Nothing short of a crime thriller has gripped Kerala politics in the last few weeks much to the embarrassment of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which faced a humiliating wipeout in the recent assembly elections, failing to win a single seat.

A day after Kerala voted on April 6, a man named Shamjeer Shamsudeen, a car driver, filed a complaint of robbery at the Kodakara police station in Thrissur. Accompanying him was his employer AK Dharmarajan, a local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member.

The complaint had alleged that a gang had robbed him on the highway on April 3, about 500 metres from the police station, and had fled with Rs 25 lakh. This money was claimed to have been given to Shamsudeen by Dharmarajan and was being taken from Thrissur to Kochi.

While the police initially began the investigation thinking this was another case of a simple loot on the highway, it quickly snowballed into a political crisis for the BJP. Once the probe began and the police started raiding houses and arresting suspects, it emerged that the amount in the vehicle was Rs 3.5 crore and not Rs 25 lakh as originally claimed in the complaint.

Allegations of electoral fraud emerged quickly. The ruling Left Democratic Front and the Opposition Congress have latched on to this event and have accused the BJP of trying to move unaccounted money to purchase votes during the elections. Twenty people have so far been arrested, with Kerala BJP chief K Surendran’s name dragged into the controversy.

Worse, the robbery has caused a rift within the BJP as many suspect that the heist was an inside job by party men who knew about the money transit.

The robbery and aftermath

On April 3, when the Shamsudeen was driving the car on the highway near Kodakara police station, a gang of men in two different vehicles staged a fake accident, stopped the car and decamped with the cash, The Times of India reported.

While initially the complaint registered with the police said Rs 25 lakh was looted, once a special investigation team of the Kerala police began arresting men connected to the case, over Rs 1 crore was recovered. Later, media reports based on anonymous police officials said Dharmarajan had admitted that the total amount looted was Rs 3.5 crore.

Dharmarajan also allegedly told the police that it was Sunil Naik, a BJP Yuva Morcha leader, who had given him the money. According to media reports, Naik in turn told the police that the money was gathered from three different sources and handed over to Dharmarajan, who was a business associate.

According to The News Minute, on further probe, Dharmarajan allegedly said that the money was supposed to be handed over to BJP Alappuzha district treasurer KG Kartha. He had also allegedly stated that the BJP state organisation secretary M Ganeshan and state office secretary G Gireesh were aware of the transportation. Both Ganesan and Gireesh, meanwhile, claimed ignorance of the money to the police and said they were in touch with Dharmarajan in relation to election propaganda material.

It was also reported that a man named Deepak, who was one of the alleged robbers and later arrested by the police, had gone to the Thrissur BJP office after the police had recovered some of the money in the raids. While the BJP admitted that this was indeed true, the reason cited for Deepak’s visit was that the party was conducting its own probe into the matter, The News Minute reported.

Curiously, while Dharamarajan’s alleged statements to the police were being reported by the media, he moved a petition before a local court recently claiming that the money recovered by the police belonged to Naik and him and it was being transported to Ernakulam for business purposes.

In the meantime, among those questioned by the police include an aide of BJP Kerala chief K Surendran and party leaders such as L Padmakumar, the BJP’s organising secretary for the Ernakulam zone and Thrissur sistrict chief KK Aneesh Kumar.

The ruling Left Democratic Front and the Congress have alleged that what was looted was black money that was transported by the BJP for election purposes, a charge that the party has stoutly denied.

Other controversies

Even as the BJP was fighting the damage to its image caused by the robbery event, other controversies emerged, putting under spotlight its state chief Surendran.

Earlier this month, two leaders of the Janathipathya Rashtriya Party alleged that the BJP paid Rs 10 lakh to its suspended leader CK Janu to bring the party into the National Democratic Alliance fold ahead of the Assembly elections.

On June 2, an audio clip that was supposedly a telephonic conversation between Surendran and Janathipathya Rashtriya Party’s Kerala unit treasurer Praseetha Azheekode emerged in public domain. In the clip, Azheekode is purportedly heard asking Surendran for Rs 10 lakh and the Sultan Bathery constituency for the party’s return to the NDA.

“As per our telephonic conversation, Rs 10 lakh was handed over to Janu on March 6 in Thiruvananthapuram on the sidelines of Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s election campaigning there,” Azheekode told The New Indian Express. Earlier, Janu had asked for Rs 10 crore, five seats and a central ministership for coming back to the NDA fold, alleged Azheekode.

In the meantime, the Kerala police on June 7 filed a first information report against Surendran for allegedly bribing a Bahujan Samaj Party candidate in the run up to the Assembly polls to make him withdraw his nomination.

K Sundara, the BSP candidate, had recently alleged that the BJP leader initially threatened and later gave him Rs 2.5 lakh as bribe to withdraw from the contest in Manjeswaram Assembly constituency in the recent polls. Surendran had contested from the same constituency and went on to lose the seat by a narrow margin even after Sundara withdrew. In 2016, Sundara had polled 467 votes in the constituency while Surendran lost the seat by 89 votes. Some in the BJP believed that the similarity in their names and the resultant confusion among voters may have cost Surendran the constituency in 2016.

Here too, the name of Sunil Naik emerged, with media reports citing Sundara’s claim that it was Naik who handed over the cash and a smart phone to him.

Leadership unhappy

While the BJP in Kerala has dismissed the controversies as a conspiracy of the Left Democratic Front government against the party, the central leadership seems to have taken the matters seriously.

Earlier this week, several media reports said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah had sought a report from an independent three-member panel that has been formed to probe the controversies in the Kerala BJP.

The panel consists of BJP leaders CV Ananda Bose, Jacob Thomas and E Sreedharan. Each of them was asked to submit reports independently. On Thursday, Mathrubhumi reported that Bose has recommended for a change in state leadership.

The internal investigation comes in the backdrop of heavy infighting within the Kerala BJP. Those opposing Surendran include former state BJP presidents K Krishnadas and CK Padhmanabhan and senior leader Shoba Surendran. The speculation over a possible change in leadership heightened on Wednesday when Surendran left for New Delhi to meet the central leadership.