File image of Kerala BJP chief K. Surendran (centre) | ANI
File image of Kerala BJP chief K. Surendran (centre) | ANI
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New Delhi: The controversy surrounding a suspected Rs 3.5 crore heist on a Kerala highway appears to be deepening, creating yet another challenge for the state’s besieged BJP chief K. Surendran.

The heist case involves an alleged robbery on a Kerala highway near Thrissur that took place on 3 April, ahead of this year’s assembly elections. The target was RSS worker and businessman Dharmarajan, who was waylaid while on his way to Kochi. The investigation so far has reportedly revealed that the money might be hawala cash meant for the BJP, although the party has denied the allegations.

Now, it is learnt that the special investigation team (SIT) probing the heist is about to question Surendran as well as his son Hari Krishnan after call detail records reportedly revealed that the latter was in touch with the complainant on the day of the heist. 

The SIT has already questioned Surendran’s driver and secretary in the case.

Meanwhile, the BJP has formed two committees to look into the allegations, as well as the use of the election fund provided by the central leadership to the state unit for candidates.

The allegations have thrust the state BJP into a crisis weeks after it lost the state elections, also losing the lone seat — its first ever in the state — won in 2016. Surendran contested from two seats but lost both, and the party saw its vote share fall to 11.51 per cent from 16 per cent in the 2016 election.

On Saturday, Surendran was accused by a former BSP leader — now in the BJP — of paying him Rs 2.5 lakh to withdraw his candidature from Manjeswaram, one of the seats where the Kerala BJP chief contested from.

Then there are allegations that the state BJP paid C.K. Janu of the Janathipathya Rashtriya Sabha (JRS) Rs 10 lakh to return to the NDA fold after two years. The allegations stem from a viral audio clip that purportedly records a conversation about the deal between the JRP treasurer and Surendran. These allegations have been denied by Surendran as well.

Even so, there are growing calls of protest against Surendran in the state, with leaders also voicing resentment against Union Minister V. Muraleedharan, who is seen as being close to the Kerala BJP chief.

BJP sources told ThePrint that the “party is flooded with complaints and counter-complaints about political sabotage, mismanagement of funds and demands for removal of state leadership over not winning a single seat despite spending huge money”.

BJP state general secretary Kurian George, however, has dismissed the heist investigation, alleging that it is a bid by Kerala’s Left Front government to malign the party. ThePrint reached Surendran for comment by calls but there was no response by the time of publishing this report.

Also Read: ‘Talk less, work more’: PM Modi tells BJP leaders to not repeat ‘past mistakes’ in 2022 polls

Controversies aplenty

Former BSP leader K. Sundara, who withdrew his nomination for the Kerala elections on 22 March and joined the BJP, has claimed on several news channels that he received Rs 2.5 lakh to opt out of the race.

Out of this, he said, Rs 2 lakh was given to his mother and Rs 50,000 to him. Apart from this, he said he was given a mobile phone worth Rs 15,000 and the promise of a wine shop. 

In 2016, Sundara, who contested as an Independent, won 467 votes, and Surendran lost the election to an IUML candidate by 89 votes — a fact BJP leaders saw as the result of voters getting confused between Sundara and Surendran. Surendran, however, lost the 2021 election despite Sundara being out of the race.

The BJP has denied Sundara’s allegation, as it has the alleged Rs 10 lakh payout to the JRS chief. Janu, a tribal leader, contested the 2021 assembly election from Sulthan Bathery, and lost.

Of the two committees formed by the central BJP high command to look into the controversies, one is led by Rajya Sabha MP and actor Suresh Gopi. This panel will talk to the party’s 109 candidates about the central funds and the reasons behind the party’s defeat.

The second committee, formed under three former civil servants — Ananda Bose, Jacob Thomas and Metro man E. Sreedharan — has submitted its report to the BJP high command.

Also Read: Sabarimala, Sreedharan and a Jesus-invoking Modi—BJP wants to end vote-cutter tag in Kerala

State BJP chief under attack

Within the state BJP, there are voices rising against Surendran’s leadership. The faction leading the war against Surendran is led by former state BJP chief K. Krishnadas, and senior leaders like Sobha Surendran and C.K. Padmanabhan, another former party chief for Kerala. Soon after the party’s defeat, Padmanabhan criticised Surendran for bringing “north India’s ‘helicopter politics’ into Kerala”.

“I have never seen the state president of a party contesting from two seats. The helicopter politics will not create any impact in Kerala. The trick that works in north India will not work here,” he added.

On Sunday, when the Kerala BJP core committee held a meeting to review the party’s defeat, a few leaders noted that the allegations had caused a lot of embarrassment to the party and needed to be addressed. 

While former party president Kummanam Rajasekharan said the matter will be dealt with by the BJP high command, state general secretary Kurian George raised questions over the SIT probe. “Police is only investigating the complainant, not the accused. This investigation by the state government is only to malign the BJP. Why are they not focusing on the 21 accused who were arrested? They are CPM workers,” he told ThePrint.

However, another senior state leader, refusing to be named, told ThePrint that the “core of this loot and black money case belongs to Surendran and Muraleedharan, who were given a free hand in the management of resources and to lead the election”. 

The two, the leader added, were entrusted with the task by national BJP General Secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh, who was overseeing the election. 

“So, Surendran is not the only one responsible for the whole mismanagement but it should be fixed at the top level. Money exchange in candidate selection also needs to be investigated,” the leader added.

A former state BJP president said the controversies pointed to a deeper malaise within the party. “There is nothing new in the distribution of election funds given by the central unit to candidates, but the crisis has become deeper because, without doing homework at the grassroots level, we want to become the alternative force by hook or by crook,” the leader said. 

“Massive money spent without being present on ground… This new BJP culture has faults. What will happen if you replace Surendran? Another person will follow the same model of expansion as there is no check, balance and accountability from the top. We know that the CPM has found a case to embarrass the BJP, but the party needs to set its house in order.”

‘Not a mass leader’

In the last two weeks, at several district committee meetings, BJP workers have targeted Surendran and Muraleedharan for the poll debacle and demanded a complete new leadership for Kerala but the BJP high command has not taken any call on the matter.

BJP state leaders gunning for Surendran say the party investigation into the allegations may only be an eyewash as “we all know that the Surendran camp draws its strength from central leaders”. 

“He is not a mass leader and any change in state leadership will prove the loot case credible… that the BJP used black money through hawala for Kerala polls, which will create embarrassment for the whole party. The only way out is to fight unitedly for the time being till the dust settles,” a leader said.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: West Bengal is not Kerala. BJP was naive to expect peace after TMC win


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