Dubai: There’s one photo opportunity Swapna Suresh will not be appearing in… for now.
Anyone caught trying to smuggle gold or other contraband through India’s airports have to go through a “loot parade”, where the perpetrators stand in front of the captured goods and with customs officials by their side. The cameras flash and the shame of those caught are captured for posterity.
These images and details appear frequently on Indian media platforms, so much so that many viewers give it a complete miss. Another day, another attempt to smuggle in the yellow metal – that’s about it. Beyond a glance at the value of the captured gold, the faces of those behind the failed attempts rarely register in viewers/readers’ minds.
But it won’t be the same if and when Swapna Suresh gets to be paraded in front of the cameras. The one-time UAE resident and “IT consultant” working with the Kerala government is on the “run”, and with some of the leading investigative agencies in India on her heels. This is because she likely represents the one link that could connect a whole chain of gold smuggling activities centred around the south Indian state of Kerala.
Tripped up by the gold craze
Swapna’s rush to fame/notoriety in recent days came about after customs officials discovered 30 kilogrammes of gold – with a street value of Dh7.4 million-plus - in a diplomatic consignment meant for the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram, the Kerala state capital. It set off a ruckus, given the “sanctity” such consignments with the diplomatic tag carry. But the package was opened and it revealed 30kg of gold.
Swapna’s name and that of an associate were immediately flagged, and this was when she went “missing”. The associate, Suresh, is now in custody and “helping with the enquiries”, according to a government official.
“The capture of the 30 kilogrammes [of gold] could have happened only with a tip-off,” said one senior gold and jewellery retailer in Thiruvananthapuram. “Smuggled gold continues to enter India, and it’s only the odd consignment that gets captured. That happens only because of tip-offs or plain luck of customs officials.
“Because of the near 15 per cent price difference, especially on bullion bars that have no VAT, getting gold into India can be quite lucrative. In this particular case, the tip-off could have been done to expose Swapna and thus hurt the government. Or it could have been because the deal turned sour between the 'agent' and eventual buyer.”
Leaving no trace for now
Even when on the run, Swapna, who seems to have an affinity for black in her choice of dress colours, has managed to perch herself in the middle of a political storm, potentially impacting the medium-term fortunes of the Kerala government, especially with elections on the horizon.
Every time a photo and video from Swapna’s recent past was pushed into public domain, some of Kerala’s top politicians and bureaucrats were forced to answer how they ended up in some of those photos/videos. The standard reply from all the politicians has been that they knew her, but “not well enough”. (It also turned slightly ludicrous when a senior politician briefed the media about the pat he had given her on the shoulder at a social event ...)
So, how did this one-time schoolgirl from Abu Dhabi - she was born here - become a "fugitive" from justice? Some who knew her from those days cannot believe it is the same person they had shared meals and had chit-chats with in school.
“Studies were never a priority for her … but she was well-liked and the impression most had was that she would marry early and settle down,” said someone who knew her and the family. “No one took her as being remotely interested in a career.”
Swapna’s father, according to multiple sources, tried his hand at running restaurants in UAE, but those ventures never clicked. It’s been some years since the family returned to Kerala, living a comfortable life, but shorn of any Gulf-given affluence.
“Then we heard that Swapna got married, started a family and then went through a separation,” a former family friend remembers. “And then for a long while nothing was heard about her.”
A career person
It was in January this year that Swapna joined the Kerala Government’s IT wing, after a multiple-year stint with the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. The 39-year old is fluent in Arabic.
“At the UAE Consulate, she was responsible for the social activity calendar, and that made her an influential person to know,” said a senior state government bureaucrat. “The UAE Consulate is the most systemically important for Kerala, and it would have given an opportunity to Swapna to build up a network of the powerful.
“But a lot of people who knew her were surprised that she switched jobs and took up a post in the Kerala Government. Even then, she did have influence from Day 1.”
Patronage of the powerful
She is widely seen now as a recipient of former Kerala IT state secretary M. Sivasankar’s mentoring. “The question is how did Swapna manage to get a fairly well-paid – by government standards – job with hardly any qualification,” the bureaucrat added. “If it’s true that she only had formal education up to school level, then who fast-tracked that appointment and why.
“I have known Sivasankar for years – he’s been a brilliant administrator and, in my view, incorruptible. But based on whatever information is available publicly, he seems to have lacked in judgement. A serious error of judgement.”
On Monday, Sivasankar was stripped of his twin roles, including as the principal official in the Chief Minister’s Office. He has gone on leave, but the ongoing investigations will be asking some pointed questions to him.
Run, Swapna, run
All indications available now suggest Swapna could not have managed to move out of Thiruvananthapuram, especially with the strict lockdown protocols still in place to combat the COVID-19 spread.
It’s unlikely that anyone in the state government, whether a politician or a bureaucrat, is in a position to extend any sort of help. Federal agencies are on the cusp of taking up the investigation, especially as it involves smuggling activities as well.
The gold retailer, for one, is quite taken up with the turn of affairs. “At least for the next few weeks or months, smuggling of gold into Kerala/India is going to drop – the heat will be unbearable for anyone trying to corrupt the system,” he added. “Swapna has done a favour to India’s organised jewellery sector, at least.”
A close associate of Swapna’s family still cannot believe that the girl he knew so well is caught up in issues over which she will have no further control.
“Like any other school kid, she dreamed big. But it’s a different reality she is waking up to these days.”