Two arrests by central agencies over the last two days have given a double blow to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government of Kerala and its flagship party the Communist Party of India -Marxist (CPM). Following months of uncertainties, Enforcement Directorate arrested the chief minister's principal secretary M Sivasankar on Friday night in the gold smuggling case. On Thursday, Ernakulam Principal Sessions Court put him under remand as the fifth accused for a week, under Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) on non-bailable charges that can be punished with imprisonment of upto seven years. Meanwhile, Bineesh Kodiyeri, the son of CPM's state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was arrested in Bengaluru on Thursday following an investigation related to drug mafia of the city. The 'super power' confidant of chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan was arrested for aiding Swapna Suresh for money laundering. Swapna had earlier been caught for smuggling gold through diplomatic baggage that arrived in Thiruvananthapuram airport. The Customs is also about to interrogate him in a case of helping Swapna in smuggling dollar currency abroad. In addition to this, other probes are also under way by Central Board of Investigation (CBI) for violation of Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) and by National Investigation Agency (NIA) under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
The charges slapped on the number one bureaucrat of the chief minister's office are serious such as colluding for smuggling and assisting in concealing and laundering tainted money. The arrest memo states that the chief minister's principal secretary confessed to contacting a top Customs official for releasing smuggled gold worth crores of rupes that had arrived in the airport from Dubai through diplomatic baggage. ED deems this as a misuse of a responsible official position and an interference with an extraneous government agency. The picture of misuse of power by Sivasankar in the main power centre of the chief minister's office got revealed during the process of the gold smuggling enquiry.
It would be pertinent to recall the kind of agitations the LDF led by the current chief minister and party secretary, when a personal staff of the then chief minister Oommen Chandy was arrested in connection with the solar scam at the fag end of the United Democratic Front (UDF) government. The stormy protests, marked by road blocking, stone-pelting and indefinite strike cordoning off the secretariat, were held for the chief minister's resignation. Inflicting an electoral blow on that alliance, which by then had lost all popularity and image, LDF came to power with a promise that it would set everything right. And at a press conference on the eve of the swearing-in, Pinarayi Vijayan declared, "After I am sworn in tomorrow, if any one comes to the picture claiming to be close to me, that also would be a form of corruption, there would be many such avatars and we should always be watchful of them. This applies to me as much as to others. This will be a ministry that will wary of aspects including this."
However, now the Pinarayi government is in a pathetic plight of having to quit more tainted than the previous UDF government. Within the office of the chief minister himself - who had given a word of caution about 'avatars' - Sivasankar became a formidable figure in the administration, a plenipotentiary of the chief minister, perceived as mighty and unyielding. This led to the officer evolving projects one after the other like Sprinklr, BevQ app, KPhone, e-mobility. In this unhindered track of governance, the collusion for gold was only one thin line. When allegation of misgovernance were raised against the principal secretary, his response, bordering on threat, was that no one should utter absurdities. What the chief minister tried was to put all blame on the Swapna connection and thus to silence detractors. And now when Sivasankar has been caught, the attempt by the leader and his party is to absolve themselves of all guilt by dumping everything on Sivasankar. There will be few takers for the theory that the chief minister has no role in a top official, anointed with a pivotal position in his own office, indulging in out of the way transactions. The CPM had made a hullabaloo when a remote link was found between a UDF party leader and Ramees, an accused in the gold smuggling case, but now the CPM has suffered a setback when the son of the party secretary is embroiled in a narcotics related case.
Pinarayi's government is suffering from a loss of image that no government in the country has had to face so far. As for the party leadership that should rescue the government, it is in a worse embattled state. A chief minister and the party leadership who are caught in a sullied image can regain the confidence of political Kerala only when purged of suspicions. What every one looks forward to seeing is whether the CPM leadership will show the wisdom to salvage the party from this twin loss of face and whether their rank and file can bring about that course correction in the party.