If there was a moment that defined the shameful fiasco that the Kerala Assembly witnessed on 13 March, it was the Speaker’s chair being thrown from the dais into the Well of the Assembly.
The chair fell clumsily on the floor, upside down, and it remained there for a while.
Around the upstaged Speaker’s chair scuffled, shouted and ran amuck Opposition MLAs — both men and women — jostling, bullying and biting, in their futile effort to stop a crestfallen yet nonchalant KM Mani, the beleaguered finance minister, facing charges of bribery, from presenting the Budget.
The CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) had thrown the hat in the ring saying that come what may, Mani would not be allowed to table the Budget. The ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) duly picked up the challenge and said none other than Mani would present the Budget.
The stage was set for a political tussle — rather an ego clash — which should have been avoided by all means to save the dignity of the House and whatever remaining blushes of our limping democracy.
The buildup to the protest was quite similar to the one the state capital had witnessed a couple of years
ago when the LDF supporters from across the state gathered around the secretariat in a strike that they said would go on until Chief Minister Oommen Chandy resigned over the solar scam. The atmosphere around the administrative block, then, was thick with tension as thousands of red-clad party supporters sat in front of the main block, clapped and sang songs of revolution. But nothing happened and on the second day the protest mysteriously lost its momentum and disheartened supporters returned home. Chandy has remained the chief minister, cocking a political snook at his detractors, weathering many minor to sweeping storms.
Now, it was the turn of another hard-nosed leader, Mani — perhaps in the twilight of his long political career — trying to stand his ground even when the soil under his feet is fast crumbling. The Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau had registered a case against Mani in December last year in connection with the allegations levelled by Kerala State Bar Hotel Owner’s Association working president Biju Ramesh that Mani had accepted bribes from bar owners to renew liquor licences.
Mani, who stayed overnight in the Assembly complex with his UDF colleagues, entered the House through the backdoor while the LDF MLAs were busy blocking the front entrance to keep the Speaker and the minister at bay.
Moments before Mani entered the House, there were scuffles between the LDF members and the watch-and-ward staff. A few of the MLAs ran to the Speaker’s dais and threw his chair into the Well of the Assembly before dismantling the computer and other electronic gadgets on his table.
Even former ministers and senior leaders like MA Baby and Thomas Isaac were in the forefront, pushing the security personnel out of the Hall. Legislator L Sivankutty stood on a chair shouting in protest before he suffered a mild concussion and was carried out of the Assembly on a stretcher. Women legislators were also in the forefront of the protest, often ending up in jostling with UDF members. Nine Opposition MLAs were reportedly injured in the scuffle.
Once Mani was in the Hall, the Speaker from his chamber asked the minister to present the Budget. Mani, fitted with a wireless mike, spoke for six minutes to loud applause from the UDF members, who soon distributed laddoos to mark a moral victory over the Opposition.
Mani later met reporters to brief them on his Budget.
Meanwhile, protest marches by hundreds of LDF and Yuva Morcha workers outside the Assembly building turned violent and the police used water cannons to disperse the crowd, who responded by pelting stones. A few metres down, a police van was set on fire at the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation’s depot at Vikas Bhavan, opposite the office of the district police superintendent.
Leader of the Opposition VS Achuthanandan also met the media and explained what went on in the
Assembly, categorically calling Mani corrupt. Pinarayi Vijayan, who has recently stepped down as the CPM’s state secretary after 16 years in office, said that if the laddoo distribution was the way a Budget was tabled, then the Budget could not be accepted.
Amid this drama, Congress MLA K Sivadasan Nair alleged that Jameela Prakasham, a woman LDF MLA, had bitten him. “While we were trying to protect the chief minister, she (Jameela) came and bit me,” says Nair. Prakasham, in turn, accused Nair of physically abusing her. “What right has he to attack and hold me? Moreover, he even hit me on the back with his knee,” she says. Prakasham also alleged that Congress member Dominic Presentation had insulted her. “In the midst of the ruckus, Dominic yelled at me and asked me to call my Nadar husband. He tried to abuse my family and also the caste as a whole,” she says.
A Case for Article 356
Breaking with tradition, Governor P Sathasivam has issued a press note saying that the ugly incidents in the Assembly were reason enough to invoke Article 356, and reported the incidents to the President.
Under Article 356, the President can dismiss a state government or dissolve a state Assembly or keep it under suspended animation in the event of a failure of the constitutional machinery.
The UDF has disapproved of the reference to the Article but the LDF has said that their stand has been validated.
Five Opposition MLAs — EP Jayarajan, KT Jaleel, V Sivankutty, K Kunjahmed Master and K Ajit — have been suspended for the remainder of the Assembly session for allegedly vandalising the Speaker’s dais.
While the mayhem unleashed by the LDF members of the Assembly has no place in a democracy, the UDF could have budged to the Opposition’s pressure and allowed any member of the Cabinet other than Mani to present the Budget in order to avoid the ugly, unruly scenes.
Kerala, riding a crest of advertisement taglines and euphemisms but facing a grim reality of corruption, scams and budgetary deficit, can ill-afford such a rowdy face of political hooliganism raising its head in the Assembly. Nor can the UDF afford to behave as if all is well. The common man is not amused by the increasing number of scams and corruption charges against its ministers. Surely, something stale is being brewed in the state of Kerala. The UDF leadership has to put it in the pipe and smoke it.