Kerala: CM Pinarayi faces heat after Opposition corners him with family allegations
In the run-up to the general elections, the opposition in the state appears to have formulated a plan to bring the chief minister’s family into political discourse
Until recently, Veena Thaikkandi, a 40-year-old entrepreneur and the daughter of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, has kept a low profile. However, her name has now become associated with a series of political controversies mostly linked to her father, notably after she married CPI(M) leader and PWD Minister PA Mohammed Riyas.
After obtaining a degree in information technology from Bharatiyar University, Veena commenced her professional journey in Oracle. In 2012, she assumed the CEO role at RP TechSoft International, a company belonging to Ganesh Ravi Pillai. Later in 2014, she set up her own entrepreneurial venture, Exalogic Solutions.
Victim of party factionalism?
Veena found herself embroiled in party factionalism when there was a dispute within the party led by VS Achuthanandan against Pinarayi Vijayan. This occurred because she enrolled in a self-financed college for her engineering education at a time when the party was generally against the concept of autonomous educational institutions. Apart from this brief period, she and her brother Vivek had been steering clear from politics despite their father being the most prominent figure in Kerala's political landscape.
Her name began to surface in controversies after Vijayan became chief minister, especially towards the fag end of his initial term in office, something the CPI(M) leadership views as a deliberate campaign orchestrated by the opposition and the BJP. In April 2020, the Congress-led opposition accused Exalogic Solutions of having links with Sprinklr, a US-based company, which had been entrusted with managing the COVID data of people under quarantine in Kerala. This led to a political controversy, with the opposition alleging that the links between Exalogic and Sprinklr were a case of corruption and nepotism, a charge they could not substantiate or push forward.
The LDF's victory in the Assembly elections was so overwhelming that it effectively silenced the Opposition and put an end to the controversy. It was then Veena tied the knot with Riyas, who now holds the position of a minister. This marriage appears to have sparked criticism directed at the chief minister, especially regarding the appointment of his son-in-law to the cabinet and subsequent scrutiny of every decision made thereafter.
Accusations against the chief minister escalated during his second term when his Principal Secretary M. Sivasankar was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in cases related to gold smuggling. Swapnaprabha Suresh, the main accused, levelled allegations against the chief minister and his family, including smuggling dollars and gold. She accused the family of plundering Kerala and being involved in questionable projects, without presenting any proof. She claimed she possessed all the evidence and turned it over to the ED.
During a discussion on the gold smuggling case in the state Assembly in June 2022, the UDF MLAs contended that one Jaik Balakumar, director of one of the consultancy firms roped in by the government, had acted as a ‘mentor’ for Veena's IT company. They also claimed that the firm, Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), had a role in appointing Swapna Suresh in one of the projects of the Kerala government's Information Technology Department.
A lawsuit against Vijayan
The latest, and seemingly with much credence, has been an order by the Income Tax Interim Settlement Board stating that Veena and her firm Exalogic received Rs 1.72 crore from a private company named Cochin Minerals and Rutile Limited (CMRL) in monthly installments over a three-year period spanning from 2017 to 2020. The Opposition demanded a judicial probe into the matter, alleging that the payment was for services that were never provided.
Ernakulam-based activist Gireesh Babu filed a lawsuit under the anti-corruption act, which was rejected by the Muvattupuzha court. Incidentally, the complainant passed away on Monday (September 18) morning while his appeal was still under review by the Kerala High Court. The High Court also noted that there was a lack of concrete evidence to determine the nature of the payment made to the chief minister's daughter.
Mathew Kuzhalnadan, a Congress MLA, who had persistently made accusations against Veena, asserted that the sum received by Veena was significantly higher than the amount disclosed in the order from the Interim Board of Settlement under the Central Board of Direct Taxes.
“Could Veena and her company prove that this was the only payment from CMRL? Also, CMRL is just one company. There could be several other companies making such payments to Veena,” alleged the MLA from Muvattupuzha. Kuzhalnadan said the audit report of Exalogic Solutions says that it’s an education software company. “What business does a mining company have to do with an education software company?” he asked.
No engagement with media
While Chief Minister Vijayan and PWD Minister Riyas chose not to engage with these allegations, certain CPI(M) leaders stood up in defense of Veena and her consultancy work with the black sand mining company, which has faced legal challenges in the past.
Former minister and CPI(M) central committee member, AK Balan, asserted that the Veena committed no mistakes. “In this instance, there is no one formally filing a complaint with the Income Tax Department, nor is there an accusation of tax avoidance," stated Balan. He went on to assert that it was a clear and legitimate legal agreement. Balan further issued a challenge to MLA Kuzhalnadan, suggesting that if the allegations were proven incorrect, it would mark the end of the MLA's public career. Kuzhalnadan responded by offering an apology if that were indeed the outcome. However, even after more than a month, and with the case still in court, it appears that neither of the parties has relinquished their position.
The BJP has persistently directed attention towards Riyas, branding him as “Mr. Son-in-Law” and claiming that he is effectively running the chief minister's office through proxy. Opposition leader VD Satheesan has been directing his focus towards Riyas for a while, resulting in constant verbal exchange between the two. “The Congress appears to have devised a tactic to involve the chief minister's family in controversies, aiming to mute him. Typically, he refrains from addressing personal accusations, and the Opposition wishes to keep him quiet," stated a senior CPI(M) leader.
“They are well aware that the chief minister could dispel their narrative with a few media interactions, and they seek to prevent that,” the leader added. “Personally, I believe it's a strategic mistake on our part not to counter these allegations, but the party holds a different perspective."