March 14, 2021

The Unholy Trinity in Kerala elections

THE Kerala Assembly elections are being fought by three alliances – the CPI(M)-led LDF, the Congress-led UDF and the BJP-led NDA.  Both the Congress and the BJP have been targeting the LDF government with a string of false allegations which began with the gold smuggling case in July last year. 

Now there is a third party in the electoral fray. Apart from the Congress and the BJP, there are the central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED), CBI, Customs and the NIA. 

The intervention of these central agencies has assumed an unprecedented scale, breaching all legal and institutional norms and in stark violation of the federal principle. This has not happened before at the time of any state assembly elections.

In the past, the ED, CBI and IT authorities were used by the BJP centre to target political opponents.  Amit Shah, after becoming the home minister, became an “encounter specialist” of a different type.  Before any election, top political opponents were ‘encountered’ by central agencies.  This is what happened with NCP president Sharad Pawar before the Maharashtra election. He was summoned by the ED for questioning. But in Kerala, this type of intervention by the central agencies has been scaled up to target the chief minister and ministers in the LDF government, state-sponsored investment entities like the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) and government schemes and missions.  This is being done in a calculated manner to discredit the LDF government and the political leadership in view of the impending assembly elections. 

During the investigations into the gold smuggling case by the NIA, the ED and the Customs went on a fishing expedition to try and implicate various ministers and leaders.  The minister for minority welfare, K T Jaleel, was questioned by the ED regarding consignment of dates and copies of the Quran, which he received from the UAE Consulate for distribution at the time of Ramzan.  The Congress and the BJP took to the streets to demand the resignation of the minister with calculated leaks from sources within the central agencies which put out the false information that gold was smuggled along with the dates which were imported.  The NIA, after six months of investigations, chargesheeted 20 persons, but did not charge either the former principal secretary Sivasankar, or any political functionary. 

The gold smuggling case was utilised only to spread canards to help the BJP and the Congress at the time of the local body elections held in November.

Unable to find anything to implicate the LDF government in the gold smuggling case, the CBI and the ED began investigations into various programmes of the government like the Life Mission. A private complaint by a Congress MLA became the basis for the CBI intervention and the filing of a case against officials of the Life Mission, which is one of the flagship programmes of the LDF government that has provided two and a half lakh houses for the poor. The ED has gone further demanding documents pertaining to other government projects such as K Fon (a project to provide internet access to the poorer sections) and the electric vehicle policy. The object of these roving enquiries was to find something incriminating against the government.

After elections were announced, the union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressed a BJP rally and made a series of false allegations against the KIIFB and the state government budget on February 28.  Soon after, the ED which functions under the finance ministry filed a case under Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) and summoned the top officials of KIIFB for interrogation.  The KIIFB is an institution which has raised resources for investment in infrastructure projects.  More than Rs 20,000 crore worth of projects in terms of highways, school buildings, hospital buildings and so on have been executed.  This has brought about a major transformation in Kerala’s social and economic infrastructure.  The ED action is meant to disrupt this process by raising unfounded and baseless charges.

The latest attack has come through an affidavit submitted by the Customs to the High Court, in which a confidential statement by one of the accused in the gold smuggling case, Swapna Suresh, is cited as saying that the chief minister, the speaker of the assembly and three other ministers are involved in a dollar smuggling case.  The affidavit of the Customs was submitted in a totally unrelated case, which pertained to an appeal filed by the director general of jails to the High Court against certain observations of a lower court on the security being provided to Swapna Suresh in judicial custody. The Customs’ affidavit has gone out of the way to involve the chief minister and other government functionaries, when the agency itself admits that there is no evidence that they could gather to corroborate these claims. 

There is sufficient proof that Swapna Suresh was pressurised to make such a statement.  A voice recording of Swapna Suresh surfaced on November 18 last year, in which she complained about pressure being mounted on her to involve the chief minister’s name in financial transactions abroad.  That an assistant director of the ED had pressurised her in this regard has been confirmed by a woman police constable who was present on the occasion. 

Such dirty tricks by the central agencies could not have been undertaken without instructions from the top. The ED has become the cats paw for the BJP government’s targeting of political opponents. The list of opposition party leaders being investigated or charged by the ED covers the entire gamut of opposition political parties. They include Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party, Bhupinder Hooda and D K Shivkumar of the Congress, Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP from Kashmir and Tejaswi Yadav and Misa Bharati of Rashtriya Janata Dal and many others.  There are others who were similarly enquired into by the ED – Mukul Roy of the TMC and Himanta Biswa Sarma of the Congress, who joined the BJP and escaped any further action. 

The Congress party in Kerala has been vociferous in demanding speedy investigation and action by the central agencies against the LDF government.  Not only the opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala but Rahul Gandhi also has voiced this demand.  By doing so, Rahul Gandhi & Co have not only gone by the BJP playbook but they have also legitimised the ED operations against a host of their leaders in other states. 

The ED is under the department of revenue of the finance ministry and it is increasingly acting as an organisation without any lawful boundaries. It has no statutory or legal backing, but exercises wide powers of conducting raids, searches, arrests and attachment of properties and assets. It does all these in the name of investigation of cases under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and the FEMA. 

The current director of the ED is Sanjay Kumar Mishra, a former commissioner of income tax. The director of the ED has a two year fixed tenure, but in the case of Mishra, he was given a one-year extension from November 2020.  This makes him obliged to carry out, whatever the wishes of the bosses he works under. The Kerala experience shows the necessity to have a legal charter for the ED which makes it function with due process and accountable for its actions.

In Kerala, the first round of smuggling and corruption allegations against the LDF government, raised in concert by the BJP, Congress and the central agencies, were decisively rejected by the people in the local body elections; the LDF won a resounding victory. Now again, in the assembly elections, the people of Kerala will give this unholy trinity a stinging rebuff. 

(March 10, 2021)