Swapna Suresh
Kerala gold smuggling case accused Swapna Suresh after she was arrested by the National Investigation Agency in Bengaluru, on Saturday, July 11, 2020. Image Credit: PTI

Thiruvananthapuram: Until a few months ago, Kerala’s Left Democratic Front and chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan were basking in a series of achievements – some of them self-proclaimed – from handling major floods in 2018 and 2019 to flattening the coronavirus curve in the early months of the pandemic. Vijayan’s die-hard fans boasted of their ‘double-hearted’ leader’s valour.

If a week is a long time in politics, a few months is a whole era. It only took a case of alleged gold smuggling from the UAE to Kerala through diplomatic baggage to create the first fissures in the gilt-edged image that the Communist government had built up over the first four years. Those fissures are now turning into major cracks as federal agencies are swooping down to investigate the smuggling and other cases.

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A woman at the centre

Kerala’s political musical-chairs with the Communist and Congress governments have played out for decades, but this government and its predecessor have one eerily common feature: Smooth sailing in the first four years, followed by major turbulence in the final year, triggered by a woman character in the middle of the allegations.

In the final years of the Oommen Chandy government, it was the ‘solar case’ with Saritha at the centre of the controversy, with links to the chief minister’s office. For the Pinarayi Vijayan government, it is Swapna Suresh, who has lived in the UAE and was a contract staffer with the UAE Consulate in Kerala and later with a Kerala public sector outfit who has dented the LDF government’s image, carefully nurtured over four years.

Mystery appointment

Suresh had been with a local travel agency in Kerala, then worked in the UAE at the Abu Dhabi airport before joining Air India SATS, a ground handling agency at the Thiruvananthapuram airport.

From here, despite her average educational qualifications, Suresh could get appointment as operations manager of the state government’s space park project under the IT department’s Kerala State IT Infrastructure company. This gave her close access to the state IT secretary M Shivshankar who was also the principal secretary to the chief minister, and has since been suspended.

A ‘golden’ angle

The controversy erupted when customs officials seized around 30kg of gold at the Thiruvananthapuram airport in July, in cargo meant for the UAE consulate in the state capital, based on intelligence information.

The government initially denied any connection to the entire episode, arguing that Suresh was only a contractual employee appointed by one of Kerala’s numerous ‘consultants’. However, the attempt to distance her from the CM’s office became difficult as investigations proceeded and her close liaisons with top politicians and administration officials came to light.

Encircled by probe agencies

Every passing week since the gold smuggling revelation broke, the government has plunged deeper into the mire. Multiple agencies are now probing the case, including the National Investigation Agency, the Enforcement Directorate and the Customs department.

Investigations have led to more people including some in the UAE who are believed to have facilitated transporting the cargo to Kerala and some gold dealers in Kerala who may have been the beneficiaries. Probe agencies even questioned Arun Balachandran, the former IT Fellow to the chief minister.

Two more twists

The quagmire deepened for the government with two additional twists – of minister K.T. Jaleel facing two cases by the customs department over distribution of the Holy Quran and dates received from the UAE consulate.

Jaleel has argued that his acts were part of a “religious and cultural heritage” but the investigation officials are not taking his explanation at face value.

Latest setback

Even as the government is battling all these cases, Friday brought another setback. Federal investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a case, charging that the state government had received foreign funding without permission for its Life Mission project. The project is aimed to provide housing for the homeless.

The case is that there was a violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act in accepting funds for the project. Red Crescent, an international organisation, had agreed to provide Rs 200 million to the project.

The Opposition has alleged that there was corruption involved in giving the contract for construction of the Life Mission projects to Unitac Builders, sidelining Habitat, the company that was initially selected for the project.

Meanwhile the one who triggered it all, Swapna Suresh, has been remanded by an NIA special court to judicial custody until October 8. While she cools her heels in custody, it is the chief minister and the LDF who are sweating as one investigation agency after another prowls around for clinching evidences to prove the multitude of allegations from gold smuggling to illegal foreign contributions.