A gold smuggling case has cast a shadow over the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala, which has basked in the spotlight recently for its remarkable management of the COVID-19 epidemic. It has cast unflattering light on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s office, after at least one person arrested in the smuggling case was found to have close links to the principal secretary to CM, M Sivasankar. The government has rightly handed over the case to central agencies, and suspended Sivasankar, pending investigation.
The case initially drew public attention because 30 kg of gold had been smuggled in in diplomatic baggage dispatched to the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. As investigations identified the people who allegedly facilitated the smuggling, it revealed a chain that appeared to extend to the UAE consul general’s office at one end and the CM’s principal secretary at the other. While investigations are on to trace the beneficiaries of the contraband, available information points to abuse of authority and nepotism at the highest levels in the government. It appears that rules were bent to favour the key accused in the smuggling racket, Swapna Suresh, in a consultancy job, which allegedly gave her access to higher authorities in government. Photographs and mobile call records suggest that Suresh may have leveraged influence in government to further her own business interests. The alleged involvement of the CM’s principal secretary has unsurprisingly given the case the hue of a political scandal.
The case has also exposed the excessive centralisation of power in the CM’s office and the nature of decision-making that stems from such an arrangement. A unique aspect of the Vijayan government has been the apparent marginalisation of the political machinery in governance in favour of a handful of favoured bureaucrats who are tasked with policy-making and implementation. Ironically, a major factor that helped the state contain COVID-19, or tackle the floods some time ago, has been its much-touted decentralisation in governance, which allows community participation, and of political and government functionaries at the grass roots, in the delivery of public services and goods. The Centre must also seek the cooperation of the UAE, a friend of India, to fully uncover the smuggling racket, and bring all the guilty to book, including the big fish