As polls near, war of words between Kerala govt, central agencies escalates

It is a unique moment in Kerala’s electoral history. This is the first time that central investigating agencies have become major players in an assembly election

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The CM too came out aggressively against the BJP and the agencies. Photo: PTI

The war of words between the Pinarayi Vijayan government and the central agencies investigating the Kerala gold and dollar smuggling cases has escalated. The Customs department told the Kerala High Court on Friday that the chief minister, three members of his cabinet, and the Speaker of the Assembly knew about the illegal activities taking place through the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE) consulate in Thiruvananthapuram.

The next day, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) took out protest marches to customs offices in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, and Kozhikode. In response, Customs Commissioner (Preventive) Sumit Kumar put up a Facebook post, saying intimidation tactics will not work. Kumar, however, later deleted the post.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac declared that officials of the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) – which is being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) for violations of the Foreign Exchange Management Act – would not obey the instructions of the customs and the ED. He said the government would not yield to pressure tactics.

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Also read: Ahead of polls, Kerala CM, Speaker named in dollar smuggling case

The CM too came out aggressively against the BJP and the agencies. At a press conference on Saturday, Vijayan said: “All I have to say to the BJP and the agencies that dance to their tunes is this – we are not the kind of people you are accustomed to dealing with. We are different. No matter what you do, this land will not blame us. Our lives are open books, and you will soon realise it.”

“The people have trust in us. They know what the government has done for them. You have to keep one thing in mind: We have not created anything that can be broken by your conspiracies,” he said.

Unique moment

It is a unique moment in Kerala’s electoral history. This is the first time that central investigating agencies have become ‘major players’ in an assembly election. LDF leaders, however, seem confident that the electorate will understand that these investigations are politically motivated.

The opposition – the United Development Front and the BJP – are trying their best to use this opportunity to pin the government and the LDF to the mat.

“The customs department is doing its duty. Calling it political vendetta is childish. The CPI-M is playing the victim card,” said V Muraleedharan, BJP leader and Union Minister of State for External Affairs.

According to the affidavit submitted in the HC, Swapna Suresh, the prime accused in the dollar smuggling case, in her statement on December 2, 2020, claimed that the CM, three ministers and the speaker had knowledge of and involvement in the smuggling of dollars by the former finance head of the UAE consulate. These statements are recorded under Section 108 of the Customs Act and 164 of CrPC. However, the Customs Commissioner also states in the affidavit that “it may kindly be noticed that most of the facts revealed in the statement are matters which are exclusively within the personal knowledge of the 1st respondent and can be tendered as evidence in appropriate proceedings only by her”. This claim set off a political firestorm because it meant that the customs department had no evidence of the involvement of the CM or his colleagues, apart from Suresh’s statement.

Also read: Gold smuggling: Kerala chief secy writes to Centre on protocol officer’s ‘harassment’

Three months have passed since Swapna Suresh’s deposition and the investigating agencies are yet to gather any supporting evidence to prove her claim. Besides, no other investigating agency has received any such statement from her. An officer of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) told The Indian Express that they had no information or evidence for the involvement of the CM or other ministers so far. None of the case documents, including the charge sheet and the depositions submitted in the respective courts, contain any information that corroborates the claims made in the affidavit submitted by the customs department.

In a parallel move, the ED has sent a notice to Vinodini, the wife of Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, former state secretary of the CPI-M. It is alleged that one of the iPhones that Swapna Suresh received as ‘bribe’ was handed over to her. Santhosh Eappen, the managing director of Unitac Builders, the company under investigation for providing kickbacks for the LIFE Mission project, denied that Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s wife was given a phone.

The LDF is determined to deal with the issue politically. Left leaders have openly challenged the central agencies to submit evidence of involvement of any minister or any other person belonging to the party or the government.

Moving in different directions

The three investigating agencies looking into different aspects of the same crime, in which the same people are allegedly involved, seem to be moving in as many different directions.

M. Sivasankar, the formal principal secretary of the CM and the IT secretary, played a key role in the gold smuggling racket and the related money laundering scheme, according to the ED. Sivasankar was removed from the posts after news reports of his association with Suresh, charged by the NIA, became public.

The NIA, however, has not named Sivasankar even in the list of witnesses. Sandeep Nair, who was arrested along with Suresh, had done the job of extracting the gold hidden in electronic goods, according to the ED. The NIA, however, said Nair had turned approver, adding he is willing to reveal the entire facts related to the case voluntary under the provision of Section 164 of the CrPC.

The NIA court has asked the investigating officers to provide evidence to prove there was terrorist activity involved in gold smuggling, but the agency has not submitted any evidence so far.

The key person, Faisal Fareed, is said to have sent the gold through diplomatic channels from the UAE. He is still at large. None of the agencies has been able to interrogate him so far. The agencies have also not had a breakthrough in establishing the role of Khalid Ali Shoukri, an Egyptian citizen and the former finance head of the consulate in Thiruvanathapuram. Ali Shoukri, the prime accused in the dollar smuggling case, left the country a few days after the case was registered, despite the fact that a non-bailable warrant had been issued against him.

“Where did the gold come from? Where did it go? Who sent the gold? On whose behalf? For whom? What happened to the gold smuggled 19 times through the diplomatic channel between 2019 November and 2020 June? None of these central investigating agencies can provide answers to any of these basic legitimate questions. We will go to the people with these questions. The BJP, which controls these agencies, and the UDF, which is amplifying the voice of these agencies, have to provide an answer to the people,” said MB Rajesh, former MP and a state committee member of the CPI-M.

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