Left in a muddle
THE WEEK|November 29, 2020
Even as the Pinarayi Vijayan government is engaged in a battle of political survival against half a dozen Central agencies, critics say extreme concentration of authority in the CM’s office caused the present crisis
CITHARA PAUL AND NAMRATA BIJI AHUJA

Being a communist, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan may not believe in good times and bad times. But he will certainly approve of the famous quote by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky that “everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures”. For Vijayan and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, the past few months have been more than enough proof of Trotsky’s concept of change.

The slide in the political fortunes of the LDF government has been dramatic. Not so long ago, it was winning accolades from everywhere, even internationally, for the effective handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and for the social welfare measures it launched during the lockdown.

A survey held in July by a television channel had predicted that the LDF could even break Kerala’s 40-year-old record of voting out the incumbent government. Nearly 86 per cent of the respondents wanted Vijayan to be chief minister again.

But all that changed on July 5 with the seizure of 30kg gold from a diplomatic consignment addressed to the United Arab Emirates consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. The smuggling case took a political turn once it was revealed that the main accused, Swapna Suresh, had a close relationship with Vijayan’s all powerful principal secretary M. Sivasankar. Though Sivasankar was removed from the post the very next day, the damage was done.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is now probing the case and other Central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate, the customs department and the CBI are also involved, with a special focus on the chief minister’s office.

Disowning Sivasankar was not an easy task for Vijayan. The chief minister had earlier defended him when he was blamed for signing a data-handling contract with a USbased firm called Sprinklr without following due procedure. Even the CPI, the second major constituent in the LDF, had come out against the contract, but Vijayan said Sivasankar just made an “error in judgement” under pressure from the rising Covid-19 numbers. “The chief minister trusted Sivasankar absolutely as he had been a major asset to the government. The fact that both are very much result-oriented brought them closer,” said a source who had interacted with both closely.

A former chief secretary said Vijayan was an efficient administrator with attention to minute details. “It is unbelievable that he failed to notice such a huge mistake happening right under his nose. It is certainly his failure as an administrator,” he said. The former bureaucrat could be right as the opposition continues to target Sivasankar to get to Vijayan. “The chief minister is trying to escape by blaming everything on a government official. Who is more tainted, the administration or the party, that is the only dispute,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala.

The Enforcement Directorate said Sivasankar had shared confidential information pertaining to major government projects and had intervened to clear the baggage containing the smuggled gold. Sivasankar’s case, however, seems to be just the beginning of the woes in store for the Vijayan government. Higher Education Minister K.T. Jaleel, who has been assigned the task of capturing the Muslim vote bank, is now a “person of interest” in cases of illegal import of food material and religious texts through diplomatic cargo sent to the UAE consulate without prior permission from the Union government—violating the Customs Act, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). The opposition says some of the packets Jaleel received contained gold. The NIA, the ED and the customs department have questioned him and investigations are still on.

The biggest setback for the Vijayan government has come, perhaps, in the LIFE Mission case. The Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment Mission, popularly known as LIFE Mission, is one of the flagship projects of the government, which is aimed at providing low cost housing to the homeless. According to the ED, Suresh, who was then officially affiliated with the UAE consulate, received a commission of 4.48 crore from a construction company called Unitac Builders for a project to construct 140 flats in Thrissur district and a share of it went to Sivasankar. The flats were sponsored by the Emirates Red Crescent, a humanitarian organisation under the UAE government.

The ED arrested Sivasankar after it found material and digital evidence that showed that he had assisted Suresh in money laundering. ED officials said there was corroborative evidence to show that Sivasankar introduced Suresh to his chartered accountant, and asked him to help her with her finances. According to investigators, the chartered accountant and Suresh opened a joint locker at a State Bank of India branch in Thiruvananthapuram. Each time money was deposited or withdrawn, Sivasankar was informed about the transactions. An ED official said Sivasankar, who was holding an important position in the government, did not ask for the source. “This implies that he helped Suresh in laundering money which was the proceeds of crime,” said the official.

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