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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Unravelling backdoor appointments, the struggle of PSC rank-holders and what ails Kerala Politics

In the 1989 Malayalam film Ramji Rao Speaking, one of the sub-plots involve Sai Kumar arriving in Kochi to take up a job offered to him on compassionate grounds after his father died in a fire. Unfortunately, he finds his appointment blocked (yet again) by a lady, the daughter of  another employee who died after his father. The sub-plot concludes with Sai Kumar abandoning his quest for the job he is entitled to in favour of the lady, and making money through some nefarious means. [1]

A plethora of films from the late 1980s and early 90s focused on the hapless youngster forced to do odd-jobs to earn a living or remain unemployed. It was to express the nervous cultural energy of an aspirational generation who, for the first time, were college educated and entering a job market that was unchanged from the 60s and 70s. The ‘Gelf Boom’ that happened after the conclusion of the first Gulf War ended up being the saving grace of the State.

The Mappila Community of the State had cultural links to the Arabs in the Persian Gulf which ended up facilitating the funnelling of youth at mass scale to the Middle East. The relaxation of Immigration laws in the West, particularly in the United States, also helped the migration of a significant chunk of the Malayali population to foreign lands. So much so that the joke is that when humanity lands on the Moon again, the Vyomnauts [2] would likely see that there’s a ‘Chandran’s Thattukada’ (Tea Shop) [3] already running there.

Kerala PSC backdoor appointments
Chandran’s Thattukada. I believe the origins are from urban legend that made into an Advertisement by a torch company

This global migration was not caused by civil strife, genocide or social unrest, but rather due to economic conditions forced by the lack of opportunities at home. Today, the state faces an unprecedented financial crisis that the State Government has attempted to mitigate by financial trickery [4], and the pressures of unemployment and underemployment as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic are felt almost as acutely as in the 80s or 90s.

It is in this context that we can view the current protests against ‘backdoor appointments’ and the apparent lack of appointees sourced from the Kerala PSC (Public Service Commission) rank lists.

Let me list ‘facts’ before we proceed:
  1. Yes, Backdoor appointments are being ‘regularised’.
  2. Yes, the Government has expanded the scope of PSC Appointments and included more in the purview of the Commission’s power.
  3. There are rank holders whose opportunity to avail Government employment has been curtailed by the freeze on recruitment as well as the general lack of appointments.

The Indian State has always worked on the grand idea of Nehruvian Socialism, which meant Government Employment is your ticket to a secure future. Kerala, the state that elected Communists in its first election, would obviously do the same, but on steroids.

Kerala’s Welfare-ism has created 100+ odd Public Sector Units, most of them working at a loss, and leads to lakhs writing the exam for FOUR Deputy Collector positions.

When we focus on a single LGS (Last Grade Servant) exam, something that was conducted in 2018, these rank holders say only 5,000 odd appointments have been made from this list while 12,000 odd were made in the 2012-15 list. Now, the fact is that higher education qualification requirements have been made to acquire jobs under this posting – as well as separate exams conducted for those that were earlier listed under LGS. This means that the recruitment levels under most PSC exams have fallen. These rank holders have been protesting for months for their appointments [5] and the issue has remarkable resonance at the ground because PSC jobs are the aspirations of more than a million Malayali youth and their families.

The real pain is that the government has decided to reform the reporting of vacancies by reorienting employee roles, which means that there has been a significant reduction in the appointment of people. This combined with the increasing positions left open for appointment on compassionate grounds has reduced opportunities for rank holders. In this sense, the lack of opportunities for LGS applicants is the pain of reform: one sensible (wherein reorientation has taken place), the other quite unnecessary (creating more appointments on compassionate grounds).

If these were all the facts, one would be sympathetic to LGS rank holders but agree with the  Government’s position. However, we need to temper these facts with two additional facts:

  1. The Government understandably instituted a hiring freeze as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. As earlier stated, temporary appointments are being regularised, in many cases to the determinant of qualified PSC rank holders.

These two facts are basically the Government rubbing salt in the wounds of these PSC rank holders. They are obviously meritorious, a fact that none in the general public will deny, therefore they are deserving of these appointments. Their appointments are being sacrificed at the altar of those temporarily appointed, a feeling most of us can relate to.

I am reluctant to claim that these appointments are inherently against the LGS rank holders, This with the caveat that the Government in fact prefers to appoint those with at least with a 10th grade certificate to LGS positions on a temporary basis than those in the PSC rank list (which include those with 7th standard pass and up). To be clear – these appointments are not being regularised. Those positions that are being regularised are elsewhere in the never-ending entities that the Kerala Government runs. From the newly created Kerala Bank [6], Forest Department, Literacy Mission, Kerala Automobiles (yes that exists), Women’s Development Corporation and more – the Government is considering making a significant number of temporary appointees, who have been in their position for at least 10 years, permanent.

Pray tell, who was in power 10 years ago? V.S. Achuthandan a.k.a. Achu Mamman of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), the same party of the current Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan? Interesting. Oh sorry, I’m not suggesting that this is the appointment of favoured employees – that is certainly 100% not the case. Just some amusing things that make some sense to some people.

The State’s massive regularisation programme is essentially a scheme for those with enough political connections to secure a government job on the sly at the cost of PSC rank holders. In previous years, the State Government sought to make these appointments to Public Sector Units. which the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government has in many cases rightly re-allocated for PSC appointments. However, they have not shied away from formalising temporary employees in these positions either.

The allegations against the PSC regarding rigged rank lists do not favour the overall narrative of the government either. The clash is between the relatively meritorious, poorer, unknown PSC rank holder and the party appointee who is in his position due to influence and power, i.e., the deserving versus the undeserving.

These themes are regularly the by-word for Communists who would have already brought the State to a standstill regarding this issue, if they were in the opposition. The role-reversal has led to a rather absurd situation where some rank holders fell at the feet of former Chief Minister Oomen Chandy, whose records in the appointment category is one of the worst, to say the least.

Kerala PSC backdoor appointments
Chandychayyan’s record has less than stellar – but role reversals are part and parcel of politics.

These ‘backdoor’ appointments are being justified on “humanitarian grounds”, as the CPM party paper Deshabhimani conveniently informs us. This line of argument may work in specific situations, but the en masse regularisation that is being planned and implemented in a stage-by-stage basis creates an ultimately sour feeling.

Speaking of humanitarian considerations, regularising posts and backdoor entries, the son of the deceased CPM MLA of Chengannur was appointed under a supernumerary post and later regularised as an Assistant Engineer of the Public Works Department. In court, he submitted that the usurpation of his position on legal grounds would harm his personal life as he had married on the basis that he had a government job.[7]

The reactions of two high ranking ministers of the CPM to the rank holders’ protests- MM Mani, the Electricity Minister, and that of EP Jayrajan, the Industries Minister, have been down right contemptuous, dismissing and invalidating the concerns and struggles of the PSC rank holders.


Kerala PSC backdoor appointments

Pinrayi Vijayan is the archetypal Greek Hero of Politics: His tongue is razor sharp, his strategic sense near unrivalled, his ability to gauge the ground unparalleled. But, like any Greek Hero, his hamartia, his fatal flaw is his hubris.

It felled Pinrayi in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections following the grand Sabarimala Debacle. He knew it’d backfire, he knew that he was losing precious ground to the opposition of the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party. He did not care. And his hubris felled him.

In the case of these protests, he pacified the rank holders in a press conference on 11th February by highlighting the additional postings now under the PSC as well as the 1.57 lakh appointees under this government. The damage control measures from the top ended there. This was the same day EP Jayrajan, his number two in the cabinet, mocked the protesters.

On the next day, the Electricity Minister followed suit. On 16th February, the Chief Minister officially changed his tone and tenor, and called out the support of the former Chief Minister Oomen Chandy as hypocrisy of the highest order (which I agree with) and listed numbers of appointees made under the PSC lists.

As I stated earlier, more postings have been allotted to the PSC, and the Chief Minister was forthright in highlighting that. He rejected the claims of the PSC rank holders, and signalled that he will not talk to the protesters. “This government is always with you”, he claimed. To those listed on expiring or expired rank lists, who are seeing the cabinet use its extraordinary power to regularise temporary appointments, his claim will ring hollow.

Yet, he will persist.

This issue will be impactful, with the Assembly elections expected to be held in the summer of 2021. The CPM has long prided itself as the party of the masses, the party of the common man, the party whose defining characteristic is its opposition to communalism, corruption and nepotism. The party finds itself on loose grounds on all three: Allegations surrounding the Gold Scam, the role of Minister’s sons and the desire to appeal to the Christian Community are harming its ‘basic appeal’. This of course is adding fuel to the fire. However, the above is an uncharitable and frankly antagonistic representation of what is happening.

The Party, and the LDF it leads, is riding high from its victory in the 2020 Local Body Elections. It looks primed to create a broad social coalition that can take it to victory again. The Congress is still plagued with factional fights and leadership questions. Under the unrivalled leadership of Pinaryi Vijayan, the LDF can win, and break the thirty year old cycle of Kerala Politics. The PSC issue, however, can turn out to be the fire that burns down the dream of a re-elected Kerala Chief Minister.

As it is clearly a Public Relations disaster for the State Government. A blind man could see it. Deshabhimani sees it. I’m sure the party sees it too. The Head Honcho, the Top Man, the Godfather, the King of Kings, the Modi-Slayer, the Paragon of Secularism and the killer of Communalism, the Emancipator of Women, The Yugapurush and the All-Around Greatest Ruler of Kerala since Lord Mahabali [8] knows it too.

But Pinrayi will never admit it.

There is more than a month left for the election. Which means that the narrative can turn at any point, benefiting the ruling coalition or the Opposition. The saga is yet to unfold.

Whoever wins this elections, backdoor appointments are here to stay, and the pain of PSC aspirants will continue unabated.

Special Thanks to Chitra Chechi for her editing skills and inputs.

Post-Script: The Kerala High Court has made a negative reference to the regularisation of temporary employees and has asked the State Government to produce the guidelines regarding the same, and this ongoing is likely to decide the future of the Government’s efforts.

Footnotes

[1] Watch the film to find out – it is a Malayalam Classic which saw the debut of Siddique-Lal duo and set the gold standard of comedy.

[2] This would supposedly be the name for Indians who end up going to space, though unconfirmed.

[3] Chandran means moon in Malayalam.

[4] The State Government has attempted to circumvent Constitutional provisions on Fiscal limits by using KIIFB, something that I will eventually come around to elucidating.

[5] 3 months ago, in EKM and 2 months ago in Kannur, among others.

[6] The Kerala Bank Regularisation would mean around 1,800 odd employees would be regularised, but this has been torpedoed by the Co-operatives Department Secretary returning the file and the Kerala High Court adding in a helpful stay.

[7] A point the Asianet News Anchor Vinu V. John loves to state again and again.

[8] Some dispute this fact, and say he is better. Lal Salaam, Comrade. Lal Salaam!

-By Ananth Krishna Subhalakshmy (Lawyer – NUALS ’20)

(This article first appeared on the author’s blog and is being reproduced with consent)


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