How a gold-smuggling case is giving sleepless nights to Pinarayi Vijayan

M Sivasankar is expected to be close to not just Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan but also the CPI(M)
For the first time in Kerala, and probably in the rarest of rare cases, a top, sitting bureaucrat has been arrested on an issue related to national security. It was after more than three months of political war and investigation by multiple agencies that M Sivasankar, former principal secretary to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, was arrested this week by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in a money-laundering case linked to gold smuggling.


With this, the matter has now led to a big blow to the Vijayan government, which had been braving the anti-incumbency factor so far and was set to face local-body polls this year and assembly elections next year.


The story started on July 5, when Customs seized 30 kg of gold worth Rs 14.82 crore at Thiruvananthapuram International Airport in a diplomatic cargo, addressed to the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. Sivasankar allegedly intervened to get the bag released from Customs on prodding from Swapna Suresh, a key accused in the case. He was suspended after this.


The case is being investigated by the ED, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), and Customs. The ED says Sivasankar had helped Swapna to park the proceeds from smuggling in a bank locker and was aware of all the financial transactions of the accused. It was on Wednesday morning that the ED arrested him.


This is not the first time that Sivasankar has landed himself in a controversy. In April, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala had accused him of handing over the health data of 175,000 people under quarantine to a US-based firm called Sprinklr. According to him, Sivasankar had short-circuited procedure in appointing the firm.


The 1995-batch IAS officer, a former Students’ Federation of India leader, was expected to be close to not just the chief minister but also the CPI(M). He was credited with being the brain behind some key projects in the IT sector like the Kerala Startup Mission and the upcoming Kerala Fibre Optic Network (KFON), which intends to provide high-speed internet connectivity to 2 million families by December.


“The entire thing happened in the office of Vijayan. It is hard to believe that he was not aware of this illegal activity. Even if he was not aware, then also it is a huge lapse on his part,” said B R P Bhaskar, a senior political analyst.


In anticipatory bail, the former principal secretary had alleged that the probe agencies might be acting under pressure owing to propaganda by the media seeking his arrest. Left sympathisers initially alleged this was a plot by the Central agencies. However, Bhaskar believes this is going to swing neutral votes, which will be game-changers in the upcoming local-body and assembly elections.


The BJP’s vote share rose from a mere 6.1 per cent in the 2011 Assembly elections to 15.3 per cent in 2016. If it touches 20 per cent, it may increase the number of its seats from one to more than 10 in the Assembly. Interestingly, the party in Kerala has more than 800 gram panchayat members, close to 240 municipal members, 51 corporation councillors, 28 block panchayat members, and three district panchayat members.


“This will have a huge impact on the upcoming polls. This government was going unhurt as far as corruption scandals were concerned. Moreover, the image of Vijayan touched an all-time high the way he handled the pandemic. This is going to shift the votes heavily in favour of the Congress and the BJP,” said A Jayashankar, lawyer and political expert.

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