Espionage to smuggling, scandals spice up every poll in Kerala

controversies and scandals were part of the state polity in the last three decades and mushrooming digital media also played its part in amplifying them, said a political observer.
PUBLISHED ON MAR 03, 2021 07:26 PM IST
Elections in Kerala are punctuated by several controversies, both past and present (File Photo)

During every election spicy scandals pops up in Kerala and this election is no exception either. Whether it was ISRO espionage case of 1990s, Suryanelli sex scandal, ice cream parlour case, solar cheating and latest gold smuggling case, these scandals play a crucial role in making or breaking governments in the most literate state, poll history of the shows.

No election passed in Kerala without a scandal. And in most cases a woman with a dubious past played the lead role. The ruling Left was always first to cash in on such scandals, but this time it tastes its own medicine in the gold smuggling case. In the latest gold smuggling case, the key accused is Swapna Suresh, who held key positions while allegedly sewing up a strong network with the help of the powerful smuggling lobby, investigators have said.

“While the earlier Congress regime was involved in the solar scam, the present government is neck-deep in the gold smuggling case. In the first, Saritha Nair was the main accused and in the second Swapna Suresh. Both, Congress and CPI(M), have massive appetite for scandals,” said Union finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman last week, while addressing a rally in Ernakulam. True, it is Saritha Vs Swapna this time.

“There is a certain element of spinning in some cases particularly when the Left was in the opposition because its propaganda machinery is strong. Some scandals are totally fabricated like the spy case. But some of the recent scandals have more merit because they are backed by documents,” said G Pramod Kumar, a political observer and former advisor of the United Nations Development Programme. He said controversies and scandals were part of the state polity in the last three decades and mushrooming digital media also played its part in amplifying them.

ISRO spy case (1994)

In 2019, the Kerala government had handed over an additional compensation of 1.30 crore to former scientist of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Nambi Narayanan (80) to settle the two- and a -half- decade- old ISRO espionage case in which he was implicated by state police and other agencies. The Supreme Court- ordered three-member judicial panel is still probing the conspiracy angle of the scandal that blew up a top scientist’s career and reportedly delayed the country’s cryogenic project.

The sensational case surfaced in 1994 and the then chief minister K Karunakaran was forced to quit after a section of his Congress party led by A K Antony and Oommen Chandy revolted against him as the name of then senior police officer Ramon Srivastav cropped up in the case. It was alleged that two senior scientists of ISRO, Nambi Narayanan and D Sasikumaran, had sold space secrets for money and sexual favours. Two Maldivian women were also arrested in connection with the case. Srivastav was then the inspector general of police (IGP).

However, in 1998, the Supreme Court quashed the case after accepting the CBI inquiry report that the case was cooked up. When the espionage case was unearthed, Narayanan was in charge of the cryogenic division. He was the first to introduce liquid fuel rocket technology. The country’s space technology had to suffer badly due to the espionage case, Narayanan said in one of the interviews pointing to a larger conspiracy in the case.

Known as the ISRO spy case, it generated enough heat and dust and many books were written over the sensational issue and it affected the political career of former CM K Karunakaran also. It is a different story though that the Communists, who ballooned the scandal, finally paid the compensation to him after two- and a –half- decades. In 2019, the country had conferred him with the second highest civilian award Padma Bhushan. In two subsequent polls, Lok Sabha in 1999 and assembly in 2001, the spy case was hotly debated.

Suryanelli scandal (1996)

The case relates to the abduction of a 16-year-old girl in Suryanelli village in Idukki district by a bus conductor in 1996 in the guise of love. After staying with her for many days, he handed over the minor to a woman named Usha, second accused in the case and S S Dharmarajan, the prime accused. According to the prosecution, she was taken to different places by the accused and presented to 41 persons for monetary benefits. Her plight came to light after she was admitted to a hospital with some diseases.

The accused include many influential people-- four businessmen, two advocates, two politicians, two railway employees and a nurse. On Sept 2, 2000, a court in Kottayam convicted 31 accused with jail terms ranging from four to 13 years and acquitted four persons. But in 2005, the high court acquitted all except the main accused, Dharmarajan, and the verdict was challenged in the Supreme Court by the state government.

In 2013, the SC set aside the high court verdict and ordered a retrial. A year later (2014), the Supreme Court awarded jail to 23 accused (seven to 12 years) and acquitted seven persons and awarded life term to main accused Dharmarajan. Former deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha P J Kurian’s name also cropped up in the case but he was given a clean chit by the apex court. In the 1999 Parliament poll and 2001 assembly elections, the Suryanelli case was debated and the CPI(M) used it to paint Congress leaders in a bad light. They coined enough slogans and epithets to blame its opponents. Later, the victim was given a government job and a house. The 42-year-old recently told a news channel that stigma still hounds her.

Ice cream parlour case (1997)

The case surfaced in 1997 after the deaths by suicide of two teenage girls in north Kerala’s Kozhikkode. During investigation it was found that these girls were allegedly lured by an ice cream parlour owner, also a woman, and pushed into to flourishing sex racket. An NGO Anweshi, led by former Maoist leader K Ajitha, took up the case alleging a number of high and mighty were involved in exploiting girls. Prominent among them was Muslim League leader P K Kunhalikutty, who was a minister in the UDF government. In 2005, he was forced to resign from the Ooomen Chandy government.

But later, different courts absolved him of all charges. But the case came to focus again in 2011 after Kunhalikutty’s kin alleged that he paid a huge sum of money to silence some of the victims. Then the LDF government led by V S Achuthanandan later ordered a fresh probe into the alleged sabotage bid. It also failed to make much impact after the special investigation team filed a closure report in the court. Later, Achuthanandan filed a new complaint in Kerala high court questioning the SIT decision to close the case and it is still pending before the court.

Though the sensational case failed to make any headway, the CPI(M) used it to the hilt to target its political opponents. Later in one of the interviews, Kunhalikutty said it hounded him so much that he even contemplated suicide but his intense faith in his religion dissuaded him. At least in two assembly elections, the ice cream parlour case stirred the pot.

Solar case (2013)

Last month the Kerala government handed over the solar case, which virtually led to the fall of Oommen Chandy regime five years ago, to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Main accused in the scandal, Saritha Nair petitioned chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan last year, complaining that she was yet to get justice in the sexual assault cases she filed against many Congress leaders and she wanted a central agency probe. The government dusted out her complaint to checkmate the opposition barbs in the gold smuggling case.

The solar cheating case relates to an alleged con woman Saritha Nair, her second husband Biju Radhakrishnan, who was later convicted in a murder case, floated a fictitious company called ‘Team Solar’ in 2013 and cheated many, promising them stakes in the firm and heavy returns after selling imported solar panels. They allegedly cultivated good sources in corridors of power and flaunted their contacts to attract investors.

The cheating case came to light in 2014 and 60 cases were registered against the two accused. Then CM Chandy had sacked two of his private secretaries and the state public relations director when their names cropped up in the case. Later, the main accused Nair raised sexual assault charges against many Congress leaders including then CM Chandy, K C Venugopal, Adoor Prakash MP, A P Anil Kumar, Hibi Eden MP and others. She alleged she was sexually exploited for favours rendered to her.

Nair was convicted in eight cheating cases but she is out on bail. Two months ago, she also figured in another cheating case. She allegedly took money from some youth promising them government jobs. She was not arrested in the case by the government, fearing that her contention in the solar case may weaken. Though the state government pressurised the CBI, it is yet to take up the case and Chandy, who is leading Congress’ bid to return to power, said he was ready for any probe.

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Gold smuggling case (2020)

Last in the series, the gold smuggling case came to light last July after 30 kg gold was seized from a consignment camouflaged as diplomatic baggage from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) consulate in Thiruvananthapuram.

After recovery of concealed gold, a person who came to receive the consignment, P S Sartih Kumar, a former employee of the consulate, was arrested by the customs. Later, the case was handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Later, NIA arrested main accused Swapna Suresh and her accomplice Sandeep Nair from their hideout in Bengaluru.

The case took a political colour after CM Pinarayi Vijayan fired his close aide M Sivasankar, a senior IAS officer, for his alleged liaison with Suresh. He was later arrested by the Enforcement Directorate and got bail after three months in judicial custody.

Soon juicy and spicy stories started appearing in the media. During investigation it was found that her degree certificate was also fake, and she was close to many other politicians. Another secretary of the CM, higher education minister K T Jaleel and many others were also grilled by central agencies. At least five central agencies are involved in the probe now. Subsequently, many other irregularities like kickbacks in the Life Mission project and money laundering case also came to light.

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Opposition trained its gun on the CM alleging his office was aware of the thriving smuggling through the consulate office, which was going on for more than a year. There are intelligence reports that more than 500 kg gold was smuggled into the country in a year.

“The CM sacrificed his secretary to get away from the case. If the case was investigated properly, his role would come to light. Now the case has been put on back burner due to a tacit understanding between the state and the central governments,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, adding that weakening the case was part of home minister Amit Shah’s pet project of “Congress-mukt Bharat”.

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