Will the Money Laundering Probe of CC Thampi Open a Can of Worms?

FOR PEOPLE WHO know him well, Cheruvathur Chekkutty Thampi, popularly known as CC Thampi, is famous for his self-effacing ways and unassuming demeanour. A peer who has known him well from the early 1980s and has seen his rapid and stratospheric rise to a business tycoon in the 1990s says that Thampi, who has interests in real estate, trading, hospitality, luxury, education and even media, treats the king and pauper alike.

“We often say this about many rich people who are pleasing but mostly for effect, but the quality of being nice to everyone irrespective of their social and financial standing comes naturally to Thampi,” this person adds, emphasising that the man who was in judicial custody (he got bail on January 29th) in connection with a money-laundering case linked to the overseas properties of Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, was determined to make money by any possible means from early on.

His was an ascent that could detach you from reality, says an income-tax official based in Kochi who has closely watched Thampi’s cases, including his controversial land deals. “I agree that he is well-mannered and considerate to people irrespective of their background, but his rise was fast and perhaps he was not on his guard. Some of his irregularities can be said to be an outcome of arrogance that comes with proximity to power. He was very well-networked and had friends in India and in the UAE,” he points out. An apocryphal story has it that Thampi was a waiter in a restaurant in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) back in the late 1970s and also did odd jobs before he struck gold.

In what appears to be a huge setback for Thampi who has made money hand-over-fist and rubbed shoulders with powerful people in India and abroad, the ongoing Enforcement Directorate (ED) probe into the purchase of a London-based property (at 12 Bryanston Square) worth over £1.9 million, links him also with fugitive arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari, with whom he is known to have conspired to launder money. The ED had earlier booked Thampi under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act over irregularities in obtaining accreditation from the All India Council for Technical Education in 2009 for an engineering college (named Thejus), which he set up in his hometown Thrissur, Kerala, in 2008. The CBI, which had inquired into it and closed the case against Thampi in 2009, later reopened it in 2017.

“It was this accreditation folly in connection with the engineering college in Pazhanji, Thrissur, which brought him under the radar of investigating agencies. That incident set the tone of the beginning of his fall,” says a Government official who had closely followed the cases against him in Kerala. Thampi had also been charged by the ED earlier over land purchases across the country for violating the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). He had bought land in many states, including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Delhi (National Capital Region) and Haryana and his connections extend far beyond.

For a businessman with a vast network among politicians across the country, Thampi began focusing on expanding his operations in India after he established deeper ties with the Congress ahead of the 2004 elections. Thampi, who was first introduced to the Congress leadership by a party functionary from Kerala, was ready to go for a symbiotic relationship with these leaders and was flush with funds from his businesses in the UAE. That was the beginning of a long association with Vadra, a Government official close to the matter told Open. “He was close to all political parties and to many he was like a member of their family,” the official adds.

While Open could not independently ascertain these facts, during questioning by the ED, Thampi is learnt to have said that he met Vadra through Congress functionary PP Madhavan although Vadra offered the agency a different version: that they had met on an Emirates flight. Bhandari, meanwhile, has been accused by the ED of maintaining links with Rajiv Saxena, a Dubai-based businessman and accused in the Rs 3,600-crore VVIP chopper deal. Saxena is a director of two Dubai-based firms—UHY Saxena and Matrix Holdings—through which helicopter deal bribes were reportedly routed to India.

The ED had said that Bhandari, along with Saxena, received payoffs in Embraer, Pilatus and AgustaWestland defence transactions. Though Saxena had turned approver in the case, giving hopes that he may name politicians, bureaucrats and armed forces officers who had received kickbacks in the deal, the ED late last year told a Delhi Court to revoke the ‘approver’ status of Saxena for withholding information during the investigation. The court had earlier allowed Saxena to turn approver on the condition that he would fully disclose all information in the case.

THAMPI WAS BORN to a poor Christian household of fisher-folk in 1956. While officials who have probed his cases in the past are not aware of his educational qualifications, one of them says that since he had an impoverished childhood, Thampi, born in Kottol village near Pazhanji in Kunnamkulam area of Thrissur, started doing daily-wage work at a young age. In fact, he used to work in iron scrap shops and electrical shops until some friends helped fund his trip to the Gulf in the late 1970s while he was still in his twenties.

That was the decade that saw people of Kerala migrate in large numbers to Gulf countries looking for a job, a trend that continues to this day and has had a phenomenal influence on Kerala’s economy, which has thrived on remittances from abroad, especially the Middle Eastern region. In fact, while the far-sighted made loads of money shifting to the Gulf, a large number of others simply made incremental gains compared with their life back home. Interestingly, Thrissur, where Thampi is from, boasts of more billionaires in Kerala than any other district. MA Yusuff Ali, PNC Menon, Galfar Mohamed Ali, TS Kalyanaraman and several business honchos are from Thrissur, making some people even wonder if there is something about the place that drives entrepreneurship.

Kunnamkulam, the part of Thrissur where Thampi is from, has a reputation for something more interesting: duplicate products. In Kerala, there is a saying that the quality of counterfeit notes made in this place could rival even currency notes brought out by the Reserve Bank of India. Being born in Kunnamkulam, goes the joke, means you have the smarts to make generic versions of anything manufactured on planet earth.

The young Thampi perhaps proved that such perceptions are more than just jokes. He made his first million in the UAE, says a Dubai-based businessman close to the matter, through the sale of liquor, and most often, through reportedly illegal means. He always managed to beat the rap, says this person. It was around this time he earned the nickname ‘Kallu’ Thampi. Kallu in Malayalam stands for toddy, but it is also used as a synonym for liquor.

The image Thampi had in the UAE then was that of a bootlegger who hit pay dirt supplying Indian liquor brands to the Indian diaspora across the UAE, says a CEO of a company who used to be based out of Dubai in the 1990s. “As far as we knew, he did a lot of such business in the Emirates, especially Ajman, thanks to different rules for sale of liquor in seven different Emirates,” he tells Open. Thampi, who was in judicial custody till getting bail on January 29th, was unavailable for comment.

Later, Thampi had started investing in the construction business. It was 1981 and that was the time when people were beginning to make a lot of money in the sector, which would boom exponentially over the next few decades. His operations were mostly in Sharjah and Ajman. He named his company Holiday Constructions, which later grew into the conglomerate Holiday Group, operating out of India and the UAE, with investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, tourism, hospitality, real estate, and so on. Currently, the group runs the Nalukettu brand of restaurants in the Emirates, such as Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah. The company is also present in marine services, clubs, holiday resorts, tyre making, car rental services, and so on.

From ‘Kallu’ Thampi, the controversial businessman soon became ‘Nalukettu’ thanks to the eponymous restaurants that served authentic Kerala cuisine and where traditional sari-clad young women served drinks and food. Thampi’s investments in luxury hotels and resorts—and, of course, links with powerful Indian politicians—elevated him to a higher social status, recalls a highly successful real estate businessman. It also meant that Thampi was required to take up new responsibilities in the world of diasporic activities and to take part in conferences organised by non-resident Keralites, this businessman says. It was no secret that he was a guest at special functions and conferences organised by politicians, community leaders, film stars and top-level bureaucrats of all parties, especially the Congress.

Whenever senior Kerala politicians went on a tour of Dubai and other Emirates, either he hosted them or paid them long visits. Doors to the corridors of power were flung open for him with great ease. He also acquired fame and respectability. He started presiding over award functions that honoured renowned Kerala-based singers and artists. Even as late as 2018, Thampi, who was facing money-laundering charges by then, was a special representative in the Loka Kerala Sabha held under the aegis of the Kerala government. Apparently, there were hardly any protests since he is known to generously donate money to election funds of all political parties in the state.

Yet, since 2014, with political equations and rules of engagement changing in Delhi, Thampi has been feeling the heat, especially because Vadra’s business deals are under scrutiny. That he would walk away with impunity despite entering into reportedly shady deals became a thing of the past. The ED’s claim that Thampi had been using shell companies to route Vadra’s unaccounted wealth stems from the fact that as soon as Santech FZE, owned by Bhandari, bought the Bryanston Square property from a firm called Vortex, Skylight Investments, owned by Thampi, acquired that entity. In a ruse to cover money trail and links, Thampi, according to the ED, changed the name of SkyLight Investment to Mayfair Investment in 2011 and transferred his shareholding in the company first to his nephew, and then to another individual.

Besides, an Indian Express report said quoting the ED that Thampi’s association with Vadra is much older. According to the report, Thampi had made huge cash payments to a real estate dealer based in Haryana for selling Vadra land at Amipur in 2005 and then repurchasing ‘the same parcels’ of land in 2010 from Vadra, helping the latter make a ‘significant’ profit. The ED has also alleged that Thampi, along with Bhandari, was part of property acquisitions in Dubai using slush funds.

Contradictory depositions by Vadra and Thampi over the London property as well as several other details of their association have finally landed the Kerala-born businessman in a soup. With the ED expected to step up investigation into Thampi’s association with more politicians and bureaucrats, it is likely that some people won’t be able to sleep easy. Thampi is a burnished showpiece of rag-to-riches glory, but his apparent fall from grace, as evident from him covering his face from cameras with an N95 mask while being taken away by ED officials, is a lesson that many businessmen end up learning the hard way.

First published in Open

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