The story of Saritha Nair and what does it say about Kerala

opinion | Thursday, October 12th, 2017
TS Sudhir

"I am not concerned about Oommen Chandy's political career. One who was party to a crime along with me should be exposed, especially since he is a public servant. He is also bound to receive the punishment for that.''

Thus reacted Saritha Nair, one of the prime accused in the Solar scam that has scalded many a politician and police officer in Kerala since 2013, when the scam broke. 

On Wednesday, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan government ordered cases to be booked against several UDF politicians, including Chandy for having played a part in the scam. But in what threatens to change the political contours of Kerala politics, several former ministers, MLAs, MPs who allegedly sought sexual favours from Nair and exploited her, are in the dock as well. The Sivarajan commission has interpreted seeking sexual favours as a form of bribery and rightly so. They are now being accused of rape.

Even though she is in the dock as well, Saritha Nair can afford to feel vindicated. Because for four years now, she has been screaming from the rooftop that virtually the entire UDF political apparatus were partners in the fraud she and her live-in partner, Biju Radhakrishnan had started. And that she had paid the price for having been a woman entrepreneur, seeking help from the political establishment, by paying bribes - both in the form of cash and sex. In her letter of 19 July 2013, Nair had named Chandy and several other UDF leaders as those who sought sexual favours from her in connection with the solar scam. This is a charge Chandy has consistently refuted.

Political pressure has manifested itself rather openly in this case. When she was shifted from Pathanamthitta jail to Thiruvananthapuram jail in 2013, she was reported to have written a 21-page letter listing out the names of 13 politicians and a police officer who exploited her after promising help to promote her company Team Solar. But the length of that letter was suspiciously pruned to four pages after ``a person who claimed to be her maternal cousin visited her in jail'' according to the statement of former Prisons DGP Alexander Jacob. It was subsequently found that the person was not her cousin. 

Jacob's statement was a pointer to the muck in the system. He told the Commission that the jail authorities received 150 applications, including from politicians, to meet Saritha Nair on the first day after she was sent to prison. According to reports, the former DGP told the Commission that it would be shocked if he reveals the names of the applicants. 

Chandy was forced to remove three members of his staff after revelations of exchange of money between Saritha and the then CM's office. At no stage, she attempted to hide her proximity to Chandy. She had told the `The Indian Express' that she had the freedom to walk into Chandy's official residence anytime. ``I was that close'' she had claimed, which the CM had rubbished. 

Nair had also claimed hundreds of phone calls made between her and Chandy's personal staff, both in Kerala and in Delhi. Records showed that in 2012-13, Saritha and Thomas Kuruvilla (Chandy's aide in New Delhi) had exchanged 205 telephonic calls. 

Chandy's gunman Salim Raj and Saritha had spoken 416 times during the same period, clearly indicating her infiltration into Chandy's official space. Nair had alleged that she paid a bribe of Rs 1.9 crore to Chandy through Kuruvilla. When her work did not happen despite the bribe, she decided to take everyone down with her. 

Several aspects of the Saritha Nair story are disturbing. Here is an entrepreneur who wanted to make her mark in the field of non-conventional energy. The fact that she was compelled to resort to immoral means to achieve her business ends, does the image of Kerala's governance structure no good. If her allegations are to be believed - and the Sivarajan Commission seems to have bought into them - she was forced into sexual favours, if she wanted her work done. 

It is as seedy as corruption can get. While handing over the names in a ``strictly confidential'' sealed cover in February 2016 to the Commission, Nair had stated dramatically that this is the ``truth about my illicit relations with politicians''.

But the moment Kerala's political establishment realised that this person can also transform from an allegedly wronged one into a whistleblower, the force of the system came upon her. Chandy filed a defamation suit, attempts were made to influence and intimidate her while she was behind bars, the opposition ranged behind her smelling political gunpowder in her allegations. For the media, this cocktail of politics, corruption, sex and sleaze was a sure-shot way to garner TRPs. 

But while Kerala is a voyeuristic society, it is also a deeply conservative society. The fact that she was in a live-in relationship with Radhakrishnan was seen by those who put a premium on marriage, as a commentary on her ``loose morals''. That she was an alleged scamster meant her allegations were discounted. Her nude videos that were leaked were seen as a testimony to a questionable character. That her allegations were seen as helping the Left parties in the run-up to the 2016 polls meant she was now seen as cosying up to the LDF. 

The problem with the manner in which the Saritha Nair story is playing out in the public domain is also with the word `rape' being used to describe the sexual favours. Social activist and rape survivor Sunitha Krishnan says, ``Frankly there is no victim here. We are talking of a bunch of criminals so treat the case that way.'' 

Krishnan emphasises that rape is a violation, a traumatic experience and that the term is being used very loosely in the context of this case. While it is quite possible that sexual favours were set as a pre-condition for work getting done by the government, on available evidence so far, it seems Nair went into it fully aware of what she was doing. 

The list of politicians now in the dock reads like the who's who of the UDF in Kerala. But while the solar scam, whose worth at Rs 7 crore is a pittance compared to the mega scams breaking elsewhere, will inflict a huge political cost, from the common man's perspective, it is a reflection on the depravity in the power structure in Kerala. And that should worry each one of us.

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