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Avatars, Then And Now

Avatars, Then And Now

Newsreaders and television anchors, especially of the Republic variety, have a lot to learn from Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on how they should conduct themselves when they disseminate news. He speaks slowly but clearly and commendably and his voice never rises beyond a particular pitch, whatever be the provocation. 

Small wonder that the whole of Kerala listens to him when he briefs them about where in Thalassery or Thiruvananthapuram a new Covid patient was detected and admitted to a hospital on the dot at 6 pm everyday. Vijayan’s Press conference is a gentle reminder to the people that there was a time when the Prime Minister and Union ministers used to address Press conferences.

That is why I welcome his televised Press conference, although I feel that he could have left the job to his health minister KK Shailaja and attended to more pressing jobs. Vijayan’s grip on Coronavirus seems to be loosening, as more and more people are falling sick of Covid-19. On Friday, 791 people were tested Covid-positive. 

The Kerala Police are also unable to control the people who violate all norms of social distancing when their children appear for competitive examinations, as was witnessed in the Kerala Capital on Thursday last. Where is Kerala and where is New Zealand where the nation has got rid of not just Covid but Coronavirus as well? 

Kerala has, alas, been degenerating into a Delhi, ruled jointly by the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party, in terms of exercising control over Corona. Yet, the subject of discussion in the state or in relation to the state, believed to have been recovered from the Arabian Sea when Parasurama threw his blood-sprinkled axe into the sea aeons ago, is not Covid-19 but a gang of criminals, allegedly patronised by an all-powerful IAS officer.

Vijayan has unnecessarily been tying himself in knots trying to defend the indefensible. When he came to power four years ago, he made a solemn promise that he would not allow any “avatars” to find a place for themselves in the administration. 

Avatar is a Hindu religious concept under which Lord Vishnu manifests Himself in human or other forms on earth from time to time to save mankind. He has done it 10 times, though without much effect, as the situation in the country shows.

No, Vijayan the atheist follows the late AK Gopalan who wondered aloud why people wasted their money on Sabarimala pilgrimages when they could have spent it on a uniform and joined his Red Sena, also known as Gopalan Sena. He was not referring to any manifestations of the Lord. 

Vijayan is a down-to-earth person who quotes scientific studies on Covid, not one like Sashi Tharoor, who wrote exultingly about the miracle of idols drinking milk in his column in The Hindu when scientists could describe it as nothing but capillary action.

The avatars Vijayan had in mind were the Jikkus, Joppans and Salim Rajs who did everything for Chief Minister Oommen Chandy like holding his mobile phone. He was too busy meeting all and sundry that he did not check with whom they were talking to until revelations came that they were busy salivating in anticipation of a woman called Sarita.

By the time Chandy realised what was going-on, the woman was ready even to claim that she had an occasional dalliance with the old man. He and his UDF had to pay a heavy price in the elections, though the UDF’s defeat was more on account of the minorities voting in large numbers for the LDF in the belief that Chandy was a good-for-nothing fellow when it came to countering the Sangh.

The people of Kerala lapped up Vijayan’s Avatar announcement like the LDF’s promise Ellam Sariyakum (everything will be all right). What a tragedy, he finds himself in a predicament, worse than the one his predecessor faced. No dialectic materialism can save him and his party from the charge that he failed to notice an avatar who bore the name of the Lord of Kailash in his own Secretariat.

Jikkus and Joppans were small fries or errand boys, compared to the big shark that M Sivasankar was in the Chief Minister’s Office. He was his Principal Secretary. The post of Principal Secretary is not of British vintage. It is totally indigenous. In fact, it is as recent as Indira Gandhi’s reign. The country knew that there could be a Principal Secretary only when she appointed PN Haksar to the post.

That was also the time when the Prime Minister’s Office acquired a distinct identity. In popular perception, the PM’s Principal Secretary was higher than even the Cabinet Secretary. Three Keralites who served as the PM’s Principal Secretary are the late PC Alexander, the late TN Seshan and TKA Nair.

Alexander had to leave the job following the scandal that some junior-level officials in the PMO and the Rashtrapati Bhavan were involved in spying activity. V. Krishnamurthy, who headed the BHEL and who rose to the post of Secretary to the Government of India, realised how powerful a Principal Secretary to the PM was when he landed in jail and rotted there. It was allegedly a matter of heart that felled Krishnamurthy, whom I had the fortune of interviewing.

When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, he, too, had a principal secretary. However, few had heard the name of Nripendra Mishra as Modi heads a one-and-a-half-man Cabinet, the half man being another Gujarati. 

Following in the footsteps of the Prime Minister, most chief ministers have a principal secretary. He or she is usually a secretary-rank IAS officer, who becomes a joint secretary or additional secretary if the person moves to the Central government.

Because of the principal secretary’s proximity to the chief minister, he is considered a cut above other secretaries.

In the case of Sivasankar, he held a unique position. As Principal Secretary, he was in a position to influence all departmental decisions as they reached the chief minister for final approval only through him. Since he had the ears of Vijayan, he was considered the strongest man in the government.

Unlike other PSs, he was also the Secretary in charge of the Information Technology Department in which capacity he had the power to issue orders. As PS, he could influence the CM and as IT Secretary, he could take his own decisions. Power in the hands of a degenerate character is a dangerous thing.

I have read a newspaper report which quotes Sivasankar having said in an inebriated state that Vijayan was an incapable person and he would sign wherever he indicated. It was he who ran the government in the name of Vijayan. Of course, that rascal of a secretary MO Mathai had also said the same about Nehru, though not in so many words.

One need not pay much attention to such boastful claims of Sivasankar but he proved that he was not wide of the mark when he allegedly claimed that he ran the government. If Vijayan had the necessary political savvy, he would have struck at Sivasankar when the Sprinklr Saga unfolded on the political horizon.

What was most unacceptable was Sivasankar taking the Sprinklr decision on his own, misusing his proximity to Vijayan. An alert Chief Minister should have immediately removed him from the CMO, as suggested by Kaanam Rajendran of the CPI at that time. Had he done so, the Swapna scandal would have been just a smuggling scandal.

There are two inferences possible. One, Vijayan is innocent as he did not know what Sivasankar was doing in his spare time. Can he plead innocence? “Inside IB and RAW” is the autobiography of K Sankaran Nair, also known as Colonel Menon among friends, which I read recently. He explains that it is the job of the IB and the RAW to inform the PM about intelligence, pleasant or unpleasant, to him.

It is difficult to believe that the intelligence wing in the state police had not briefed Vijayan about Sivasankar’s alleged nocturnal visits in a dreamy state. More so, when he was in regular touch with shady characters. In that case, the state intelligence department failed in its duty. Allowance must also be made for the fact that Vijayan holds the home portfolio.

If, on the other hand, the intelligence authorities had informed him about Sivasankar’s weaknesses, it would show Vijayan in a ‘poorer’ light. In either case, what we see is the clear failure of the Chief Minister. A person in power should always trust his colleagues but the trust should not be taken for granted. That is what happened in the case of Sivasankar.

On Friday, one Malayalam newspaper had a report which encapsulated in less than 500 words how brilliant Sivasankar was as a student who got second rank in SSLC and did well as a Collector, Director of Education and Chairman of the KSEB before becoming the Czar of Information Technology and eventually Vijayan’s nemesis. But, then, was the Serpent and Bikini Killer Charles Sobhraj any less brilliant? Crooks by definition have to be brilliant to have their short reign!

The national security and other angles of the gold smuggling case are being looked into by the NIA and it is pointless to comment on it. As long as Indians, especially Malayalis, have a craze for the yellow metal and as long as the price of gold in India is higher than in the international market, smuggling will happen, with or without the support of the Customs department.

Why blame Swapna Suresh when I have heard about a bishop, who was held at the customs because he wore an extraordinarily heavy gold chain with a heavier cross? In contrast, it was a wooden cross Jesus carried, all the way to Golgotha!

The Sivasankar episode is a pointer to the collapse of the “steel frame” that the administration was supposed to be. It is unimaginable that in a state where Ph.D holders are looking for jobs, a girl who is just a matriculate can walk away with a job that fetched her over a lakh of rupees from the state exchequer. 

The job also enabled her to use the state emblem that depicts four animals, i.e., elephant, horse, bull and lion of Ashoka’s Lion Capital that symbolise power, courage, confidence and pride, besides the Conch shell, associated with Lord Vishnu. Could the woman have got the job in the normal way? 

The inquiry conducted by the Chief Secretary and another Secretary has found that it was Sivasankar’s help which fetched Swapna her dream job. He thus became a party to the fraud she committed when she presented a fraudulent degree and a fraudulent experience certificate from the UAE Consulate from where she was dismissed.

Logically, criminal cases should be lodged against him for not only helping Swapna get a job but also for helping the criminal gang around her to meet and have parties in an apartment bang opposite the CMO. Alas, he reduced himself to a middleman. 

In the olden days it was the Public Relations Department which handled the publicity of the government, including that of the Chief Minister. The PRD is no longer in the picture. In Travancore there was a saying that a person who received a monthly salary from the  King’s treasury was a blessed, lucky person. 

Now let’s look at Vijayan’s office. How many of the staff there were recruited by the Public Service Commission? They are either party men or close to him. How many of them know about government procedures? Similarly, has there been any chief minister who had as many advisers as Vijayan? He has even a police adviser. What advice have they given him so far? 

IAS and state services have officers who are trained to do government jobs. Some of them may not be as glamorous as Swapna or speak English and Arabic as fluently as her but they know how to function within the system. They also have a stake in the system unlike the fly-by-night operators!

Vijayan has a large army of consultants also to do his work. He even had a crook as a CM’s Fellow. Until then, I knew only about the Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS). All this shows that Vijayan and his ilk no longer trust well-established systems and practices. 

They want short-cuts and smart men and women like the Swapnas, the Sarits and the Balachandrans. It is difficult to believe that Vijayan heads a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Instead, he runs a government of advisers and consultants, by advisers and consultants and for advisers and consultants. Therein lies the tragedy!

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 20th July 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 30)