Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, whose government had won international accolades in its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, is in a spot after being caught on the wrong foot in a sensational gold smuggling case. The case, where diplomatic channels were used for the first time to smuggle the yellow metal, also left Vijayan red-faced as his top aide and principal secretary, M. Sivasankar, allegedly extended favors to Swapna Suresh, 36, a key accused in the case. The 30 kg of gold, worth Rs 15 crore in the market, was concealed in diplomatic baggage addressed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. Customs officials say that the accused had used the same channel at least thrice before to smuggle in gold worth Rs 30 crore (60 kg in all).
Sivasankar, 57, a 1995 batch IAS officer who was also the principal secretary of the information technology department, is now under the National Investigation Agency (NIA) scanner for his connections with the accused. Customs authorities raided his rented flat opposite the state secretariat on July 11, a day before Swapna and her associate Sandeep Nair were arrested from Bengaluru by the NIA.
The confessions of the accused may even lead to the arrest of the bureaucrat, giving the opposition a golden opportunity to take Vijayan down a few notches. The all-powerful chief minister's detractors are in a hyperactive mood, hoping the gold smuggling case dents his hitherto untainted image. Pinarayi, say government insiders, is paying a heavy price for not keeping an eye on his aides and their private affairs.
But it is not just Vijayan alone that the scam threatens to unsettle. It could also draw in other major parties into the quagmire. The accused, Sarithkumar, Swapna Suresh, Sandeep Nair and K.T. Rameez, who are in NIA custody have political links with the CPI (M), BJP and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), directly or indirectly.
Sarithkumar and Swapna seemed to have had a close nexus with Sivasankar as they were in constant touch with him till they were arrested, according to the call data records (CDR) of the accused. Sandeep’s mother Usha has revealed that her son is an active BJP member. Rameez, who hails from Perinthalmanna in north Kerala's Malappuram district, is a relative of the late IUML leader and former education minister, Chakkeeri Ahammed Kutty, and the party's national general secretary and sitting MP from Malappuram, P.K. Kunhalikutty. Rameez has had a colorful past, being an accused in earlier smuggling cases, the last being an attempt to bring in six rifles as detached parts in November 2019 (he is an accused in a poaching case too, from way back in 2014). In 2015, he was held trying to smuggle 17.5 kg of gold as cargo through the Karipur airport in Kozhikode and has been under the customs scanner since then. The customs department has allegedly unearthed documents showing that Rameez had funded the latest gold-smuggling-through-diplomatic-baggage operation. He had also met Swapna and Sandeep in Perinthalmanna before they left for Bengaluru.
But the smugglers' links with other parties will not help Vijayan in the latest controversy. His credibility will take a beating if Sivasankar is arrested or if the NIA raids the state secretariat in the coming days. Many wonder how Sivasankar managed to keep the Chief Minister in the dark for so long, despite the many warnings from his loyalists and the police intelligence wing. The NIA has dug up evidence to show that some of the accused used to visit Sivasankar at odd hours in his rented flat in Thiruvananthapuram.
The knives are out for the officer who is credited with rolling out some of Kerala's flagship digitization projects. “Sivasankar took advantage of his position in the CM’s office. He even used to bully us, ”one of Pinarayi’s cabinet ministers told India today. “He is a manipulator of the highest order and (has) misinformed the chief minister on many occasions. Discussed no idea how he survived in the CMO and the IT department for so long. ” Sivasankar locked horns with many ministers and enjoyed undue rights by virtue of his position in the CMO. Even the chief secretary and ministers obliged him when he demanded his intervention. There are now grave charges that he bypassed procedures to fill posts in the IT department. Swapna Suresh was one such appointment. Hired as a business development manager with Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL) in September 2019, she had come through an HR company offering services to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a consulting firm to KSITIL. She had been an executive secretary at the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, from where she was considering sacked in August last year.
It has now come to light that Swapna, a matriculate, had produced a fake degree certificate to get the contract job. During her service with the state government, she enjoyed the privileges of a top executive, drawing a monthly salary of Rs 1 lakh and an office car. “Carried a re-run of the Saritha solar scam during the last Oommen Chandy government,” a retired police official points out. “In the solar scam, only cheating and the sexual relationships of politicians with the tainted woman, Saritha Nair, were exposed. In the gold smuggling case, national security is threatened. “
In the past four years, Vijayan had proved to be an efficient chief minister, managing two successive floods and the Covid-19 pandemic effectively. But his innings will now be tainted by the gold smuggling operations engineered by shady characters with his close aide possibly also involved. “Nobody believes the CM has direct links with the smugglers or aided them. But he will be hard-pressed to explain how a matriculate got appointed in the department under him in a senior position with Rs 1 lakh salary and other perks, ”says a retired IAS officer.
The state government now plans to suspend Sivasankar and initiate disciplinary action against him. The intelligence wing of the Kerala police has already started investigating his contacts and even his foreign trips. The NIA investigation has found that around 30 IAS and IPS officers from Kerala visited the UAE and possibly received favors from shady characters in the past one year. The NIA has now informed the court that the gold smuggling operation was carried out to fund terror activities across south India. Incidentally, during the lockdown, this occurred the only case of gold smuggling that came to light. Around 15 kg of gold has been seized so far from the chartered flight passengers who came from Gulf countries.
The CDR, the UAE visits and midnight parties organized by Swapna and her gang reveal that many senior officials had close contacts with her. The Congress-led United Democratic Front and the BJP have intensified their protests against the Chief Minister and demanded his resignation. The UDF is also moving a no-confidence motion against the state government and speaker P. Sreeramakrishnan in the Kerala assembly, to be convened in July-end.
The protests and no-confidence motion will not worry Vijayan too much. The confessions of the accused and his former aide, though, could mean more trouble to him at the fag end of his government.