Battered by corruption allegations in the last leg of his term, the Kerala chief minister has a tough battle ahead of elections
It is perhaps not out of the ordinary for a state government in its final year to be struck with at least one corruption headline which then becomes the catalyst around which an upcoming election is fought.
But till about July 2020, Pinarayi Vijayan’s government looked to be on a strong wicket which even made the usual sceptics suspect the very rare possibility of a continuation in government for the Communist strongman - history in the making for a state that has never ever seen an incumbent returning to power.
But the capture of a consignment of gold smuggled from Dubai through alleged diplomatic channels at the Thiruvananthapuram airport on July 05, and revelations of the call detail records of the prime accused duo Swapna Suresh and Sarith Kumar showing their proximity with the then principal secretary to the Chief Minister M Sivashankar, blew the lid off this government’s worst kept secret.
From that day onwards the sheer pace at which the skeletons kept tumbling out of the state government’s top-level cupboards would have surely left even the staunchest of Pinarayi supporters grim faced. This government was imploding, and the catastrophe was of its own making.
More could be in the offing, but while this report was being filed, the last of such an alleged sabotage of the system came in the form of a fire at the government secretariat inside the general administration department’s protocol office destroying some 25 government files partially.
While the government claims that an initial inquiry conducted by the state police reveal that no file pertaining to the gold smuggling case, which was sought by the probing National Investigation Agency, has been lost, the Opposition Congress and the BJP say in one voice that it was sabotage.
“Whenever the Opposition demands a file, government will not give it because they are afraid their malpractices will get revealed. The files in the secretariat did not burn by themselves. We are demanding an NIA probe,’’ Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala told media persons.
Chennithala who is perhaps the most trolled Opposition leader ever in Kerala has suddenly gained a new lease of life thanks to Pinarayi Vijayan’s fall from grace. He pulled off a coup in front of cameras by sitting on dharna on the road leading to the secretariat which finally forced the government to give him entry before which he did the much-needed PR damage in an election year.
“This fire is being purposefully orchestrated by the Chief Minister and some officials of the secretariat to destroy evidence in the gold smuggling case,’’ BJP State President K Surendran had told media persons before being whisked away by cops into a waiting police van on Tuesday night.
What happened last Tuesday could very well be just an accident and is a matter of investigation upon which The Lede does not find it wise to speculate further.
But what is worrying is the events that unfolded even when the fire, which was a minor one, was being put out. It had a rare sense of intrigue written all over it which is seldom associated with a Left Front government.
Perhaps for the first time ever in the state’s history a Chief Secretary, the top-most IAS officer in the state could be seen frantically shooing media persons and leaders of the BJP, including its state president, who had also come there suspecting foul play, out of the secretariat premises.
Not only was the Chief Secretary Vishwas Mehta’s act well below his pay grade but for a political formation like the Left Front that has ideologically kept the bureaucracy at a safe distance whenever in power, it was baffling to see accolades being showered on the bureaucrat by the state cabinet the very next day for his ‘super cop’ like behaviour.
That the top IAS officer in the state had initially broken protocol while stopping local MLA VS Sivakumar of the Congress from entering the secretariat was evident.
But such unbecoming behavior from the top brass of the IAS and the IPS in the state had been growing by the day since Pinarayi Vijayan took over the reins of power.
The now ousted and much maligned Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister M Sivashankar had been leading this cabal and much to the shock of many, had more or less usurped the AKG Centre’s role, which is the supreme headquarters of the CPM in Kerala when it comes to taking policy decisions for the government.
“The issue here is that the power has been concentrating in the Chief Minister and a select few individuals that he has basic trust in. The result is that a small coterie of individuals have taken over the entire administration and the primary person at the centre is the Principal Secretary to the chief minister who is now exposed to have been at the centre of a number of corrupt practices. At least in the past you had the party exercising its power over the governance system. Right now, the party is submissive to the Chief Minister. Only a few individuals serving under the CM are exercising their powers which is very similar to what Stalin followed in Russia with disastrous consequences,” senior journalist and Leftist thinker NP Chekkutty told The Lede.
The run up to Tuesday’s events are a saga of alleged illegalities, misappropriations and misconducts at the top-most level of this government, the likes of which has never ever been witnessed in a Left front government in the state. Corruption was only a natural ally in such situations.
No wonder Left thinkers and political ideologues are up in arms already suspecting that Pinarayi Vijayan could be taking the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on a perpetual decline in its last bastion in the country.
“See how much ever you try to defend Pinarayi Vijayan by putting the blame entirely on Sivashankar, Vijayan cannot get away from the ‘vicarious liability’ in his relationship with his principal secretary. It is not just a moral liability but a legal one too. Whatever Sivashankar did, we will have to believe that it had his boss’ blessings,” former Planning Board Member & Communist Marxist Party (CMP) leader CP John told The Lede.
The Kerala State Life Mission Project is a comprehensive housing safety scheme for those affected by the 2018 floods in the state.
It had been Pinarayi Vijayan government’s flagship social security attempt, the big-ticket project, something that could have literally sealed the party’s re-election in 2021.
But one pilot project at Wadakancherry that involved building flats for 140 families at a cost of Rs 20 crore, has thrown the spanner in the wheels as news emerged that the builder had paid kickbacks.
While Unitac Energy Solutions Private Limited, a Kochi based company that happens to be the builder and the third party in the deal, the state government represented by the Life Mission and a Dubai based charity firm UAE Red Crescent Authority, who are the funders, are the first and second parties in the project in that order.
Unitac had alleged that around Rs 4.3 crore was paid as commission for the project and was received by none other than Swapna Suresh, the prime accused in the gold smuggling case to rope in Red Crescent as the funders for the project at Wadakancherry.
This revelation was made by the company’s owner Santosh Eapen to the Enforcement Directorate (ED) which had been probing all the deals that Swapna was involved in once she had been arrested for gold smuggling.
Eapen had also told the ED that it was Sandeep Nair, the co-accused in the gold smuggling case who introduced Swapna to Unitac and Rs 70 lakh out of the Rs 4.3 crore was paid to a company called Isomank owned by Sandeep himself.
The rest of the money is yet to be recovered and top sources in ED suspect that it went as kickback to decision makers in government as well as the UAE Consulate which is also in the probe radar.
The government acknowledged that commission money did exchange hands. Finance Minister Thomas Isaac’s openly admitted in the party channel Kairali TV that government was aware of the commission. However, he said it had no role to play in the deal.
But what shows the government in extremely poor light is the involvement of Swapna and the free hand she has had in a number of state government projects in which, per reports emerging now, commission and kickbacks were the usual norms to get work done. It gets accelerated to another level when you know that the CM is the Chairman of the Life Mission project.
“Now you see it’s not even ‘vicarious liability’. It’s a direct implication on the Chief Minister of having played a role in going ahead with a deal that has corruption, violation of protocols and in all likelihood money laundering. I don’t understand if Vijayan was so foolish enough to not notice all this,” added CP John.
Legal experts are asking whether the entire project was an attempt at money laundering which had gone horribly wrong after the kickbacks were discovered.
“Prime facie it looks like a clean case of money laundering. With whatever information we have, it looks as though the state government has clearly facilitated money laundering. Otherwise how would you explain an MoU with one organisation and then another contract which the government is not even party to. Only an ED investigation can reveal the full truth. See the money is not even transferred here. It’s happening in UAE but the work that is happening here might be the channel to convert that money from black to white. I think you need a full probe in this,” senior Supreme Court lawyer Ranjith Maraar told The Lede.
It has been ten days since the ED had asked the Chief Secretary in writing to hand over copies of all documents pertaining to the deal but as of this report being filed, the government has not moved a finger on the issue.
The state government represented by the Life Mission project’s chief executive officer initially entered into a Framework Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Dubai based charity firm Red Crescent Authority on 11 July 2019, which is in possession of The Lede, clearly stipulating that for the execution of any project as a joint venture with these two parties, separate independent agreements are required.
Inspite of this MoU, the UAE consulate at Thiruvananthapuram entered into a contract with Unitac to build 140 flats.
While the government is still not able to explain why the UAE consulate and a third party company entered into a contract over building a housing project on government land, many feel it is a carefully chalked out plan to cover future questions that may arise on charges of corruption.
“How can UAE Consulate enter into an agreement with a private company in India to construct a property on land owned by the Kerala government? Nobody could understand this mechanism. I have been a minister in a former Left government. I have never heard of something like this. That’s why we say there is corruption and the government was aware that commission money would exchange hands at some point of time. That is why it took a step back so that it can wash its hands off in the future,” Member of Parliament NK Premachandran (Revolutionary Socialist Party) told The Lede.
Anil Akkara, Congress MLA from Wadakancherry says that the government cannot wash off its role since the Minister for Local Self Government AC Moideen was directly involved in the deal.
“If this company Unitac had bought land with the money given by Red Crescent and then built flats then it’s okay. Then you are building over private land. But here it is government land. Who gave you such a work order? The local Municipality has not. This is a joint venture between the government and two other private players which needs a tripartite agreement. There is no such agreement. It is illegalities all the way,’’ added Anil Akkara, MLA of Wadakancherry.
An RTI filed by a reginal news channel clearly showed that indeed Unitac has not been given any permission to construct on that piece of land by the Wadakancherry Municipality.
The Lede has accessed a note written by the CEO of Life Mission UV Jose to the General Secretary of the Red Crescent dated 26 August 2019 to go ahead with its construction plans and authorise Unitac to undertake the work and that all necessary permits will be got.
Worse, the Secretary for Ministry of External Affairs has sought a clarification from the Kerala government on the MoU it had entered into with Red Crescent without informing the Centre, another clear cut violation of protocols and legal experts now say even relevant sections of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) has been in violation too.
The entire government machinery seems to be toeing the line of Minister KT Jaleel whose FCRA violations were reported in detail by The Lede.
From the Sprinklr deal to the ‘Room for River’ project to E-Mobility, the state government has left such a deep imprint of illegality and misappropriation that many are now calling this a government of ‘consultancies and commissions’.
When the accusations of the Sprinklr deal hit the state, where it was found that a private firm named Sprinklr based in America and owned by a Keralite was allowed to collate confidential data of COVID-19 patients, the government got away saying that “desperate times called for desperate measures”.
When in the E-Mobility project it was found out that a SEBI blacklisted firm PriceWaterhouseCooper (PWC) was roped in to make a Detail Project Report (DPR) with the aim of making one million electric vehicles in Kerala by 2022 at a cost of Rs 4500 crore, without an open tender, the state said taking the help of such experts was common.
But what raised eyebrows is the written note by a secretary that recommended the setting up of an office for PWC inside government secretariat and placing Swapna Suresh, who has only completed Standard 10, as its representative in the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSTIL) right under the nose of the Chief Minister inspite of a criminal case pending against the woman. It was later revealed that Sivashankar was the man behind the move.
“See the modus operandi is very clear in almost all these projects. The government first identifies the private company which will do the work and then float a tender the conditions of which will suit this company. For all this you have specific consultancies that advise you. They have their representatives like Swapna who take commission and have top bureaucrats like Sivashankar dancing to her tune for all the internal support, movement of files and signatures etc. This is how this government had been running,” advisor to former Chief Minister VS Achuthananthan, Joseph C Mathew told The Lede.
What is also so alarmingly common in these deals is that none of them were sent to either the Law Ministry or the Ministry of Finance for approval ever.
Once when Sivashankar was asked by a media person whether the Law Ministry had approved the Sprinklr deal, he shot back – “Such approvals are not needed. I managed it all by myself. I was very sure it was fine.”
No marks for guessing where that sense of misplaced bravado comes from. The very next day Pinarayi Vijayan showered his supreme confidence on Sivashankar and said that he had nothing more to say beyond what his Principal Secretary did.
Two months down the lane the Chief Minister himself has cut a sorry figure and though the party and his ministers would want everyone to believe that Sivashankar was the culprit and that the Chief Minister was also a victim who trusted him, many still question the unfettered freedom that the top IAS officer enjoyed in an office as big as the Chief Minister’s.
“I think this is where Pinarayi Vijayan slipped and has never quite recovered after that. See he was quite effective in the first two to three years doing a lot of projects which the UDF (Congress led United Democratic Front) could not realise like the GAIL pipeline in north Kerala by his sheer determination. But when the Sprinklr controversy broke, Pinarayi could not answer it politically since he hadn’t informed even his cabinet about it. No legal opinion was even sought. But he could have still managed it politically. Instead he put Sivashankar to defend himself and the government and when Sivashankar’s shady deals surfaced, Pinarayi had nowhere to hide,” Chekkutty told The Lede.
Political analysts say that checks and balances by the party itself which was an integral part of every Left government since the first EMS Namboodiripad government in 1957 has been completely demolished in the present one which explains how the party has become so submissive to the government machinery.
Crucial files do not go to the party secretary for his opinion nor are the deals discussed in the Left Front, say political observers.
When the Sprinklr controversy broke, CPI, the principal ally had openly expressed its displeasure at not being consulted.
Political analysts say this is the hallmark of the Kannur lobby to which Pinarayi belongs.
“The Kannur lobby has the experience of destroying the normal state structure and they could do it so efficiently in their district. For example, if you do a political murder you could always get away by giving the police dummy culprits for it. Pinarayi had worked in such a system for over two decades before he landed up in Thiruvananthapuram. So he had convinced himself that anything can be managed in a place like Kerala. It is that conviction that has led him in the last four years,” added Chekkutty.
Jospeh C Mathew points out a classic example from the ‘Room for River Project’ controversy.
“Take the case of the Chief Secretary writing in the file on the ‘Room For River’ project that one particular company should be included in the tender process because it facilitated the CM’s visit to the Netherlands and otherwise it will affect our bilateral relations, all this in a global tender. There cannot be a bigger absurdity. See I was an advisor to former CM VS Achuthananthan. I would have never been able to write this simply because there were elements cross checking me all the time. This is a system established by law where the procedures are firmly laid out for everyone including the Chief Minister to see if someone goes astray. But now all these systems are flouted one by one,” said Joseph C Mathew.
Left ideologues say the blame lies squarely at the door of the Chief Minister who is also the de facto boss of the party even though Kodiyeri Balakrishnan exists as party secretary in name. A Bengal-like debacle could also be in the offing as most of the rank and file of the party too is disillusioned at the turn of events.
“The real issue is that the party as a mechanism has become non-existent in Kerala. It is just the outer layer that survives now. It is a rot that started from the moment Pinarayi Vijayan appeared at the top of the party in the state way back in 1998. It is total now. What can you expect from a system where its longest serving party secretary itself was arraigned as an accused in a corruption case, namely the SNC Lavalin case? This decay was bound to happen,” says political analysts KM Shajahan.
Perhaps as a sheer coincidence, the Supreme Court of India is all set to hear the CBI’s appeal against the acquittal of Pinarayi Vijayan in the SNC Lavalin case after September 20.
Whatever be the outcome, the damage for Pinarayi and CPM in Kerala seems to have already been done over the last two months.