Highway heists, bribe allegations, leadership battles: BJP’s Kerala challenges
Since its rout in the recently held assembly poll, in which the party lost its lone sitting legislative seat, the Kerala unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is mired in a series of controversies.
Upset with the developments, the party central leadership has summoned state chief K Surendran to Delhi. Coming right after the Kerala Police registered a case against him on Monday for allegedly bribing an independent candidate to withdraw his papers after the intervention of a court in north Kerala, the call from Delhi has triggered speculation about what lies ahead for the party in the state.
The defeat and its aftermath
Following the poll debacle, in which the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) lost around three per cent of vote share compared to its 2016 performance, the central leadership sought a report from three important leaders — former state police chief Jacob Thomas, Metro Man E Sreedharan (both were party candidates) and former bureaucrat C V Ananda Bose — about the state of affairs in the party. They reportedly recommended sweeping changes in the light of poor performance, factional feuds and subsequent controversies in the state unit.
Though the state unit has started a process of damage control, political observers suggest that there remain mounting differences within the party.
State leaders have underplayed Surendran’s Delhi visit but speculation is rife here about an overhaul. “It was not summoning, but a planned visit. Besides our political opponents, a section of media is also baying for the party blood,” said party leader M T Ramesh, rejecting the speculation about a change in state party leadership. A party team has also called on Governor Arif Mohammad Khan on Wednesday, alleging a ploy to defame the party.
The party is in the midst of three raging controversies — a reported highway heist and hawala transactions, alleged pay off to an independent candidate, and a financial transaction with tribal leader C K Janu, a candidate in Wayanad, to remain with the NDA bloc.
A highway robbery took place on April 3, three days before the state went to the polls. It unfolded after a man named S Shamseer, who was transporting cash, was waylaid by a group of people on Kodakara on Thrisur-Ernakulam highway and looted his vehicle after assaulting him.
Four days later (April 7), Shamseer filed a police complaint in which he said ₹25 lakh was stolen from his car, and claimed the money was meant for some property transactions. The police filed a case on April 7 following his compliant.
When the police inquired why he delayed filing complaint, his statements were inconsistent and after further interrogation he took the name of one A K Dharmarajan, a local Rashtriya Swaymsevak Sangh leader.
Dharmarajan said the money was meant for election activities and he collected it from many persons. But the police subsequently found that ₹3.5 crore was missing, and arrested 20 persons, all history-sheeters, allegedly involved in the heist.
The alleged BJP link came to light when police started investigation into the source of money. Dharmarajan reportedly told the police that the money was meant to be handed over to BJP Alapuzha treasurer, K G Kartha, and party state organising secretary, M Ganeshan, was aware of the transportation. Both leaders were questioned by the police.
The special investigation team (SIT) probing the case now suspects that the money came from Karnataka through hawala channels and it was allegedly meant for distribution in elections. After money was lost, both (Shamseer and Dharmarajan) made several calls to state unit chief Surendran and his son, call records of both showed. The Enforcement Directorate has sought details of the case from the SIT. Both the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress have alleged the ED was going slow since the BJP was involved.
Meanwhile, a local court in Thrissur on Wednesday dismissed a plea of Dharmarajan seeking the possession of seized money. Police have so far seized ₹1.75 crore and gold from the accused. While dismissing his plea, the court said the investigation in the case was on and it sought more details from the SIT.
Pay-off to independent candidate
Even as the party was struggling with highway heist, the alleged pay off to an independent candidate surfaced.
Independent candidate K Sundara, who had contested against K Surendran in Mancheswaram (north Kerala), alleged last week that he was under pressure to withdraw his candidature in favour of the BJP leader. He said though he demanded ₹15 lakh, he was paid ₹2.5 lakh and received a smart phone. He also said he was offered a wine parlour and a house in Karnataka once Surendran emerged victorious. After Surendran’s defeat, party leaders were not willing to meet promises made to him, he alleged.
After the news surfaced, the CPI(M) candidate V V Ramesan moved the Kasaragod magistrate court, which directed the police to register a case against Surendran. He was later booked under Section 17I (B )of the Indian Penal Code and other sections. But the party said it will challenge the decision in a higher court.
“Both the ruling CPI(M) and opposition Congress have joined hands to discredit the BJP. Some of the recent allegations are part of this campaign,” said party leader A N Radhakrishnan. Sundara, who now claimed he is associated with the Bahujan Samaj Party, said he was ready to depose against the BJP leader.
Interestingly, in the 2016 assembly elections too, Sundara had contested but he got 467 votes while Surendran lost the seat by a slender margin of 89 votes. Sundara said this time the BJP was more alert and many leaders from Karnataka pressurised him to withdraw from the election. After withdrawing his nomination, he campaigned for Surendran, but did not join the party.
But the state president lost the April poll by a bigger margin of 745 votes to Muslim League’s AKM Ashraf. “It is only tip of the iceberg. The ongoing investigation will give a clear picture later. The party spent crores of rupees in recent elections,” said CPI(M) acting secretary A Vijayaraghavan.
The Congress has sought a court-monitored probe into highway heist and hawala transactions. “Only a court-monitored probe will unravel truth otherwise the state government will weaken in the case in lieu of some of the cases being probed by central agencies,” said party leader K Muraleedharan.
Largesse to tribal leader
In the middle of these two controversies, another issue surfaced last week after the leader of Janatipathya Rashtriya Party (JRP), an ally of the BJP, alleged that Surendran had given ₹10 lakh to JRP president C K Janu to returning to the NDA fold before the polls. Earlier Janu, a tribal leader from Wayanad, had severed her links with the BJP and NDA but later she became a candidate in Wayanad.
JRP leader Praseetha Azeekode said though Janu sought a bigger amount, Surendran gave her only ₹10 lakh. After her disclosure, an audio tape also surfaced in which Surendran was purportedly heard talking to Janu. (HT could not verify authenticity of the tape). But Janu later denied this and said it was part of the electioneering expenses and no payment was involved in her return.
“The recent allegations have invited more ignominy to the party than the poll defeat. Infighting in the party played a key role in fuelling troubles,” said political observer A Jayashankar.
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