What is it that makes Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan Teflon-coated against corruption charges? For his legion of fans, winning a second straight term battling corruption charges is good enough. However, the question remains, whether winning elections can shake off serious allegations of corruption, impropriety and misuse of office.
The gold smuggling case-accused Swapna Suresh came out with a tell-all book last week. While it is essentially based on the Section 164 statement recorded by her in front of a magistrate, parts of which got subsequently leaked in the media, it also raises many questions in the light of the reinstatement of the chief minister’s principal secretary, M Sivasankar, a fellow-accused, after serving seventeen months under suspension.
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When the gold-smuggling case came to the fore, Sivasankar went on to serve a 98-day term in jail, after which he was suspended from government service, having been found guilty of appointing Swapna Suresh to a government project flouting rules. And it was Sivasankar who first came out with a book titled, Ashwatthamavu Verum Oru Aana (Ashwatthama is merely an elephant), a play on Ashwatthama, son of Arjuna in the Mahabharatha.
However, in an anti-climax of sorts, the book had a shelf life of merely a day, as Suresh came out all guns blazing with a string of revelations targeting the chief minister, his wife Kamala, daughter Veena, chief secretary Nalini Netto and Sivasankar himself, among others. Till then, she had chosen to keep mum despite being hounded by the media to speak up.
According to Suresh, it was in 2016 that Sivasankar first contacted her while she was working at the UAE consul-general’s office in Thiruvananthapuram. The chief minister had left behind a baggage en route to the UAE and she ensured that it was sent over and when it was scanned at the consulate it was found to contain currency. While she reported the matter to her boss, he ignored it and negotiated for favours in return, including a security upgrade.
Suresh claims that a series of contraband was exchanged through the green channel since then, with the knowledge of both the chief minister’s office through Sivasankar and the consulate, through her and fellow-accused Sarith, who was then working as public relations officer there. Suresh also makes damning accusations against former speaker P Sreeramakrishnan and KT Jaleel, MLA, who was then minister for higher education.
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The most damning revelations pertain to the visit of Sharjah ruler to Kerala to receive an honorary D. Litt from Calicut University, and how the chief minister ensured that the venue of the event was shifted from Kozhikode to Thiruvananthapuram through the consul-general – without securing a mandatory Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) clearance. This was followed by an unscheduled visit of the Sharjah ruler to Cliff House, the chief minister’s official residence.
According to Suresh, the chief minister wanted the Sharjah ruler to facilitate his daughter Veena Vijayan to set up investment in the emirate, and Sivasankar worked overtime to make that happen. And so, Suresh was asked to meet chief minister’s wife Kamala and daughter Veena at the Cliff House where they requested for an exclusive audience with the Sharjah ruler’s wife to try and influence her with gold jewelry. But the Sharjah ruler’s wife was supposedly put off by the haste with which Kamala Vijayan brought up the business proposal and so it didn’t go through.
Video footage has since emerged to confirm that the Sharjah ruler had indeed visited the Cliff House which also has the chief minister’s family in attendance. All this is being dismissed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government in Kerala raising questions on the reliability of Suresh’s version of events.
While Suresh is trying to suggest that the Pinarayi Vijayan government has some level of influence with the central government to stall investigations, she still expresses hope that she will be vindicated. Suresh blames Sivasankar’s influence in the National Investigation Agency (NIA) but reposes more hope with other agencies.
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Missing pieces of the jigsaw
Curiously, Suresh’s book is titled Chathiyude Padmavyuham, again a play on Ashatthama and the padmavyuha from Mahabharatha. But more than being a rebuttal to Sivasankar’s book, Suresh goes on to throw light on many missing pieces of the jigsaw. What also makes the revelations interesting to the keen-eyed is that Suresh has been very steady with her details, at no point having to backtrack on anything since the case unfolded.
The only clarification pertaining to her recorded statements from hiding and later, from jail, is explained away as something done under duress. Suresh has gone at length explaining the nature of her relationship with Sivasankar, and how she was basically under his spell to the extent that he exerted control over her personal and professional life.
The fact that there is no sexual harassment allegation against anyone in the book – beyond a cursory remark about an MLA sending messages soliciting sexual favors on WhatsApp – is noteworthy. According to her, she had a platonic relationship with Sivasankar. The book also mentions solar-scam accused Saritha Nair as someone who is possibly being used by the ruling front to influence her.
Despite the book’s release and substantial sections of Suresh’s section 164 statement getting leaked, Pinarayi Vijayan and the Left government continue to put on a brave face. Meanwhile, the CBI appeal against the chief minister’s acquittal in the SNC-Lavalin case got adjourned for the 33rd time since 2017 on Thursday (20 October). The same day the Supreme Court is also scheduled to hear a petition for the gold-smuggling case trial to be shifted out of Kerala to Bengaluru.
The author is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)