Ernakulam: Opposition in Kerala has stepped up the political heat on the state’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, after it emerged on Monday that Swapna Suresh, an accused mastermind behind a failed bid to smuggle gold using the diplomatic baggage system on Sunday, was a consultant to one of the offices under the state government’s Information Technology (IT) ministry. Vijayan is also the state’s IT minister.
Swapna Suresh, a former UAE consulate officer, worked as the marketing liaison officer of the Space Park under the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL).
After the smuggling case grabbed headlines, the government has terminated the contract with Swapna Suresh, who the police say is absconding.
Meanwhile, a photo where Swapna Suresh stands next to the CM emerged on social media, which the opposition used to tarnish the government’s image. But, according to officials, the photo is possibly from an official event where Vijayan was invited to attend and Suresh was present as an official employee.
Meanwhile, Suresh’s neighbours told Kerala’s news channels that the state’s IT secretary S Shivashankar was a regular visitor to her flat in Thiruvananthapuram, raising doubts of the relationship between the duo. The Opposition alleged that Shivashankar appointed her flouting norms and his role needs to be probed in the smuggling case. The secretary was unavailable for immediate comment. Both BJP state president K Surendran and Congress opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala have demanded for the probe on the smuggling case to be extended to the CM’s office.
Vijayan, in his response, turned a blind eye. “It is absurd,” Vijayan said about his office being dragged to the case. He said he was not aware of the appointment made by the IT department, and claimed it a move by the opposition to damage his government’s clean and corruption-free image.
“Some are trying to drag the CM Office to anything… this case is effectively probed by Customs. They will do a good job on this. Nobody will be rescued and all accused will be booked under the law,” he said. “People of this land know about the CM’s office, we have established in the last four years that it is not an office that will save anybody who is an accused (in a crime),” said Vijayan.
The case has become sensational in Kerala, with the opposition trying to make an analogy to the ‘Solar Scam’ controversy that rocked the previous Congress chief minister Oommen Chandy. The alleged links of Chandy’s office to Saritha S. Nair, who was at the centre of a fraud and bribe controversy, is considered to have brought immense damage to the government, eventually leading to its fall in 2016. The Vijayan government, India’s only communist government, has face a major local body polls later this year and assembly election mid-2021.
The customs department has accused Swapna Suresh as the master brain behind trying to smuggle about 30 kg gold (worth ₹15 crore) in incoming baggage addressed to a United Arab Emirates diplomat at Kerala’s Trivandrum Airport, which was foiled based on a last-minute tip-off on Sunday. It is one of the biggest gold hauls in the state and the first time in the country where, the customs said, the gold was tried to smuggle misusing the name of a person who enjoys diplomatic immunity.
A senior customs official, requesting anonymity, said they have taken into custody, Sarith, a former Public Relations Officer of the United Arab Emirates consulate, in connection with the case. He was fired for misconduct previously and has confessed to colluding with Swapna Suresh on the crime, the official said. The Embassy of the UAE in India said in the statement that it utterly condemns the attempted misuse of diplomatic channels by an individual engaged in smuggling activity. “The Embassy firmly rejected such acts and unequivocally affirms that the mission and its diplomatic staff had no role in this matter,” it said.
Addressing an urgent press meet over the incident, Congress opposition leader in Kerala, Ramesh Chennithala, used the incident to build a larger narrative around the smuggling case entirely the government’s doing. He alleged links between Sapna and the Chief Minister’s Office. “I demand a CBI inquiry in the gold smuggling case. The accused is closely connected with Kerala’s IT secretary, who is also secretary of CM @vijayanpinarayi. . It’s quite clear now that CM’s office and his secretary is involved in this case,” he tweeted.