Ahead of the polls to elect the 15th Assembly in Kerala on April 6, the talks of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) retaining power has led to an unusual political scenario in the 64-year-old history of the state.
It is to be noted that the state’s political power has been oscillating between the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) alternatively since its formation. Though the incumbent Left front had given allusions of retaining power in 1991 and 2006, the UDF had made strong come backs. However, unlike earlier times, not only the LDF, but even the Opposition UDF and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seem to be presaging the LDF’s return to power, creating a record in the history of the state.
In such a context, both the opposition parties have left no stone unturned to use the Thiruvananthapuram Gold Smuggling case to target the incumbent government. However, are the developments in the case enough to shadow LDF’s dream of retaining its power?
In the latest development, the Customs Department, one of the central investigative agencies probing the case, on March 5 claimed in the Kerala High Court that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Assembly Speaker P. Sreeramakrishnan and three other ministers were aware of the illegal activities through the United Arab Emirates consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. Citing the statements given by the prime accused in the case, Swapna Suresh, Customs and Preventive Commissioner Sumit Kumar informed the court about the alleged involvement of Vijayan and others.
This is the first time that the Customs has raised allegations against the CM in this case. It is yet to name the three ministers who are allegedly involved in the case. Interestingly, the timing of the latest revelations, just a month ahead of the Assembly elections, has led to several questions. It must be noted that Swapna’s statements, which were recorded under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and Section 108 of the Customs Act, were reportedly recorded two months back.
Earlier, the Customs officials had claimed that $190,000 had been received as bribery in Life Mission Project at Vadakkancherry, one of the ambitious projects of the state government that envisages safe and secure home for all in the state. Following this, the Customs had also questioned the Axis Bank officials who reportedly collected these dollars. Though the statements of these officials were recorded on November 25 last year, no action has been taken since then.
Meanwhile, responding to the allegation, the CPI(M) said, “BJP is upset over the image of the Chief Minister and the government. The investigating agencies have stooped to the level of campaign tools. Kerala would give a fitting reply to the challenge thrown by the BJP-Congress combine. The Customs action is a blatant violation of the poll code and a misuse of investigating agencies… Those who are engaged in cheap politics should realise that this is Kerala.”
The leader of Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala of Congress, has portrayed it as an understanding between the LDF and BJP, pointing to the fact that Customs had obtained the Section 164 statement of Swapna two months ago. “Why did the agency not take any action against the Chief Minister and other ministers? The probe had been frozen following the revelations against the Chief Minister and others. It shows the mutual understanding between CPI(M) and BJP,” he said.
Adding a further twist to this, a woman civil police officer, who was on duty when ED had interrogated Swapna Suresh, has reportedly revealed that the ED officials had allegedly compelled the prime accused to name the CM.
“While interrogating, the questions raised by the ED officials were mostly of the nature of forcing Swapna Suresh to name the chief minister,” said the police officer Siji Vijayan in her statement to the police team which is probing the voice clip alleging pressure on the prime accused to give statement against CM.
What is the Thiruvananthapuram Gold Smuggling Case?
The opposition parties in Kerala have been claiming that the Kerala Chief Minister’s office had links with the Thiruvananthapuram Gold Smuggling case, which involved diplomatic channels, ever since it was exposed. Following the row of allegations, the central investigative agencies have tightened their grip over the case to find the alleged links between the gold smuggling case and state government.
The case began on July 5 last year when gold worth Rs 14.82 crore was seized by Customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram international airport from diplomatic baggage meant to be delivered to the UAE consulate. Following this, four central investigative agencies- National Investigation Agency (NIA), The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Customs and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) started probing various aspects of the case. With the local body polls in 2020 around the corner, the entire political battle revolved around the case then.
The various agencies are probing a number of angles in the case. While there have been allegations that the gold smuggling case has ‘terror links’, NIA has been trying to find out whether the smuggling of gold through diplomatic baggage has alleged terrorist links behind it. On the other hand, the ED is looking at foreign exchange and probing the money trail in the case.
Meanwhile, it was earlier identified that former principal secretary to CM and IT secretary M. Sivasankar had been reportedly associated with Swapna Suresh as he was instrumental in the appointment of Suresh in KSITIL as a consultant. Following this, Sivasankar had been interrogated by various agencies and arrested on October 21. However, on February 3, he was granted bail by a court in Kochi as the ED and Customs failed to produce any evidence to link him with the case.
The NIA, which is probing the case under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, has also failed to find any evidence to suggest Vijayan’s involvement. In its charge sheet filed last month, the NIA made no mention of the former principal secretary to Chief Minister, Sivasankar, either.
The investigation so far in the gold smuggling case reiterates the fact that the examples how Congress and BJP have continuously been raising allegations against the state government and government projects without substantial evidence. When the allegations were raised for the first time, political commentators and parties had claimed that the Centre is misusing the investigative agencies to target the Left Front government in the state ahead of local body polls which was held from December 8 to 14. Soon after the elections, the case and related moves had subsided.
Latest Allegations ‘Politically Motivated’?
The timing of another central agency, the Customs, in making the claims at the High Court, a month ahead of the Assembly elections has again led to such apprehensions.
Notably, two days after the Customs’ move, on March 7, BJP leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while speaking in Thiruvananthapuram threatened the state government saying that they will expose the corruption in the state. The home minister’s statement may be taken as an indication of how the BJP may be using the central agencies to target the state government. Shah was addressing the concluding ceremony of the sate wide yatra of BJP-Vijay Yatra.
Political observers have also drawn similarities in the pattern of the ED targetting the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB). In March, the ED had summoned two top KIIFB officials to appear before it in connection with its probe into the state-owned agency's external borrowings through "Masala Bonds".
The ED move came two days after Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to Kochi on February 28 to attend a BJP event. "I don't know what budget-making is this when all the money is given to one KIIFB. What is this organisation? We also make a budget in the Union government. We don't give all money to one particular agency and say, ''we'll see'', she had said.
However, the LDF has remained unmoved, dismissing all such allegation as the Centre targeting the state government using central investigative agencies. Commenting on this, A. Vijayaraghavan, CPI(M)’s acting state secretary said, “The BJP is using central agencies to target LDF government in Kerala. We have nothing to hide. We welcomed the probe into the gold smuggling case, but the BJP has realised that their investigations are not bringing them any political dividends. They have no evidences against the CM so far and have stooped to the level of political hooligans with nothing to credit their poll strap.”