At a time when the state capital of Kerala is into a triple lockdown over the super-spread of COVID-19 in certain areas, the government and the opposition are in a battle for the ballots scheduled for next year. History appears to repeat itself as a similar situation had developed on the eve of the previous election four years ago. At the centre of it, like last time, is a vivacious woman, who is supposed to have trapped several politicians and bureaucrats to gain access and influence for a foreign Consulate General. If it was solar energy last time, this year it is solid gold that is at stake. In both cases, the Office of Chief Minister is in the dock. There cannot be a more explosive cocktail than a scandal with 30 kg of smuggled gold, a woman and a foreign agent mixed together to beat the pandemic blues.
The story began on July 5, days after a reputed TV channel gave the ruling coalition the upper hand in an election survey, giving a rude shock to the opposition which was waiting in the wings to take over next year. A bag, marked 'diplomatic', addressed to the Attaché of the UAE Consulate General arrived at the Thiruvananthapuram airport. The customs authorities smelt a rat and asked the addressee to pick up the bag. A former employee of the Consulate turned up with a forged identity card, as he had done many times before and demanded delivery of the 'diplomatic bag' under the Vienna Convention which prohibits the opening of such bags even if there is suspicion. But the Customs insisted on opening it in the presence of the addressee, who stormed in to claim the bag. But when the bag was opened, what tumbled out was not dates and cheese, but 30 kg solid gold. The Attaché was let off but the former employee was arrested and the gold was seized.
The first name that Sarith, the arrested man blurred out was that of his accomplice, Swapna Suresh, who was the best known face of the Consulate. Even after she lost her position in the Consulate she drove a magnificent car with blue number plates. She had moved to the IT Department of the Government of Kerala without even clearing the tenth standard, obviously because of high-level connections traceable to the chief minister's trusted IAS lieutenant. Swapna vanished into thin air as all dreams do and all hell broke loose in God's Own Country.
In the ensuing cacophony of charges and counter-charges, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's daily press conference on the pandemic turned into a battlefield on the gold smuggling scandal. The chief minister quickly got rid of his principal secretary M Sivasankar, who was reportedly a regular visitor to Swapna's home and distanced himself from the scandal itself. But the unified opposition of Congress and its allies and the BJP continued their relentless battles as if in vengeance for what the Left parties had done to the Congress chief minister, who was accused of being involved with another femme fatale.
Unaccustomed as the Kerala media are to diplomats, diplomatic immunity and diplomatic bags, there was confusion galore about all these issues. The most discussed issue in the hyperactive Kerala media today is the "diplomatic bag" as it is alleged that gold was being smuggled into Thiruvananthapuram through the diplomatic bags of the UAE Consulate which was set up recently.
The UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram has a larger-than-life image in the city as it is the first resident mission of a major country. The glitterati of Kerala spares no effort to get close to the Consulate and the Consul General and his officers are much sought after by official and social circles. Getting employment in the Consulate is a status symbol and a mark of political and a bureaucratic influence. The Consulate generally keeps a low profile, perhaps to avoid pressure on consular services.
A statement issued by the UAE embassy in New Delhi said the mission in Thiruvananthapuram and its diplomatic staff had no role in the matter. The embassy "condemns the attempted misuse of diplomatic channels by an individual engaged in smuggling activity" and "firmly rejected such acts".
"Initial inquiries conducted by the mission revealed that a former locally hired employee of the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram was responsible for this act. The employee in question was fired for misconduct long preceding this incident," the statement said. "At this time, it appears that this individual exploited his knowledge of the mission's channels to engage in criminal activity," it said. "The UAE looks forward to fully cooperating with Indian customs authorities to thoroughly investigate this matter and urges stringent legal action against those involved," the statement concluded.
The key question is whether the bag containing the gold had the required authorisation as stipulated by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Article 35 provides that freedom of communication between the consul and their home country must be preserved, that "consular bags" shall be neither opened nor detained"; and that a consular courier must never be detained. The Convention provides that "consular officers shall be free to communicate with nationals of the sending State and to have access to them. The packages constituting the diplomatic bag must bear visible external marks of their character and may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use. " If this condition is met, authorities in the receiving state cannot open a diplomatic bag even if they have suspicions about its contents. The bag can only be opened in the presence of officials or diplomats of the sending state. This was done in the case of the bag after receiving the required permission, officials said.
The matter of involvement of the UAE government will be resolved easily if the seized bag was not an authorised diplomatic bag. Given the cordial relations between the UAE and India, everyone will heave a sigh of relief if this happens. The issue of the case against the addressee of the bag will have to be dealt with under the provisions in the Convention regarding his immunity. The Consular immunity is a lesser form of diplomatic immunity. Consular officers and consular employees have "functional immunity" (i.e., immunity from the jurisdiction of the receiving state "in respect of acts performed in exercise of consular function"), but do not enjoy the broader "personal immunity" accorded to diplomats.
The diplomatic aspects of the episode have been eclipsed by the effort of the unified opposition to demand the resignation of the chief minister to resign. Demonstrations were held demanding the resignation of the chief minister by violating the lockdown regulations. The fight against the pandemic has become secondary to the battle for the survival of the government.
(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora.)