Kerala: Importance of being Mathew Kuzhalnadan — and repercussions of targeting CPI(M)’s ‘first family’

Counter-charges fail to dispirit the Muvattupuzha MLA, who initially took up a lone crusade and is winning admirers across the state.

ByK A Shaji

Published Aug 22, 2023 | 5:16 PM Updated Aug 22, 2023 | 6:33 PM

MLA Mathew Kuzhalnadan. (mathewkuzhalnadanofficial/Facebook)

The ruling CPI(M) in Kerala has an uphill task of bringing first-time MLA Mathew Kuzhalnadan to his knees.

Congress leader Kuzhalnadan, representing the Moovattupuzha Assembly constituency in the state Assembly, has been rapidly firing corruption charges at the CPI(M), specifically targeting Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his immediate kin.

Speaking on the Kerala Government Land Assignment (Amendment) Bill in the Assembly two weeks ago, Kuzhalnadan commented that the amended Bill would not end corrupt practices in Kerala as influential people in the state have started amassing illegal money in different and unique ways.

Though he was yet to mention chief minister’s daughter Veena T and the Ernakulam-based Cochin Minerals and Rutile Limited (CMRL) — the firm that had allegedly made illegal payments to her Bengaluru-based IT solutions provider —  the CPI(M) members disrupted his speech, seeking to intimidate him.

Speaker AN Shamseer deleted his remarks on high-level corruption, claiming they had nothing to do with the Land Assignment Bill.

Thorn in CPI(M)’s flesh

The CPI(M) soon started targeting Kuzhalnadan at all possible levels. It accused him of running an illegal resort in Idukki.

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan. (Supplied)

It was not the first time that Kuzhalnadan has oame under CPI(M) attack. The party mouthpiece, Desabhimani, had in 2022 accused him of carting away loose soil over the permissible limit. This was soon after the MLA alleged that global consultancy firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), had recommended the gold smuggling case accused, Swapna Suresh, to the newly established Space Park of the IT Department.

The PwC honchos were considered close to the chief minister’s daughter. In March, the MLA linked Vijayan to the Wadakkanchery LIFE Mission scandal and fired uncomfortable questions at the chief minister. Vijayan retorted, even suggesting that Kuzhalnadan was a liar.

Vijayan nor Veena have been maintaining a stoic silence even a fortnight after Kuzhalnadan had fired the fresh salvo at the CPI(M)’s de facto “first family”.

Related: Meet Kuzhalnadan, Kerala MLA who has got under the CM’s skin

Gawking charges?

The Congress party-led Opposition UDF staged a walkout after the Speaker expunged Kuzhalnadan’s remarks from Assembly records. Outside the House, they repeated the charges of corruption and nepotism that have put Vijayan’s family under a cloud.

A lawyer, Kuzhalnadan quoted from the Income Tax Interim Settlement Board (ITISB) record that Bengaluru-based Exalogic Solutions Private Limited and its managing director Veena had accepted ₹1.72 crore from CMRL for “services not rendered”.

The now-defunct Exalogic was supposed to provide IT support to CMRL. The CMRL termed the payment “deductible expense” but added it had received no service from Exalogic. Kuzhalnadan raised the issue before the media following an expose by the Malayala Manorama daily.

The daily, quoting the ITISB documents, reported that Veena and Exalogic had received monthly payments of ₹5 lakh and ₹3 lakh, respectively, for three years from 2017.

It was also reported that Exalogic had signed an agreement with CMRL to provide marketing consultancy and software services. However, an Income-Tax investigation confirmed that no such services were rendered despite receiving monthly payments.

Related: Opposition seeks probe over I-T charge against Kerala CM daughter 

Media under fire

Kuzhalnadan also read out a sentence from the ITISB findings that said Exalogic was owned by “the daughter of a prominent politician holding the reins of the government in Kerala”.

A television interview by P A Muhammed Riyas indicates how family interests intrude into CPI(M) politics in the state.

PA Muhammed Riyas and Veena Vijayan on their wedding day in 2020. (Supplied)

“When an appellate body has found that the daughter of a prominent politician runs such a company, how does raising it in the Assembly become against the rules,” he asked. “The people of Kerala should know of the shocking finding,” the MLA added a fortnight ago.

Even as the chief minister and his daughter remained silent, Veena’s husband and Minister for Public Works and Tourism PA Muhammed Riyas preferred to shoot the messenger. He accused the Malayalam language media of indulging in sensationalism that created the present controversy.

Riyas further said the controversy was the creation of someone who needed “psychological treatment”. However, he did not explicitly comment on the allegations made against his wife. The minister skirted questions, saying the CPI(M) state secretary would comment on them.

Incidentally, Riyas had earlier come down heavily on the “image conscious” ministers in the Cabinet for not standing up for the chief minister.

Related: Why Kerala Minister Riyas is attacking ‘image conscious’ colleagues

Lone crusader

Meanwhile, UDF insiders told South First that Kuzhalnadan took on Vijayan and his family despite strict warnings from the Opposition front not to blow the issue “out of proportion”.

They had a reason.

Dr Mathew Kuzhalnadan, Congress MLA from Kerala

Congress MLA Mathew Kuzhalnadan (Photo: MLA’s website)

The list of CMRL’s direct beneficiaries reportedly included Congress leaders like the late Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala, and IUML’s PK Kunhalikutty, besides Vijayan. The Opposition leaders also pulled the plug on the plan of a few young MLAs to move an adjournment motion on the matter in the Assembly.

Kuzhalnadan raised the issue while discussing the Land Assignment Bill as a last resort.

“I have every right to raise the issue in the Assembly as it is the finding of a statutory body. It is not a political allegation,” he told South First.

Speaking to reporters in Kottayam last week, Kuzhalnadan challenged Veena to reveal Exalogic’s tax returns from 2016. He also sought to know if Exalogic had paid the Integrated Goods and Service Tax (IGST). He expressed the firm belief that the company had not paid the IGST.

The CPI(M)’s counterattack has been stronger. The party’s district secretary in Ernakulam, CN Mohanan, alleged that Kuzhalnadan was involved in black money and other shady financial dealings. He also said the MLA had amassed assets worth ₹30 crore by citing dubious income sources.

Mohanan further accused the MLA of violating the Land Assignment Act in Idukki, where he has a resort, and evaded tax by undervaluing the property.

“The land could not be used for commercial purposes. As a practising advocate, Kuzhalnadan has also violated the Advocates Act. His engagement in the resort business violates the Act,” Mohanan told South First.

The Bar Council of Kerala (BCK) has sought an explanation within 14 days from Kuzhalnadan on the charge that he had violated the Bar Council of India (BCI) rules by running a business despite being enrolled as an advocate. The MLA said he would soon reply to BCK’s show-cause notice.

Related: CPI(M) dig at UDF over silence in Assembly on CM daughter’s I-T row

Countering the retaliation

Responding to Mohanan’s allegations, Kuzhalnadan revealed his income from 2014 to 2021 and declared he was ready to face any investigation.

“I am ready to reveal any details about my assets. The government can assign any agency to investigate me. I am also ready for a debate with the CPI(M) on the issue,” he dared the ruling party.

“But why are the CPI(M), Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his daughter Veena silent on the issues I have raised? I have answered all questions that were raised. But, why are Vijayan, his daughter Veena and her husband Muhammed Riyas quiet,” he asked.

With the allegations against Veena becoming a hot topic of public debate, the Congress and the UDF were forced to support Kuzhalnadan. Opposition Leader VD Satheesan said Kuzhalnadan’s land was being surveyed only because he had raised allegations against Vijayan and his family.

“Last month, the vigilance registered a case against me after I raised corruption charges against K-FON (state-run infrastructure for internet connectivity). Those who survey Kuzhalnadan’s property should examine the CPI(M) office at Santhanpara in Idukki. The building is being constructed flouting all norms, including the Land Assignment Act,” the Congress leader said.

“The Revenue Department had served a stop memo twice but the CPI(M) continued with the illegal construction. Will the government demolish that illegal construction,”  he sought to know.

Related: How ‘donations’ to politicians, kin are ruining environment and life

Smell of victory

Meanwhile, the state Finance Department was forced to act on Kuzhalnadan’s complaint that Veena and Exalogic had failed in paying the IGST) on the ₹1.72 crore received from CMRL.

“I will retract the allegations and apologize if proven that Veena had paid the IGST. Veena should release the documents related to the IGST payment to prove her innocence,”  he said.

“The CPI(M) has admitted that Veena’s firm had received  ₹1.72 crore as part of a transparent business deal between the two companies. Since the CMRL is in Kerala and Exalogic in Karnataka, an IGST of 18 percent should be paid for the deal,” he explained.

“I challenge the CPI(M) leaders to release documents to prove that the Kerala government had received ₹30.96 lakh as IGST from Exalogic,” Kuzhalnadan said.

Over the past two days, Kuzhalnadan stepped up his offensive against Veena, saying that she had received more money from the CMRL than the ₹1.72 crore mentioned in the ITISB records. He said CMRL had transferred ₹42.48 lakh to Exalogic between 2017 and 2019.

“Exalogic paid ₹6.48 lakh as GST for this payment. This apart, it had also received ₹39 lakh from a company owned by the wife of the CMRL managing director. These two payments are over and above the amount mentioned by the ITISB,” he alleged.

Puthuppally bypoll: 7 candidates, including 3 independents, left in the fray

Star in Puthuppally

Meanwhile, the allegations and counter-allegations have become the major electoral issues confronting both rival fronts in campaign for the 5 September by-election in Puthuppally. Kuzhalnadan has emerged as the UDF’s star campaigner and his public meetings were attracting huge crowds.

Congress workers have been upbeat over Kuzhalnadan managing to silence Vijayan and his family. Addressing campaign meetings, Kuzhalnadan has been reiterating that the charges against him were mere counter-propaganda and promised to continue his campaign against Vijayan.

After an initial delay, KPCC president K Sudhakaran, too, came out in support of Kuzhalnadan, saying those hoping to silence him with false allegations were living in a fool’s paradise.

“Kuzhalnadan’s style is different from Pinarayi’s. You can see how he has been dealing with the attack against him with the courage and honour of a public servant,” Sudhakaran said.

“Kuzhalnadan said anybody could inspect his property and other documents. He has shown the courage of an honest politician. Is there any other politician who has faced allegations with so much courage,” he asked.

The CPI(M) has now deputed a battery of defenders led by former finance minister Dr TM Thomas Isaac and party Central Committee member AK Balan.

Their defence so far has been weak, even as Kuzhalnadan remained unperturbed and confident, saying more details against Veena would be released in the coming days.

Also read: Why does CPI(M) regularly target news channel Asianet in Kerala?