Kerala has won global acclaim for the success of its cluster-containment model in the fight against COVID-19. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has emerged as the undisputed hero, energising the entire operations of the state machinery while co-ordinating with the Centre to mount special drives to rescue Keralites stranded in high infection pockets around the world. His daily media briefing commanded prime time viewership on TV channels, providing a substitute for the staple offering of evening TV soaps that went for a toss due to the lockdown and social distancing norms.
However, a strange cause effect syndrome has gripped the scene, with the effect itself becoming the cause of trouble for the Chief Minister. The implications could not have been lost on an Opposition, finding itself rudderless against a turbo-powered government heading towards its fifth year in power with aplomb.
The scope of a political slugfest has filled the Opposition with some renewed confidence, just as the Vijayan government found itself under increasing pressure of its past failures despite a brilliant track record in handling similar emergencies. The Chief Minister had been involved in much of what is now finding global acceptance as the ‘Kerala model’.
A misstep by the government with a fund-raising effort to drive the COVID-19 defence provided the Opposition an unexpected opportunity to attack — and it would have been naïve for them to let that go to waste.
The Chief Minister called for a repeat of what has come to be known as the ‘salary challenge’ under which government employees would forego a month’s salary as contribution to the chief minister’s disaster relief fund. The idea, mooted by Vijayan on the occasion of the devastating floods of 2018, has always remained controversial. Though supposed to be a voluntary effort, the state government sought to make it mandatory, which was later challenged in the courts.
The fund has been dogged by allegations of large-scale misuse, including allocations to engage leading lawyers to defend party men named as accused in sensational political murders. The state Lokayukta even admitted a complaint that the state Cabinet had illegally transferred money from the fund to the families of prominent Left Democratic Front (LDF) leaders who had died in recent times.
According to the accounts, as stated by the Chief Minister’s Office, the fund had collected Rs 4,798 crore in the wake of the 2018 floods, but could disburse only Rs 3,080 crore over the last two years, leaving an unutilised amount of over Rs 1,700 crores.
In the face of mounting criticism, the move for another ‘salary challenge’ has been dropped altogether, marking the first climb down by a government that appeared invincible until the other day on the basis of its superlative performance in fighting COVID-19.
Discomfiture over the ‘salary challenge’ gone awry was nothing when compared to the embarrassment brought by engaging Sprinklr, an American IT company, to collate and analyse health data relating to people sent to isolation and home quarantine as part of the state government’s coronavirus protocol. Making the situation all the more difficult is the fact that the deal was signed without the law department being brought into the picture.
Sensing the huge opportunity, the Opposition has launched a frontal attack on the Chief Minister for engaging a US company that is already facing data theft charges. Vijayan initially dismissed the allegation contemptuously as an Opposition grudge against the government’s goodwill for its work, but when he found the going too tough, the celebrated daily media briefing with its high TPR ratings was called off abruptly.
As the cancellation betrayed a growing sense of vulnerability over the controversial deal, the media briefing has since been restored on a selective basis. The message has already gone out loud and clear. A firefighting operation by the IT secretary, who is also the Chief Minister’s chief adviser, has produced entirely unintended results, further exposing the deal, sought to be justified as free offering by an Indian-owned US company. No one has yet asked the all-important question as to why a company should provide a free service to any client.
Perhaps, the answer is found in the fact that the Sprinklr is a service provider to the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which is now actively pursuing the development of a vaccine to cure the COVID-19 virus. That also provides clues as to where the health data collected from corona patients and those under observation may be headed.
K Raveendran is a senior journalist. Views are personal.