Column | Judicial commission is Kerala's political statement against centre

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan

The Kerala government has decided to meet the central government head on by announcing a judicial enquiry commission to look into the controversial work of central investigating agencies in Kerala. The hardening of stand against political rivals is expected to pay dividends in an election season. The cabinet meeting contains a slogan that can energise the Left Democratic Front support base. Neither the CPM nor the government is too concerned about the legal challenges ahead.

The state government and the party had sought legal means to counter the charges related to the purported statements gold smuggling accused Swapna Suresh gave out to the customs department involving chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Need for a counter strategy was felt more when even speaker P Sreeramakrishnan’s name was involved in the controversy.

The party leadership feared that the National Investigation Agency might even go to the extent of slapping non-bailable offences on the chief minister and arresting him. That was the trigger for the cabinet to announce the formation of an enquiry commission against the investigation agencies before the party state secretariat meet. The decision was reported in the secretariat of the party.

The decision was taken in a cabinet without law minister A K Balan, who was away campaigning for the election. Even the law department is not likely to be privy to the decision. Yet the chief minister took the party leadership into confidence.

The government wants to send out a signal that it would respond with equal force if the central government made its agencies to get even with political rivals. Filing a police case against the Enforcement Directorate was an early sign of this strategy. The Enforcement Directorate is accused of forcing Swapna Suresh to testify against the chief minister under duress.

Now the state government is about to form a commission to enquire the whole episode and bring to light any larger conspiracy. The tug-of-war has led to a unique situation in India’s legal history where a state government thinks that the legally established central investigating agencies are acting illegally. The government has even appointed a retired high court judge to investigate into the allegations against the central agencies.

The election commission may prevent the state government from going forward with its plan for an enquiry, but that is not considered by the party or the government at this stage. They could always blame the central government of instigating such a move against the state government. In any case, the election commission cannot stay the formation of the enquiry commission beyond the period when the election notification is in effect.

The state government knows very well that the commission would be a practical idea only if the Left Democratic Front comes to power again.

The state government’s struggle that started with a petition in the Kerala High Court against the taking over of the Life Mission investigation by the CBI has culminated in the unlikely response of setting up a judicial commission. Now, the customs department and the enforcement directorate are in the crosshairs.

The government assesses that both agencies have ignored the ethics of profession and leaked selective information to media only to defame the government. The Income Tax department raid on the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) was the last straw.

The government acted on a complaint by a private party to get the cabinet approve of a judicial commission even as it rejected similar demands by the opposition in other issues. This decision is partly driven by fears that the central agencies could target the chief minister or the speaker to diminish the ruling alliance’s chances in the election. Such a move cannot be pre-empted by a judicial commission but the front can buttress its claim of a conspiracy by saying that the commission was appointed to bring out the truth.

The LDF also expects to emerge as the main force against the BJP at a time when central leaders including prime minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah tours the state.

Union minister V Muraleedharan has suggested that the central government was not taking this move very seriously. The opposition, however, is wary of giving the struggle any importance.

Centre vs state: Kerala Govt's actions against central agencies

1. The Kerala government has approached the Kerala high court against the CBI move to take over the Vadakkancherry Life Mission case.

2. The state government also barred the central agency from taking over cases unilaterally.

3. The Kerala legislative assembly passed a resolution against the CGI report that sought to put the KIIFB under a shadow.

4. House committees have been forwarded the complaints against the Enforcement Directorate.

5. The Kerala police crime branch has filed a case against the Enforcement Directorate for forcing an accused to taint the chief minister.

6. The customs department may have to face legal proceedings for leaking out the statements of Swapna Suresh.

7. The state cabinet announced the setting up of a judicial commission to enquire into allegations of conspiracy by the central agencies.

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