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Covid, shadow of gold smuggling case loom over Onam in Kerala

NewsCovid, shadow of gold smuggling case loom over Onam in Kerala

With Onam celebrations setting in, the government will find it extremely difficult to control the mobility of people.

New Delhi: As Kerala ushered in festivities marking the beginning of its biggest festivals, Onam, which is on 21 August, amidst a surging second wave of the pandemic, the infamous gold smuggling case too has reared its head much to the embarrassment of the Left Front government. The state government, which is forced on the backfoot in its fight against the current unexpected spike in Covid-19 cases, now finds itself burdened with the responsibility of facing a fresh bout of court battles involving Central investigation agencies that were lying low ever since the return to power of the Left Front in May.
Investigations into the gold smuggling racket involving the local consulate of the UAE and certain officials in the Chief Minister’s Office in Thiruvananthapuram that shook the previous Pinarayi Vijayan government in its final months, have been dormant for some time with hardly any progress in the case. The case had lost its political relevance too with the Pinarayi Vijjayan-led Left Front voted back to power with a historic win and the BJP losing face in the elections. However, a Kerala High Court verdict on Wednesday has revived interest in the case with Opposition parties suddenly finding their voice and the government scrambling for legal cover.
The court on Wednesday stayed the state government notification last May constituting a judicial commission to probe into the alleged attempt by the Enforcement Directorate and other Central agencies to implicate Pinarayi VIjayan in the gold smuggling case. Justice P.B. Suresh Kumar stayed the 7 March notification appointing the commission of enquiry in response to a petition filed by the ED. The judge observed that a parallel enquiry against a Central agency would “derail” the ongoing probe into the use of diplomatic channels to smuggle gold and aid the accused. The court would hear the case in detail later.
The ED in its petition had stated that the Chief Minister of Kerala, who holds the portfolio of home minister, has issued the notification abusing his official position. The move is to impede and frustrate the investigations carried out by the Deputy Director, Enforcement Directorate, in the gold smuggling case where the “Chief Minister and his subordinates are or can be a subject matter of investigation”.
The stay is seen as a setback for the Left government, which has, all along, except a few weeks in the beginning, been accusing the Central government of playing vindictive politics with a battery of investigation agencies at its command. The Left Front, especially the CPM, had made it one of the major issues in the April Assembly elections. It has borne fruit with the public voting en masse for the front.
But more than the court verdict on Wednesday, it is an incriminating document released by the Customs that has annoyed the government. According to the investigating agency, one of the main accused in the smuggling case has alleged that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan took a packet containing a bundle of currency to the UAE during one of his visits to that country in 2017. The Customs claimed that the statement was made by the Consulate’s former staffer P.S. Sarith, in a deposition in October last. While investigating the gold smuggling case, the Customs had claimed that it had stumbled upon large-scale illegal export of US currency by the consulate’s former financial head. This Arab national allegedly had close links with Vijayan’s former principal secretary, who is one of the main accused in the gold smuggling case.
The Customs has mentioned the claim against Vijayan in a show cause notice issued on 29 July to the six persons named in the illegal export of dollars. However, it is intriguing that the Customs indeed chose to leak these documents to the press on the very day the court verdict came out. Reacting to reports of Sarith naming Vijayan, the CM’s office told a newspaper that “the issue does not require any reaction. It has been debated a lot in the past. The matter is not going to affect us in any manner. The show cause notices had been issued last month, but might have been leaked today against the backdrop of the High Court verdict.”
The Opposition’s attempt to raise the issue in the Assembly which is in session currently has been thwarted by the government. The Speaker has refused permission to move an adjournment motion seeking a statement from the chief minister, forcing the Opposition to walk out of the Assembly and hold a parallel session outside the House. The government has charged the Opposition with “a predetermined plan to disrupt the proceedings of the House”. The Congress was quick to point out that this was nothing but “His Master’s Voice”, a reference to what was happening in Delhi.
Interestingly, even at the time of the notification many in the government and the Opposition were aware that such a move won’t hold water. It was another political gimmick to hoodwink the public into believing that the state government is at war with a hostile central government. It was also an opportunity for the ruling dispensation to provide employment to yet another retired judge who is known for his Left leanings. The whole exercise must be seen as another classic example of misusing the public exchequer, a cruel joke on the tax-paying common man.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 is at an all-time high in the state compared to elsewhere in the country. Currently the state accounts for more than half the country’s total number of those affected; its daily figure is above 20,000 per day. This has baffled health experts across the country since Kerala was the torch bearer in the country’s fight against the virus right from the beginning.
With Onam celebrations setting in, the government will find it extremely difficult to control the mobility of people. Somewhere the government has lost its way in taking the right decisions to curtail the virus as was the case during Pinarayi Vijayan’s first stint. There is large scale resentment among traders and the general public about the uneven, ad hoc lockdowns resorted to by the government. Experts have been openly complaining that the government seldom bothers to hear them. A select group comprising mostly non-professionals is apparently advising the Chief Minister. It is now said that CPM has made a grave mistake in replacing the former health minister K.K. Shailaja who was universally acknowledged as the one behind the state’s success in its fight against coronavirus. However, Keralites are known to celebrate Onam come what may. It will be the same this time too. But for the government, this Onam poses a big challenge politically and otherwise.

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