleged gold smuggling. Speculation on his interrogation by the Customs Department in the smuggling case are rife.
The Assembly will discuss on Thursday a resolution moved by the Opposition demanding his removal.
Sreeramakrishnan, touted as a future asset as a CPM leader, responds to the controversy in the popular 'Cross Fire’ column of 'Malayala Manorama'.
Edited excerpts from his interview with special correspondent Sujith Nair.
Until very recently, you were a well-accepted political leader and Speaker. But you have suddenly become a controversial man. How do you feel? Hasn't it affected you personally too?
It has been difficult personally. But this is not my personal problem. Everything that is being said is completely untrue. There is not even one per cent fault on my part. There is a political motive behind all the allegations.
But is there anyone who has political animosity towards Sreeramakrishnan? That isn’t your style of functioning.
It is not the person Sreeramakrishnan but the position taken that matters.
Is this a way of getting back at you for giving the permission to proceed with the cases against the Leader of the Opposition and others?
It is possible. When an issue comes before me, how can I, as the Speaker, sit idle without taking a decision based on the merits of the matter? Shouldn’t a recommendation to file a case be considered first? You cannot interfere in an investigation. That could anger some people.
I am different from other Speakers. I give preference to legislative activism. That is not easy for everyone to understand. There could have been objections regarding a Loka Kerala Sabha (a state government forum to bring together Keralites from across the world), or a 'Festival on Democracy’. I had decided in the very beginning itself that I don't intend to shut out the happenings around.
On frayed ties with the Opposition
There has been growing distance between you and the Opposition ever since you started Assembly modernisation, construction work, Sabha TV (a channel for the state legislature). Didn't you try to take them into confidence and convince them?
I took up some initiatives that I felt would be good. The idea was to ensure the assembly was in sync with modern times. Six committees were set up for modernisation of the assembly. The Speaker did not start this initiative directly, as is the allegation of the Opposition. Now the CAG audit is over. There was not a single question asked about the project. This was discussed at the assembly’s business advisory committee meeting and also directly with the Leader of the Opposition. A matter that was decided upon after such deliberations is being raked up by him now. It was based on his recommendations, too, that a supervisory committee that included MLAs was formed. Those suggested by him were included in the committee. So a matter that was settled is now being dug up by him again. If the Opposition still has any doubts remaining, let them get it investigated by an assembly committee. I'm ready for even that.
There are allegations linking you to the Uralungal Society.
The assembly hall was renovated by Uralungal at a cost that was Rs 1.90 crore less than the original estimate. Would any construction company in the world be ready for such work? They could have asked for the full amount mentioned earlier. It is a group of 15,000 workers, not a corporate management body. It is their track record that one should consider. After renovation, it became the best hall in Thiruvananthapuram. When Sreeramakrishnan stops being a Speaker, he will not take it home. When I proposed that the hall could be rented for private functions, it was welcomed by the Leader of the Opposition. A great feature of the hall where the assembly meets is its height. If someone asks, 'Isn't that extravagant?', then it should be only deemed as one point of view.
How do you view the criticism that as a relatively junior speaker, you have to submit yourself to the command of the Chief Minister and the Minister of Legislative Affairs? Doesn’t that affect neutrality?
The chief minister has not forced me to do anything. I have always tried to convince him of my position. Of the rulings I have given, 75% has been in favour of the Opposition.
There have been some protests that seemed to indicate that the Opposition thinks the Speaker doesn’t matter much.
A small group of junior MLAs in the Opposition is behaving immaturely. They think the Speaker is part of the government. Not a single bad word has been uttered by Oommen Chandy or was spoken by the late KM Mani. Opposition leaders Ramesh Chennithala, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, KC Joseph, VD Satheesan, AP Anil Kumar, VS Sivakumar, Sunny Joseph and Anoop Jacob are behaving with dignity there. The leadership has, however, failed in teaching the immature minority how to behave in the assembly.
When the Speaker opposes every protest, the Opposition tries to disarm you by reminding you of the LDF's old Budget Day protest against KM Mani. Do you feel guilty about that controversial action of the past?
That action resulted from a particular circumstance. Now just because I'm the Speaker, it would make no sense to say that was wrong. That day I did not take a chair and throw it. I was not overly excited. Back then, it was a political decision to block KM Mani's budget presentation. I had the obligation to obey it irrespective of whether it was right or wrong. Considering the situation prevailing now that is not necessary. But, under the circumstances then, it was right.
On smuggling row
You have been linked to the gold smuggling case ever since you went to inaugurate a workshop in the capital. You later hinted that there was an intelligence failure in that regard. Why?
Of course, there was a failure on the part of the Intelligence. Such things do not come before me because the Speaker is not a part of the governing system. Therefore, the Intelligence wing should have checked it and reported about it. Based on this experience, I now only attend events that have got the Intelligence clearance. I have decided that all programmes will be scrutinised and I will only go if there is permission from the Intelligence.
On Swapna links
Was it because Swapna Suresh compelled you to accept the invite that you went to inaugurate the workshop of Sandeep Nair (a co-accused in the smuggling case)?
I was close to her at the time. We had good relationships both at the personal level and family-wise. I also knew her because she was associated with M Sivasankar (the former principal secretary to the chief minister). The recognition she was given was that of a representative of the UAE Consulate (in Thiruvananthapuram). When she invited me first, I did not accept it because I could not spare the time. I finally relented and went because I was told that the mother of that boy (Sandeep) was waiting.
In the CPM ministers and other party functionaries decide on programmes in consultation with the party. Did that happen in this case?
The Speaker's programme is not so fully connected at the party level. I neither contact nor go to party offices. I often consult with local people's representatives. No one objected to this programme at the time.
You knew Swapna Suresh as a representative of the Consulate. Did you have any doubts about her activities at any juncture?
I never had any doubts about her activities. There was no constant communication with her. We would talk only when she would come with some purpose. There was nothing that raised suspicion. There was no need to watch her activities like that.
Maybe there was nothing suspicious then, but, in hindsight, do you feel you should have been more careful?
That is there. This is a lesson in life. I learnt that you shouldn’t easily trust people. I don’t interact with people thinking I am the Speaker. I don’t show arrogance. Now, I have learnt that one has to be careful in such matters. Gandhiji believed in the good of human beings the most. Similarly, I don’t function thinking there is evil in human beings. Friends often criticise my nature of believing in everyone. This incident taught me that I should act by realising that there is a good as well as an evil side.
You have claimed you have never travelled with Swapna abroad. You make overseas trips often. Have you ever met or held discussions with her abroad?
I have neither met Swapna Suresh anywhere outside Thiruvananthapuram nor have I travelled with her anywhere. I have not participated in any conference in which she had a role. Travel sets me free and it is my passion. I have been to most parts of India and have wandered through many streets. I have had experience of loitering around. Probably everyone in my family except me is in the Gulf. My sister, brother and family are there. My mother is often there as part of the family. When my daughter went for an internship, my wife also went with her. When I get invitations from organisations and others, I go there thinking I will get to meet them.
You said recently that you have never seen even $500 together. But has Swapna even sought your help to start any business venture abroad?
That has never happened. Many project proposals had come as part of the Loka Kerala Sabha. An international education hub was one such proposal. There were other suggestions regarding the education sector. There is no educational institution of my own in these proposals! But I may have ties with those who run educational institutions. They may have sought my help for the development of such institutions. There may have been an attempt to bring good universities to Kerala. I have visited universities and taken part in their programmes. In any of these, I have not acted in any manner that would even remotely be construed as out of place. Sometimes, I have brought to the attention of the Chief Minister and ministers, proposals that have come before me. I have helped with matters that have come before me as the Speaker. In none of these matters has there ever been any kind of dealing with Swapna.
On likely Customs interrogation
It is learnt that the Customs is going to question you for some such things that you did.
No one has told me any such thing. I don’t have even one percent guilt. If expatriate Malayalees come to me for such help, I will continue to provide it.
The Customs questioned one of your staff members, Ayyappan, regarding the allegation about dollar smuggling. But Ayyappan by himself has no standing without you. Doesn't this Customs move have a bearing on you?
I have no worries. I will give them all the information they need. But they must adopt a path that is constitutionally valid and maintain decency. I have been in the public sphere for 40 years. The making of a person is history. If one day when you wake up in the morning and someone says you are a thief, the media and others should not go after it. I will not do any such thing. If anyone proves that I am involved in corruption involving even a single paisa, then I will bow my head and accept any punishment. So I am not living in fear. I have done nothing illegal.
You said that if you are called for questioning and, you would go like an ordinary citizen. But, when Ayyappan was summoned, you pointed to the privilege of the Speaker's office. Isn't this double standard?
I said so out of propriety. Such manners are applicable to them, too. If someone asks a staff member of the Assembly to come to Kochi for questioning just before the commencement of the Assembly session, that is showing disrespect to the legislative secretariat. After announcing that Ayyappan would be there for questioning, the Assembly Secretary only reminded them that there are certain things to be observed while acting in connection with the Assembly complex. It was never said that Ayyappan would not present himself for questioning.
On central agencies
Do you think the central agencies felt provoked to move against you after the House considered taking up the infringement notice against the ED?
That may have happened. Maybe it is being seen as something personal against me. I cannot ignore the concerns raised by a member regarding the Life Mission. What else could I have done other than handing it over to the assembly committee? That action may have provoked them.
On the move to remove the Speaker
As a Speaker who should find a place in history for steps taken to make an e-Assembly. But what lays ahead is a resolution demanding your removal as Speaker. The Speaker has to step down from the Chair when the discussion on the resolution takes place. Do you see this as a humiliation?
I have received two awards for being the Best Speaker. Those who have given the notice to have me removed should read the letter of commendation given by Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu with the awards. I only want to remind what Socrates said: “Great thinkers talk about ideas, ordinary people talk about events, and lowly people will keep talking about individuals.” Let them bring the resolution. I do not know what to say. Let them bring the resolution. I will tell the assembly what I have told you.
On family and party backing
How much support of the family and party do you have?
The family is 100% with me. They know me well. The same is true of the party. There has never been a difficulty at that level.
On re-election chances
Are you worried that the current controversy has affected your chances of contesting and winning again from Ponnani?
Since I will be completing two terms I will need the special permission of the party if I want to contest again. I have never felt that the people of Ponnani seem to have any difference of opinion with me. Despite all the campaigning against me in the local body elections, the LDF got a large majority in all the panchayats in the constituency.