Kerala BJP safe in Kodakara chargesheet despite host of black-money allegations

A billboard outside the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election-campaign office at the Nemom constituency in Kerala’s Thiruvanathapuram district, on 3 April 2021. The billboard features the Kerala BJP president, K Surendran (extreme right), who has been at the centre of numerous black-money allegations pertaining to the state assembly elections held in April this year.  RS Iyer / AP Photo
12 August, 2021

After four months of black-money allegations dogging the Bharatiya Janata Party in Kerala, a case involving Rs 3.5 crore in hawala money and senior state BJP leaders reached an anti-climax on 24 July, with the state police not accusing any party leaders in its chargesheet. The massive sum of money was stolen from a car on the Kodakara highway, in Thrissur district, on 3 April, three days before the state went to polls for the assembly elections. The state police later said that the money was to be distributed to the BJP’s Alappuzha district unit, with the complicity of the state party president, K Surendran, and the state organising secretary, M Ganesh. In the following months, opposition leaders also accused BJP politicians of offering large sums of money ahead of the elections. The BJP ultimately failed to win a single seat in the elections, but has so far escaped any culpability on the numerous black-money allegations.

The Kodakara robbery case was the first in a slew of black-money allegations against the BJP’s Kerala unit. On 2 June, Praseeda Azhikode, the state treasurer of the Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha, said that Surendran had paid Rs 10 lakh to the JRS president and tribal leader, CK Janu, who was in talks with the Left Democratic Front around the time, to support the BJP-led National Democatic Alliance in the polls. Azhikode’s allegations came in the wake of a leaked audio clip, purportedly between her and Surendran, in which she informed him that Janu had asked for Rs 10 lakh. Three days later, K Sundara, a Bahujan Samaj Party leader, said that the Kerala BJP had offered him Rs 15 lakh to withdraw his nomination from the Manjeshwar constituency, where he was contesting against Surendran. Sundara announced that he withdrew his nomination, but the BJP only paid him Rs 2.5 lakh and a phone worth Rs 15,000. Surendran ultimately lost the election.

The various allegations suggested serious attempts to compromise the electoral process ahead of the recently concluded assembly polls. The Kerala Police, however, appear to have found little evidence in the Kodakara case, with the chargesheet citing a lack of cooperation from the accused and Rs 1.47 crore yet to be recovered. While the chargesheet categorically states that the money was illegally sourced from Bengaluru through a hawala agent for meeting the BJP’s expenses for the Kerala assembly elections, it does not name a single BJP leader among the accused. Even Dharmarajan, who is described in the chargesheet as the hawala agent responsible for delivering the money to various BJP offices during the investigation, is only named as a witness in the chargesheet. Yet, the case and the allegations raised by Sundara and Azhikode, all in the wake of an electoral rout, have led to disquiet among the state BJP unit.

The Kodakara highway robbery took place three days before the state elections, held on 6 April, but was reported to the police one day after. On 7 April, Shamjeer Shamsudeen, the driver of the vehicle, filed a police complaint at the Kodakara police station that a gang of nine men had waylaid his car on the highway and robbed him of Rs 25 lakh. But according to the chargesheet, during the course of the investigation, the police discovered that the amount was actually Rs 3.5 crore, given to him by a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh named Dharmarajan, and involved several state BJP leaders.

On 15 June, VK Raju, the additional commissioner of police in Thrissur, submitted a status report to the Irinjalakuda district court about the investigation. “It is clear that 3.5 crore rupees was procured from Karnataka through a hawala operation on the directions of BJP’s state office secretary Gireeshan Nair and organising secretary Ganesh and that the robbery took place on 03/4/2021 on the way to hand over this money to BJP’s treasurer Gopalakrishna Kartha in Alappuzha district,” the report stated. The police noted that Dharmarajan’s role was to deliver the hawala money to whoever demanded it, and that he received a commission for the same. The status report further noted that during his interrogation on 21 and 27 May, Dharmarajan named Nair and Ganesh as the individuals behind the order to transport the Rs 3.5 crore to the party treasurer.

“It is revealed that along with Dharmarajan, Shamjeer, Rashid, Dharmarajan’s brother visited several parts of Kerala between 5 March 2021 to 5 April 2021 to hand over unauthorised money to BJP office-bearers for the Kerala assembly elections,” the status report said. It further noted that Dharmarajan told the police that the complaint had been delayed because he feared that he would have to declare the source of the money during an election season. The report added, “On the basis of this statement, the former investigating official had issued a notice asking for the revelation of the source of the money. Till date, no legal documents have been produced.” At the time the police submitted the report, it had arrested 20 individuals in the case, interrogated several BJP leaders—including Surendran, Nair and Ganesh—and recovered Rs 1.40 crore of the stolen money, in addition to gold jewellery worth over Rs 9 lakh.

On 2 May, the election results revealed a clear victory for the Left Democratic Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and a humiliating defeat for the BJP, which failed to secure even one seat, losing even the single constituency it won in 2016. Three days later, the crime branch of the Thrissur Police set up a special-investigation team to take over the case. Over the next two months, the SIT interrogated several state BJP leaders during the course of its investigation, including Surendran, his son Harikrishnan, Ganesh, and the Thrissur BJP president, KK Aneesh Kumar.

To the BJP’s relief, the interrogations appeared to have raised a lot of smoke without any fire. The SIT submitted its chargesheet before the Irinjalakuda district court on 24 July, and no BJP leaders were listed among the accused individuals. The chargesheet states that Surendran was aware of the plan to transport the money from Karnataka for the BJP’s election campaign expenses in Kerala. It further notes that Dharmarajan was acting on instructions from Ganesh and Nair, and that he was to deliver the money to the Alappuzha district treasurer, Gopalakrishna Kartha. “It has been found that the Rs 3.5 crore stolen in this case was brought illegally from Bangalore for BJP’s election campaign in relation to the 2021 Kerala assembly elections,” the chargesheet noted. Inexplicably, none of these individuals figure among the accused—instead, they are all listed as witnesses.

The chargesheet accused 22 individuals of causing an accident on the Kodakara highway and stealing the money from a secret compartment in the car. One Rashid, who is said to have previously transferred funds to BJP district offices, is accused of leaking the information about the money being transported to Bashir, who was among those who executed the robbery. According to the police, Shamjeer immediately informed Dharmarajan about what happened, who in turn, passed on the news to Surendran, Nair, Kartha and Sujay Senan, the party’s district treasurer in Thrissur. Senan and the party’s regional general secretary, Kashinathan, also personally visited the spot soon after the incident, the chargesheet stated.

The investigation also appears to have uncovered information beyond the Kodakara robbery. The chargesheet stated that Dharmarajan and his associates had transported funds amounting to Rs 40 crores to various BJP offices across Kerala ahead of the elections this year. A Akbar, the director general of police of Kerala’s Thrissur range, who is the investigating officer leading the Kodakara SIT, did not answer calls or respond to messages asking why the BJP members were named as witnesses and not accused.

I also attempted to contact Dharmarajan and the several BJP leaders involved in the case— including Surendran, Ganesh, Nair, Kartha and Senan—about the black-money allegations. Ganesh, Dharmarajan and Kartha responded that they would not speak to me about the case because the investigations were still ongoing, while the others did not respond to my calls or messages. The chargesheet noted that copies of it would be sent to the Enforcement Directorate, the income tax department and the state election commission for further investigation. It added that the Kodakara police would continue its own investigation to recover the rest of the Rs 3.5 crore.

A case of this nature, involving crores of rupees, is usually taken over by the Enforcement Directorate, to investigate the possibility of money laundering. In April, as soon as the Kodakara case came to light, Saleem Madavoor, the national president of a regional party, Loktantrik Yuva Janata Dal, wrote to the agency demanding a probe in the case. But Madavoor said he received no response. He then moved the Kerala High Court seeking an ED probe. The court issued notice to the ED to file a reply to the petition, but the central agency appeared to be dragging its feet on the case, having twice sought additional time to file a reply.

“Investigating agencies like ED intervened directly in smaller money laundering cases before elections in Kerala,” PK Navas, the state president of the Muslim Students’ Federation, told me. “But neither ED nor any other national investigation agency or even the Kerala crime branch has come forward to register a suo moto case in a deal of huge proportions. The political undercurrents of this case is the main reason.”

In addition to the Kodakara case, Navas has also sought an investigation against Surendran and Janu, the JRS president, over the allegations raised by Azhikode. On 2 June, the phone recording of a call purportedly between Azhikode and Surendran was leaked to the public, about the payment of Rs 10 lakh to Janu to ally with the NDA for the assembly elections. The purported call suggested that Janu had demanded Rs 10 crore from Surendran, and ultimately settled for one hundredth the amount. Shortly after the recording was leaked, Azhikode corroborated the account and told the media that Surendran had handed Janu the money on 7 March.

Janu is one of Kerala’s foremost tribal leaders, who formed the JRS in 2016 and joined the NDA soon after. Two years later, she announced that the JRS was quitting the alliance because the BJP had not fulfilled any of the promises made to her party. In a February 2019 interview, Janu had told me, “Now we have nothing to do with the NDA. There is no going back.” On 8 March this year, Janu announced that the JRS would be allying with the BJP once again for the 2021 assembly elections. “As they were ready to meet our demands, we decided to join the front,” Janu told the media. She contested the elections as a BJP candidate from the Sultan Bathery constituency in Wayanad district, and came a distant third in the polls.

In end June, Azhikode released another recording, another conversation purportedly between her and Surendran, in which the latter asks the JRS treasurer why Janu is not answering the calls by Ganesh, the BJP’s state organising secretary. In the recording, according to Azhikode, Surendran tells her that Ganesh is the one who handles all the money, and that Janu needs to speak with him. In the wake of these audio recordings, the JRS has suspended Janu for six months.

Janu did not respond to calls or messages. But in previous interactions with the media, she has dismissed the allegations raised by Azhikode, and said that she will proceed with legal action.

A day after the first recording became public, Navas wrote a complaint to Loknath Behera, the former director general of the Kerala Police. “My first complaint against Surendran was filed on 3 June before the DGP demanding an investigation into Praseeda Azhikode’s revelations,” Navas told me. “I did not receive any response. When I called the DGP office, they said that the case is handed over to the Wayanad SP. When I called the Wayanad SP, he said that the case is with the DySP in Mananthavady. The DySP told me that he does not have the file.”

Navas told me that he then sent a reminder letter to the DGP’s office, followed by another phone call, only to receive the same response directing him to the superintendent of police in Wayanad. The police finally registered a first-information report only after Navas moved a district court seeking directions for the same. The police have reportedly questioned Ganesh and Saji Shankar, the BJP district president, in relation to Navas’s complaint. R Manoj Kumar, the deputy superintendent of the Wayanad Police crime branch, told me that the police had visited the Manimala Homestay in Wayanad, where Surendran is accused of having paid Janu Rs 10 lakh, and collected CCTV footage from there. But Kumar declined to provide any details about the evidence gathered or the findings of the investigation, citing that it was still ongoing.

Close on the heels of Azhikode’s accusations against Surendran, K Sundara, who was to contest as a BSP candidate from Manjeshwar, publicly stated that he withdrew his nomination after Surendran reached out to him with an offer of Rs 15 lakh. Sundara made the allegations to the media in early June, in which he announced that the BJP leader Sunil Naik, who is known to be a close aide of Surendran, had ultimately paid him a sum of Rs 2.5 lakh and given a smartphone worth Rs 15,000. Naik is a former state treasurer of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing.

In end March, Sundara had announced his withdrawal from the seat and support for the BJP, and Naik had even posted a photo with other BJP leaders from outside Sundara’s house. But when he made the allegations against Surendran, Sundara claimed that his withdrawal and support for the BJP were made under pressure. VV Ramesh, the LDF candidate from Manjeshwar, filed a complaint in the case following Sundara’s allegations. The case is currently being investigated by the Kasaragod Police crime branch.

Satish Kumar, the deputy superintendent of the Kasargod Police, told me that the police had questioned Naik and BJP’s Manjeshwar unit president, Manikanta Rai, in relation to the case. When I asked if the police would place them under arrest, he responded, “We will.” He added, “We have not decided the relevant sections.” Kumar also said that the police had “recovered about 75 percent” of the money Sundara received.

Naik denied the allegations. He dismissed Sundara’s claim that Naik had paid him Rs 25 lakh with a laugh and said, “I haven't given him a single paisa. I only posed for a photo. That's all.” When asked why he had visited Sundara’s house at all, Naik responded, “I am just an ordinary member of the BJP.” He continued, “I just accompanied the BJP leaders when they invited me. Ask the leaders. What is the use of asking someone like me without any responsibility? In any case, the investigation is going on. We will see.”

In the 2016 assembly elections, Sundara contested from the Manjeshwar seat in Kerala’s Kasargod district. He received 467 votes as an independent candidate while Surendran lost to PB Abdul Razak, from the Indian Union Muslim League, by a thin margin of 89 votes. This year, Surendran stood from two seats, Manjeshwar and Konni, and lost both. In Manjeshwar, despite Sundara’s withdrawal, Surendran lost to the IUML candidate, AKM Ashraf, by over 1,000 votes.

According to Ashraf, the RSS also played a significant role in the BJP’s campaign in Manjeshwar. “This area is under the control of Dakshina Kannada district committee” of the RSS, he told me. “A group of ten RSS members started working here three months ago, distributing money in colonies along with kits of food and other essentials. Karnataka BJP leaders including Sanganna [Amarappa] and Mangalore in-charge Kota Srinivasa Poojary, besides other MLAs, had spent time in Manjeshwar.” Neither Sanganna nor Poojary responded to queries sent to them.

Ashraf also raised concerns of helicopter rides to Manjeshwar by Surendran during his campaign, and he was not alone in doing so. On 28 May, the All Kerala Anti-Corruption and Human Rights Protection Council, a civil-society organisation, filed a complaint with the chief minister demanding an enquiry into Surendran’s helicopter rides. Isaac Varghese, the president of the organisation, alleged in the complaint that the helicopter was used by the BJP to transport unauthorised funds as travel by road would involve police checks.

The expense on the helicopter rides was also reportedly criticised in a state BJP meeting to assess the party’s electoral defeat. In public, however, MT Ramesh, a state general secretary, defended Surendran, claiming that renting a helicopter is more cost-effective than a car ride between Kasargod and Thiruvananthapuram, which is close to Konni, the other constituency where Surendran was a candidate.

Some BJP leaders have also expressed their displeasure with Surendran’s double candidature. The senior party leader CK Padmanabhan had publicly spoken about it after the polls. “I am not sure what led to the last-minute decision to contest from two places. It was an experiment and we must accept that it was a failed experiment,” Padmanabhan told Asianet News. “There were not enough discussions at all levels on this matter. The national high command had directed that a candidate should focus on just one constituency.”

The disquiet in the wake of the black-money allegations had also led to the involvement of the central leadership. Surendran reportedly travelled to Delhi on 9 June to meet the BJP’s national leaders. Two days earlier, the Indian Express had reported that an independent panel of three bureaucrats, constituted by the prime minister Narendra Modi and the union home minister Amit Shah, had submitted a report on the distribution of electoral funds in the party’s state unit. That day in the state assembly, on 7 June, the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan accused the BJP of channelling unaccounted money during the 2021 election campaign.  

Three days after Surendran’s visit to Delhi, on 12 June, Azhikode released another phone recording which further indicated towards a dissonance among the top leadership of the BJP in Kerala. According to her, on 7 March, Surendran called her to request that PK Krishnadas, a former state president of BJP in Kerala, should not find out about the money being handed over to Janu. There is a  rivalry between the Nair and Ezhava caste lobbies in the BJP. The Nair faction, led by Krishnadas, is known to be opposed to the leadership under Surendran, who is from the Ezhava community. In the aftermath of the black-money allegations, the Krishnadas faction reportedly informed the party’s national leaders that it would not protect Surendran. They demanded the central leadership’s urgent intervention in the state, alleging that Surendran was destroying the Kerala BJP.

Amid the focus on Surendran, the role of the organising secretary Ganesh appears to have gone largely unscrutinised. Yet, as the organising secretary, Ganesh plays an important role in coordinating between the BJP and the RSS. In one of the purported phone calls between Surendran and Azhikode, the BJP state president told her to speak to Ganesh about any fund requirements. Referring to Ganesh, he told Azhikode during the call, “I think you did not understand who he is,” the man in the audio clip said. “He is the party’s organising secretary. I am a candidate here. I cannot handle such things.”

In 2016, when Amit Shah appointed Ganesh as the party’s organising secretary, at the age of 43, he had already served as an RSS pracharak—full-time worker—in various districts in Kerala for 20 years. He had also served as the RSS’s prantha prachar pramukh—head of publicity—for six years. As organising secretary, Ganesh has had absolute control over the party finances and through him, the Sangh effectively controlled the allocation of funds.

Ganesh declined to comment on the story, and almost all the other leaders accused of involvement in the black-money allegations did not respond to calls or messages. “Both CPM and BJP have attempted to put a price on democracy,” Navas told me. “But at this point, we should talk about the BJP because of its huge financial capital and the involvement of black money.”