Left in a muddle

Extreme concentration of authority in the CM’s office caused the present crisis

20-Pinarayi-Vijayan Pinarayi Vijayan | Manoj Chemancheri

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.

It is so shameful to say that the son of a senior party leader has been arrested for benami transactions. -Mullappally Ramachandran, Congress president, Kerala

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 US-based 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 Rs4.48 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.

Another allegation against Sivasankar is that he leaked confidential information of prospective bidders in the LIFE Mission project to Suresh, who allegedly used it to swing deals. The ED accessed hundreds of WhatsApp chats between Sivasankar and Suresh from April 2018 to July this year, which showed that Sivasankar allegedly shared information of prospective bidders and quotations under the project. It was found that 26 of 36 projects went to those whose names were mentioned by Sivasankar even before the tender was opened. “There is corroborative evidence of kickbacks received by Suresh. The Unitac CEO has also admitted that payment was made to Suresh and she has confessed to receiving it,” said an investigator. The ED is likely to examine all major government projects overseen by Sivasankar.

Adding to the woes of the chief minister, the ED has issued summons to his additional private secretary C.M. Raveendran. Chennithala said Vijayan was worried as the probe had almost reached him. But an undaunted chief minister hit back saying the summons by an agency did not make Raveendran a culprit. Meanwhile, Raveendran has informed the ED that he has tested positive for Covid-19 and the agency has asked him to report after he is medically fit.

The CPI(M) believes there is a political understanding between the BJP and the Congress to malign the LDF. “It took only a day for the Narendra Modi government to order a CBI inquiry into the LIFE Mission project, which has built thousands of homes for the poor,’’ said former MP and CPI(M) state committee member M.B. Rajesh.

The state government has de cided to take on the Central government over what it feels is vindictive targeting of the only left government in India. It has revoked the general consent given to the CBI to take up any case in the state without prior permission. An LDF MLA moved a privilege motion alleging that the ED’s inquiry halted the state government’s project to provide free housing for the poor. The ED said it had the legal authority to ask for the files related to the project as the financial transactions were suspicious. A senior ED official said section 23 of the PMLA gave the ED the mandate to probe the LIFE Mission project and related monetary transactions. “Investigation into the alleged kickbacks does not stall the project and the state government should not try to impede the probe,’’ said an official in New Delhi.

The ED is racing to file its prosecution complaint against Sivasankar as it is required to file a chargesheet within 60 days from the date of arrest under PMLA. The NIA, too, is likely to file its chargesheet in December since the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), mandates the agency to file a chargesheet within six months of registering a first information report. This is the first time UAPA has been invoked to investigate a gold smuggling operation, deeming it to be detrimental to economic stability. The NIA has so far arrested 21 persons out of 35 public and private individuals who are under investigation, while 12 persons are on bail.

Critics of the Vijayan government blame the extreme centralisation of power under the chief minister for the crisis. “Whenever a left government is in power, the CPI(M) has always had the upper hand in all matters. But this time, the party and the government are under Vijayan’s tight fist. All these lapses happened because of that,” said political observer Joseph C. Mathew. “Earlier, the personal secretary of the chief minister would invariably be a senior party leader. But Vijayan wanted a professional for reasons better known to him and the results are there for everyone to see.”

Senior journalist B.R.P. Bhaskar, too, said Vijayan’s centralisation tendencies led to the present crisis. “We all know that Vijayan took all the decisions related to the government and the party,” he said. “That may have made the system more efficient for a short period, but on the whole, it has led to huge flaws.”

Even more devastating for the government was the arrest of Bineesh Kodiyeri, younger son of CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. Bineesh was arrested by the ED in Bengaluru after his name came up in a Narcotics Control Bureau investigation. It forced Kodiyeri to step down from the post of party secretary, although he cited health reasons for the unprecedented step.

State Congress president Mullappally Ramachandran said the government had lost the moral right to continue. “It is so shameful to say that the son of a senior party leader has been arrested for benami transactions,” he said. Kerala BJP spokesperson Sandeep Warrier said the people had realised that the LDF government was just as bad as the Congress-led United Democratic Front government.

The sudden change in the fortunes of the LDF government is something hard to miss. “Unfortunately for the LDF, all these controversies have happened at a time when a second term was almost certain. Now the government and the CPI(M) are under a thick cloud of suspicion,” said political commentator Jacob George.

The controversies have raised a question mark about the “left character” of the Vijayan government, according to some left sympathisers. “I have heard many comrades saying that the allegations were nothing compared with what UDF governments had to face in the past. But they forget that it is the moral correctness that makes the left stand apart,” said Mathew. “The left should do some serious introspection. If not, a plight worse than what they experienced in Bengal and Tripura awaits them.”