A testing time for Pinarayi

Swapna Suresh, an accused in the diplomatic channel gold smuggling case, during a press meet in Palakkad.

Swapna Suresh, an accused in the diplomatic channel gold smuggling case, during a press meet in Palakkad. | Photo Credit: K.K. MUSTAFAH

An evolving high-level political scandal, with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan at the centre of it, has sparked off protests in Kerala.

Several in the government have been under the scanner since the gold smuggling case grabbed the headlines. A week ago, Swapna Suresh, an accused in the case who was earlier a consulate employee handling the affairs of the Kerala government, stirred up a political storm when she alleged that Mr. Vijayan had sought the UAE Consulate’s help to import “contraband metal and ship out tranches of foreign currency” via the diplomatic channel to avoid customs scrutiny. She also gave a sworn statement to a judicial magistrate stating the same. The government denied the accusation. Ms. Suresh then alleged that the government had dispatched plainclothes officers to raid her house in a reprisal for making charges against Mr. Vijayan. She released ‘audio evidence’ of an alleged troubleshooter for the government who, she claimed, had tried to arm-twist her into retracting her “damning statement” against Mr. Vijayan. She alleged that the intermediary had told her that Mr. Vijayan and CPI(M) State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had channelled their “ill-gotten” wealth into the U.S. account of a religious group. The group denied the charge and so did the CPI(M). Subsequently, the ‘intermediary’ said on television that he was not a police agent and had acted in Ms. Suresh’s best interests and that they were family friends.

The startling developments sparked anti-government street protests. Congress and BJP workers pressed for Mr. Vijayan’s resignation. Scenes of Congress and BJP workers scaling police barricades and attempting to overrun law enforcers dominated television screens. The controversy provided powerful ammunition to the Opposition to accuse Mr. Vijayan of using the might of the state to silence “whistle-blowers” and to dismiss the LDF’s lofty statements on upholding democracy and human rights as hollow.

Also read | Swapna Suresh claims meeting CM at Cliff House

The government reacted to these mounting accusations by removing the officer who is believed to have despatched the intermediary. But the LDF threw its weight behind Mr. Vijayan. The CPI(M) said it perceived a Congress-BJP plot to unleash anarchy by resurrecting old lies mouthed by discredited proxies.

Meanwhile, the State has also faced criticism for allegedly banning black face masks and clothes at an event attended by the Chief Minister. The opposition seems to have adopted black as a symbol of resistance against the government. Black flags were shown to Mr. Vijayan soon after Ms. Suresh’s allegations, which caused angry LDF leaders to ask why there was a deliberate move to embarrass the Chief Minister and why the protesters insisted on using one colour to show their displeasure. Mr. Vijayan denied that the government had sought any such ban.

The controversy might not have the shelf life to shape the electorate’s preferences in the general or Assembly elections in 2024. Even now, Mr. Vijayan remains secure and strong in government and the CPI(M). The scandal has also pushed the resistance against the SilverLine project to the background, at least for now. It is important to remember that voters had brushed aside similar allegations during the 2021 Assembly election campaign and granted the LDF a second term in power. However, these developments come as a headache for a government that is aspiring to lure global investment and create a knowledge economy. The political wrangle could hamper Kerala’s struggle to clamber out of the economic recession caused by the pandemic and increase employment.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2022 1:49:44 am |