How the ISRO espionage scandal brought a CM down

A big casualty of the ISRO espionage conspiracy was 'Leader' K Karunakaran, the then powerful Chief Minister of Kerala.

WrittenBy:Anand Kochukudy
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The Malayalam word for a spy—“charan”—almost spells like the word for ashes—“charam.” Nambi Narayanan, the brilliant Scientist of the ISRO who was arrested and branded a spy overnight in late 1994, fought a long and hard legal battle to rise from the ashes like a phoenix. Now, after a 24-year struggle to restore his dignity and take to task the officers that framed him, Narayanan has declared he would call it quits.


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A judicial committee, headed by ex-Supreme Court judge DK Jain, has been set up by the court to probe the role of Police officers Sibi Mathews, KK Joshua and S Vijayan in framing him. The court also asked the Kerala government to pay a sum of Rs 50 lakh (in a time span of eight weeks) as compensation to Narayanan—despite no such provision existing in the Indian criminal justice system—and allowed Narayanan to proceed with his civil suit seeking further damages.

Although Narayanan’s two-and-a-half decade battle to seek justice is a very important story in itself, we will come to that later.

Apart from Nambi Narayanan, his fellow scientists and the two Maldives women, who were all arrested on the charges of being spies, the case’s biggest casualty was “Leader” K Karunakaran, the then powerful Chief Minister of Kerala. Karunakaran’s resignation following the case also ended his political career—he never got a chance to stake his claim for the top job in Kerala. Following the court verdict on Friday, Karunakaran’s daughter Padmaja Venugopal, threatened to name five conspirators who plotted and schemed to bring down her father, in front of the judicial inquiry committee.

What makes this story even more interesting is the fact that all the protagonists involved in the political conspiracy to unseat Karunakaran even today occupy leadership positions in Kerala Pradesh Congress. True, the ISRO espionage scandal was only the last straw that broke the camel’s back (leading to Karunakaran’s resignation), but it was still the decisive factor. Although Karunakaran was no Julius Caesar, there are enough characters in this political conspiracy that would put the likes of Cassius and Brutus to shame with their scheming. There certainly was an Antony, who would ultimately reap the rewards as Chief Minister with the downfall of Karunakaran.

The backdrop to the conspiracy, leading up to the ignominious ouster of Karunakaran in early 1995, was set in motion soon after the victory of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala in 1991. Karunakaran enjoyed a near-hegemonic status in the party back then and despite AK Antony pushing for VM Sudheeran to be inducted into the Cabinet, Karunakaran refused squarely. Sudheeran, as legislative assembly Speaker (1984-87), had made life hell for Karunakaran during his previous term as Chief Minister.

During the 1992 January election to Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), the crafty ‘Leader’ got Vayalar Ravi to contest and win against his comrade-in-arms AK Antony to the post of KPCC President. This was followed by Karunakaran’s unfortunate accident later that year, and it was during his prolonged period of hospitalisation that a young and immature K Muralidharan ran a kitchen cabinet along with Chief Secretary Padmakumar in his father’s absence.

Oommen Chandy—the then Finance Minister and No 2 in Karunakaran’s Cabinet (and Antony faction’s general)—was miffed at not being given the command in the Chief Minister’s absence. This was also roughly the period when the trio of Ramesh Chennithala, (the late) G Karthikeyan and MI Shanawas formed a ‘Thiruthalvadi’ (Correctionist) group within the Karunakaran faction—in protest against his son ruling by proxy. Karunakaran recovered in time and was back in the saddle. When the wily ‘Leader’ engineered a split in ally Kerala Congress (M) in 1993—Minister TM Jacob walked out of the regional outfit with three MLAs supporting him—it turned the Pala strongman KM Mani against him.

However, it was the denial of a Rajya Sabha seat to the Antony faction’s MA Kuttappan in early 1994 that ultimately turned the seething discontent against him in the party, into a public revolt. Oommen Chandy quit the Cabinet in protest and went around Kerala whipping up anti-Karunakaran sentiment through public speeches. Imagine an important leader revolting publicly against his party-led government and taking on the Chief Minister more vociferously than the opposition. Oommen Chandy did all that and more back then.

Cheriyan Philip, currently a fellow traveller and one of the lieutenants of the Antony faction back then recounts: “We had rented a place near Trivandrum medical College to plan our course of action on a daily basis. Most of the Congress MLAs and other leaders of the Antony faction would assemble there on a daily basis to stake stock. As I had differences of opinion with Chandy on some of the other issues, I was not part of the rebellion as it climaxed following the ISRO scandal”.

Even as the ISRO espionage scandal broke out in October-November 1994, it didn’t have any ramifications for the stability of the government. It was only after the Kerala High Court’s observation against the then Inspector general (IG) Raman Srivastava that the case assumed political colour. Srivastava was the blue-eyed boy and confidant of the Chief Minister. When K Muralidharan made a speech in Neyyattinkara that Srivastava would be protected at any cost, Chandy and his co-conspirators in the Antony faction—MM Hassan, VM Sudheeran, Aryadan Mohammad, KP Vishwanathan, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, Benny Behanan, KC Joseph—wasted no time to link Karunakaran with the case. And the likes of Chennithala, Karthikeyan and Shahnawaz, too, went after their leader.

In no time, things spiralled out of control as some imaginative journalists cooked up stories in major dailies to precipitate the downfall of the Karunakaran government. The very same journalists and print media in Kerala who hail Nambi Narayanan today competed among themselves to write the most fanciful stories to sell copies. In hindsight, it was one of the worst instances of media houses and editors letting their guard down and carrying stories planted by Kerala Police and politicians with ulterior motives.

With Karunakaran standing firm that he wouldn’t sack Srivastava, the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) brought a no-confidence motion into the assembly on February 14, 1995, to try and unseat him. VM Sudheeran went so far as to defy the whip of the party and did not turn up to vote.

As Chandy managed to draw Congress’ most important ally—the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML)—towards their faction’s favour, Karunakaran had his back against the wall. GK Moopanar arrived from Delhi as Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s emissary to take stock. With Chandy & co playing their moves with precision, Karunakaran lost the majority in the headcount as seven legislators of his faction ditched him to join the Antony faction. The allies too—save MK Raghavan—ditched the Chief Minister in unison. And then, Congress’ central leadership had no choice but to seek his resignation. It flew AK Antony from Delhi, just in time for him to stake his claim to the chair.

Resignation aside, the fact that the ISRO espionage scandal ultimately ended his political career (he was never again in contention for leadership) is something that rankled Karunakaran till the very end. He later split the party along with his son Muralidharan in 2005 but nevertheless died as a Congressman in 2010. Muralidharan was also pardoned as he made his way back to Congress; he continues to remain on the margins as his father’s detractors still hold on to leadership positions within the party.

Oommen Chandy is the most influential of them even as his then-lieutenant MM Hassan is the incumbent KPCC Chief and Ramesh Chennithala is the Leader of Opposition. Unlike sister Padmaja, Muralidharan didn’t use words like conspiracy to remind people about the plot hatched to snatch the Chief Minister’s chair from Karunakaran. It reflects his helplessness as anything he says can be held against him. It’s a bit of a paradox that Muralidharan is closer to Chandy today than members of the erstwhile Indira faction of Karunakaran—now led by Chennithala. But beneath the calm exterior, he exudes a quiet confidence. When asked to comment on his predicament as leadership positions remain out of bounds for him, Muralidharan commented: “I believe in poetic justice.” That solitary comment alone would have rung alarm bells for many.

As for Nambi Narayanan and his travails with law and justice, that would read like a racy detective thriller today. To quote Mark Twain, “Truth can be stranger than fiction.” Indeed.


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