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Tale of 2 Kerala scams — solar scandal that singed UDF govt and gold that has LDF in a spot

For keen watchers of the state’s politics, there are similarities in both cases, from the prime accused being women to the alleged involvement of the chief minister’s office.

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Kochi: In August 2013, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) laid siege to the Kerala Secretariat, demanding the resignation of then Congress Chief Minister Oommen Chandy over the solar scam

Chandy had been under the scanner as three staff members in his office allegedly had links to the main accused in the scam, Saritha Nair and her husband Biju Radhakrishnan, who allegedly duped investors to park money in a solar company by flaunting their proximity to the chief minister’s office (CMO).   

The unrelenting opposition led by Pinarayi Vijayan, then the state secretary of the CPI(M), protested at the secretariat for nearly 30 hours, finally calling off the “siege” after Chandy promised a judicial probe in the case.  

The scam eventually scorched the Chandy government, in part because the LDF managed to keep the controversy alive right until assembly elections in 2016, with Nair even making sexual harassment allegations against Chandy.

Now, some seven years on, the boot is on the other foot, with the only saving grace for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan being that his office hasn’t been wholly sucked into the scandal that is roiling Kerala’s political landscape these days. 

The communist government in Kerala, basking in the plaudits it has received for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis, is now in a spot over the gold scam

The scam hit headlines on 5 July when customs officials at the Thiruvananthapuram airport intercepted diplomatic cargo, meant for the UAE consulate office, and found 30 kg of gold worth Rs 13.5 crore that was allegedly being smuggled. 

The consignment was classified as diplomatic baggage but investigating agencies quickly discovered that it was part of a smuggling racket.  

The controversy then inched closer to the Chief Minister’s Office as prime accused Swapna Suresh allegedly had links with M. Sivasankar, the IAS officer who was the CM’s principal secretary and well as the state IT secretary. The chief minister holds the IT portfolio as well. 

Sivasankar has since been relieved of both posts. 

For keen watchers of the state’s politics, there are similarities in both cases.  

For a state still to shed all vestiges of patriarchy, the principal focus in the gold scam has been on the woman accused just like in the solar case. The echoes also extend to the links to the CMO in both cases. And while the solar scam singed the UDF government, the gold scam threatens to derail the current Communist dispensation. 

But while the solar scam is a cheating case, the gold scam has metamorphosed into a probe into alleged terror funding.

Also read: Why Kerala is planning to allow its famed plantations to grow exotic fruits

The solar scam

The solar scam that originally broke in 2013 involved alleged fraud by a company, Team Solar Energy, in the sale of solar panels. Saritha and her husband Biju Radhakrishnan were the main promoters of the firm. 

The scam was run by duping investors into parking money with the solar company either for installing solar panels or in cases of larger investments, with the promise of being made partners. It became apparent that Saritha had flaunted her proximity with three staff members of the then CM Oommen Chandy’s office to clinch deals. 

The size of the scam was put at Rs 10 crore, and the LDF managed to keep alive the controversy for the next two years orchestrating the famous Secretariat siege. 

Biju Radhakrishnan, Saritha Nair and three accomplices — state government employee A. Firoz, actress Shalini Menon and Tenny Joppan, one of CM’s personal aides — were arrested. 

A trial court in Coimbatore sentenced Saritha Nair and Biju Radhakrishnan to three years’ imprisonment on 31 October, 2019. Other accused have since faded into obscurity. 

Former CM Oommen Chandy has always maintained his innocence. It took him a while to come to terms with the political price he had to pay on account of wild accusations, hitherto unproven.

In 2018, the Kerala High Court expunged all remarks and findings by the Justice G. Sivarajan Commission that probed the multi-crore solar panel scam based on a letter reportedly written by Nair alleging sexual harassment against the former chief minister. It, however, refused to quash the commission’s report altogether as sought by Chandy.

The gold scam

The gold scam has all the similar makings. 

First and foremost is the link to the CMO.

Key accused Swapna Suresh reportedly worked on a ‘space project’ under the IT department of the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL), and it was alleged that protocol was not followed in her appointment. 

She allegedly landed the job at the behest of Sivasankar, the IAS officer removed as the CM’s principal secretary and as the IT secretary. 

Media reports now claim that she was also in touch with Kerala Higher Education Minister K.T. Jaleel in June and had ties with Speaker P. Sreeramakrishnan. The minister insists that the calls were strictly professional.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA), which has since taken over the probe, has submitted before the NIA court that 30 kg gold smuggled in through diplomatic channels was not for jewellery makers but for those engaged in anti-national activities. 

While producing Swapna Suresh and co-accused Sandeep Nair before the NIA court, the probe team also submitted that they had used forged documents of the UAE Consulate, including seal and emblem, to facilitate movement of the contraband consignment through diplomatic channels. Swapna and Sandeep have been remanded in NIA custody for a week.

Meanwhile, in the original gold smuggling probe conducted by the customs department, with help from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, the additional chief judicial magistrate court (economic offences wing) has remanded in judicial custody K.T. Rameez, a repeat offender and alleged gun-runner from Malappuram until 27 July.

He is suspected to be the supplier of smuggled gold once it gets through customs clearance, and also the financier. The diplomatic route has so far proved good for smuggling well over 100 kg gold in less than a year, it is suspected.

Rameez has used his connections in high places to walk free after being apprehended in the past for smuggling gold, illegal hunting of animals and bringing in dismantled parts of 13 guns from abroad. The list of suspects in the diplomatic channel gold smuggling case include, apart from Swapna and Sandeep, former PRO of UAE Consulate Sarith Kumar, Fareed Faisal in the UAE and Rameez. Now, three other associates of Rameez have been arrested by customs officers who say this racket has so far smuggled gold worth Rs 40 crore.

A chief minister in a spot

Until now, the banana peel moment for the LDF government was when CM Pinarayi Vijayan decided to go hammer and tongs to uphold the Supreme Court verdict of 28 September 2018, allowing women aged between 10 and 50 years to enter the Sabarimala shrine.  

The frenzy that unfolded during the pilgrim season that followed made it clear it was more about politics and less about ensuring religious freedom, notwithstanding the public posturing. The lukewarm interest shown by the Kerala government to keep enforcing the apex court order during the 2020 season, just before the pandemic broke, reiterates this point.

The gold scam, however, could put Vijayan in a far bigger pickle.  

For one, the probe is now with the NIA, which is under the central government. 

There is a belief in the state that Home Minister Amit Shah may be planning to turn the NIA probe into an electoral surge for the state BJP. 

The reason: Allowing the probe to progress beyond a point could dent the prospects of the LDF in the assembly elections slated for April-May 2021. 

This, however, would not entirely serve the interests of the BJP and its aim of ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ as the net gains would accrue to the Congress-led UDF.  

It is the assumption of political observers now that the NIA probe would be allowed to go all the way if Congress leaders too turn up in the list of those who facilitated the gold smuggling racket — in other words, a terror funding angle in the gold smuggling racket that can showcase the involvement of leaders from both the LDF and the UDF. 

This alone could tip the electoral fortunes in favour of the BJP in a state where its local leaders have struggled to complete the last mile and turn a second finish into a winning seat.

But that’s easier said than done. 

The opposition has not made a concerted effort to take advantage of the alleged involvement of the CMO in the scam. 

Their efforts are no patch on the CPM-led front’s strategy that involved systematically leveraging the solar scam for political gains. 

The LDF was more organised in its attack. There were quite a few exclusive exposes handed over to newspapers and TV channels, and there were not too many dull days — in short, it was well orchestrated. 

Against this, the attack mounted by the present Opposition is limited to press conferences, which obviously does not have quite the same popular appeal as the explosive leaks of yore.

That could change if M. Sivasankar, until early this month the chief minister’s principal secretary and the state IT secretary, gets named as an accused. Things have gone from bad to worse as Sivasankar was questioned for nine long hours Tuesday night by customs officers who then confiscated his mobile phone. He may be called for further questioning, even by the NIA.

It could also change if the call records of Swapna begin revealing more names of those who were in her loop, like it did in the Saritha saga. 

That could be one way of keeping this scam alive politically, but then there is no guarantee that names would be limited to those belonging to the ruling party alone. Of course, there are whispers regarding the likelihood of bureaucrats and top police officers figuring in her list.

For now, Pinarayi Vijayan is putting up a brave face, saying he welcomes any probe into the possible involvement of his office, and that all guilty should be punished. 

But the latest scam has all the makings of another potboiler, complete with the deadly cocktail of gold, terror, international connections, subverting officers in high places and the shadow of doubt over elected leaders. 

Also read: How Kerala’s tough Covid rules have made 17% of its population ‘invisible’, hurting economy


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