CM under pressure over the issue of gold smuggling racket and state’s Covid crisis.

 

New Delhi: However hard Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his comrades trivialise charges of corruption and nepotism against his government in the wake of the latest gold smuggling racket in the state, there is no doubt that Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly Ramesh Chennithala is having the last laugh. With the NIA grilling a senior-most IAS officer in the state, who had a free run of the Chief Minister’s office till a fortnight ago, in connection with the gold smuggling revolving round a foreign consulate, things are becoming pretty hot on the political front for Vijayan and company. For Chennithala was the first man to point out that something is rotting in the CM’s office when he brought to light the state government’s alleged breach of privacy of over 1.75 lakh corona affected patients in the state by clandestinely striking a deal with a US-based tech firm Sprinklr to handle the data collected from them. In early April, Chennithala had charged that the Left Front government broke all procedural rules in appointing Sprinklr and thereby exposing vital data regarding the health of thousands of people to pharmaceutical companies without taking the affected into confidence. The Opposition also questioned as to why the government took the assistance of a foreign firm when there were competent institutions such as Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (CDIT) and the Kerala State IT Mission in the state itself to do the same job.

Chennithala at that time claimed that the Chief Minister, who also looks after the IT ministry, took the decision to appoint Sprinklr, owned by a Malayalee, without even consulting departments like law, local self-government and finance. Initially, the Chief Minister tried to brush aside the allegations saying extraordinary situations (read outbreak of coronavirus) called for extraordinary decisions. When the government claims proved all bunkum, Vijayan fielded his Principal Secretary who happened to be also the IT Secretary M. Siv Sankar, to defend the government. Siv Sankar promptly owned up “sole responsibility”, something unheard of in the past, for the government decision and even made a trip to the headquarters of the second largest partner in the LDF, the CPI to brief its chief regarding the deal. CPI was the only partner who had the guts to question the CM on his “wayward decision”.

Despite all the hours spent by channel warriors of the CPM defending the deal, the government quietly dropped Sprinklr, another extraordinary decision, some pointed out, and opted for state-run CDIT and IT Mission. But more things were to follow. Early this month when an honest Customs officer detected and withheld a parcel addressed to the chief of the UAE Consulate on suspicion that it contained gold instead of eatables as was mentioned, no one thought that once again the CM’s Office and its favourite officer would be at the centre of another grievous crime involving even national security. Not only that. To the utter dismay of the government “excelling in extraordinary times” and surprise of the Opposition, the smuggling racket opened up a whole can of worms surrounding appointments to top positions in the IT Department involving Siv Sankar.

Once again CM Vijayan tried to defend his secretary initially. But quickly realising that the entire chain of smuggling racket might finally lead to him, Vijayan promptly asked Siv Sankar to go on a long leave, though CPM’s social media warriors still contend that he was “sacked”.  The reason: Siv Sankar’s personal relations, especially with one of the main accused in the smuggling racket and, through her, her other associates. The idea clearly was to limit the involvement of the Chief Minister’s office to the smuggling of gold, which otherwise can be termed as a pastime of many a Keralite, famously or infamously known for their weakness for the yellow metal. But as many of the appointments and dealing with foreign consultancy firms, especially the controversial Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PWC), are now attributed to Siv Sankar, the Chief Minister, his party CPM and the government is finding it difficult to counter charges levelled by the Opposition. The Chief Minister has distanced himself from Siv Sankar and feigns ignorance to what was happening “under his very nose”, a cliché so often used by Pinarayi Vijayan himself while in the opposition. Vijayan has also barricaded himself by parrying reporters’ questions as not worth answering since they were simply “parroting the Opposition”. Or with his curt “will let you know when it is necessary”.

However, political observers feel that with the questioning of Siv Sankar by the NIA for over five hours, unprecedented in the history of IAS cadre, things might turn against his political masters. NIA is scheduled to question the officer again on Monday. In yet another salvo against Vijayan, Chennithala has asked Vijayan to quit “before he (CM) is questioned by the NIA”, something humiliating for the people of Kerala. Indeed, as one local daily pointed out, it looks like the Kerala Covid defence is falling apart. The CPM has realised it.

Party state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has set the new agenda for CPM cyber brigade when on Friday he charged Chennithala with being an “agent of the RSS”. It is important that Chennithala happens to be the leading upper caste Hindu face of the Opposition in Kerala.

“The RSS does not want the UDF to be controlled by former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy or IUML leader P.K. Kunhalikutty. So it has been extending its support to Chennithala instead,” Kodiyeri told newspersons. “I wonder why the two parties have joined hands in Kerala, even as their counterparts fight each other in other states,” he asked. It may sound absurd for an ordinary voter in Kerala, but then hitting below the belt is not uncommon in politics. It is now clear that CPM will go to any extent to retain power in Kerala, its last hope to remain relevant in national politics. Will Kerala oblige is the question.