Just a day after he presented a ‘populist’ budget, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah is back on the defense with a gathering storm of corruption scandals plaguing his government. On Thursday, 16 March, BJP leader Jagadish Shettar posed a few straightforward – and rather embarrassing – questions to the top guns of the ruling Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee. He also pressed for an inquiry into the ‘diary’ allegedly recovered from Congress MLC K Govindaraj that has blown open a can of worms for the government, including details of ‘kickbacks’ for the infamously proposed steel flyover project that was recently shelved.
Chaos erupted in the state assembly and the session was disrupted. The BJP leaders have now taken it upon themselves to bring up the issue time and again to ensure the Congress party’s credibility comes under the scanner.
There is a new term in Karnataka’s political circles when it comes to scandals – it’s called ‘diary politics’, and it has been plaguing Karnataka for weeks now. The diary in question was recovered from Congress MLC Govindaraj’s residence during an IT raid conducted in March 2016 (apart from seizures of Rs 120 crore, with Rs 1.10 crore in cash and 10 kg of gold). However, its contents were made public only last month. It reportedly contains information about bribes given to Congress central bigwigs by state leaders, through entries that have initials such as RG (allegedly Rahul Gandhi), SG (Sonia Gandhi) and so on. The bribes given by the state government are reported to be worth Rs 1,000 crore.
The ruling Congress in Karnataka has naturally denied the allegations, claiming that a diary cannot be a piece of incriminating evidence –as per the Supreme Court’s acquittal of BJP bigwigs such as LK Advani and VC Shukla in the 1997 Jain Hawala case. Furthermore, in a rebuttal of sorts, the Congress released a video on 13 February of BJP leaders happily discussing the diary’s political fallout.
Continuing this tit-for-tat, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) working president Dinesh Gundu Rao, on 25th February, released contents from BJP MLC Lehar Singh Siroya’s alleged diary, to prove his claim that even state BJP leaders pay money to their party high command. The alleged diary contains two pages where one maintains a record of ‘received’ payments and the other, ‘paid’, with each category having initials corresponding to names of state and central BJP leaders and corresponding amounts. Dinesh Gundu Rao claimed that this second diary was recovered in November 2013 when IT officials raided Siroya’s house.
Siroya filed a complaint on 1st March against Dinesh Gundu Rao stating that the diary did not belong to him, nor was the handwriting in it his. In his complaint, Siroya has accused the latter of fabricating documents and forging his signature to hatch a conspiracy to malign him.
A pertinent question that Karnataka Congress has been asking is, why should the Govindaraj diary be taken with any credibility in the first place? The Karnataka Congress also wants to know why the diary has been conveniently made public now, and how the BJP got hold of it.
Speaking to Hindustan Times, senior Congress leader Manish Tewari said, “At the outset, we are very clear about Karnataka. The diary in question is not permissible evidence as ruled by the Supreme Court. Hence, even in this case, we would assume same thing applies. There cannot be different strokes for different folks.”
Has the state Congress decided to take on the BJP at the same level of this fight? No sooner did the BJP release Govindaraj’s diary’s contents, the Congress posted a rebuttal on 13 February in the form of a recorded video conversation between BJP’s senior leaders Ananth Kumar and BS Yeddyurappa (BSY). The conversation is now under forensic investigation to ascertain whether the voices in the video actually belong to the leaders. Allegedly, one of the voices that resembles Yeddyurappa’s says in the video, “Now that we have released it [the diary’s contents], let him [Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah] go around the state answering our allegations.”
This was something that the BJP didn’t expect and it comes as a blow to their preparation for the state polls next year, even as the BJP has left no stone unturned to diminish Congress’ image based on corruption charges. Recently, even political enemies have come together to put a dent in Siddaramaiah’s image, like JD(S) chief HD Kumaraswamy, who revealed that the CM was found wearing a lavish Hublot watch. The issue progressed in twists and turns and finally ended up as a major embarrassment to Siddaramaiah. But the Congress has recovered well from that, with JD(S) and Congress leaders coming together to uphold the state’s interest during the Cauvery and the Mahadayi water sharing issues.
However, the diary leak has once again upped the ante on the Congress. Sources close to Govindaraj said, “He has disowned the diary in a complaint made to the police last year itself. There is no question of those pages revealing anything about the corruption or the party. The diary won’t even matter in the larger scheme of things.”
Congress in denial
A total rejection of diary’s contents is the standard answer from the Congress. While the BJP is pressing for a CBI inquiry to prove its claims of corruption, the Congress is scaling it down to a ‘state issue’ and thus trying not to appear over-reactive to the issue. However, both parties are planning their next move in great detail.
The Congress, both at state and national levels, seems to be playing this game with more finesse than on earlier occasions. “Whether the diary was planted or not is something for Govindaraj to prove in court,” said Manish Tewari, cautious enough to keep the party out of this issue.
BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra told this reporter that their party is in solidarity with the respective leaders. “Our leaders at state level are carrying out a crusade. We will be with them,” he said.
Speaking to Hindustan Times, former Karnataka chief minister and current BJP state president Yeddyurappa said the Congress in Karnataka is under great pressure to “feed the national unit” since it has no other choice. “They [the Congress] are not in power anywhere else,” he said. “How will the party fight the elections? They are the pioneers of corruption.”
Given his stance, it is ironic that in the leaked video, the voice resembling Yeddyurappa’s says, “We all have done it, sending money to the party headquarters.”
The Congress, on the other hand, is calling this a political conspiracy. The party maintains that the question of responding to kickback allegations does not arise since the diary itself is a hoax. During his recent visit to Karnataka on 26th February, AICC general secretary Digvijaya Singh said the diary was brought out after 11 months of it being reportedly ‘confiscated’ in an IT raid. “Why was the government silent till now? This has been done to create trouble for Congress and deflect the attention of people of Karnataka,” he told the media.
While experts are divided on the legal merits of Govindaraj’s diary, Yeddyurappa maintains that the Congress’ defense is weak. “They [the Congress] pose a question about who gave me the details of a diary that was in the custody of IT department,” he said. “That’s not the crux of the matter. This diary was seized from a person’s house. This is tangible evidence. He may have disowned it later, or acted in caution to lodge a complaint, but that does not issue any clearance on the corruption that exists within the party. In the coming days, we will release more documents and more cases of corruption against the Congress government.
“They have produced a video footage of myself and Ananth Kumar discussing the alleged kickbacks we paid to our party seniors,” said Yeddyurappa. “This was done to ensure I was in a spot. This is a doctored video and forensic tests will soon reveal the truth. I am sure about the evidence I hold against the scale of corruption in this state. So I am open for all investigations. Can CM Siddaramaiah say the same thing with confidence? Who is he scared of?”
Scrambling into damage control
Call it a coincidence, but within days of the BJP releasing the pages of Govindaraj’s alleged diary, the Congress announced on 2nd March that it would scrap its plans to build a controversial steel flyover in Bengaluru – a project with a cost of nearly Rs 1,791 crore to cover a distance of 6.72 km, which was supposed to cut down the time taken to travel to the city airport. Though the plan was vehemently opposed by Bengaluru residents, the government had refused to take note of it and the project was also heavily opposed by the National Green Tribunal. However, residents’ joy may be short lived—the project has only been temporarily shelved, as only the current tender has been cancelled and not the entire project.
Interestingly, Govindaraj’s alleged diary has details of kickbacks worth Rs 65 crore paid to Congress high command through Siddaramaiah for this very same flyover project. It is unclear whether there were intermediaries for this supposed transaction and how the payment was carried out.
On his part, BSY maintains that Siddaramaiah paid the Congress leaders at the Centre to save his seat. “He has bought this chair. And this is something he should be answerable to the people of Karnataka,” said Yeddyurappa.
“The Greens may well gloat to assume this is their victory. But that is far from the truth,” said Prasanna Joshi, who was part of the groups opposing the steel flyover. “It’s now common knowledge that the details of diary are hurting the government, especially with the amount of kickbacks which is as high as Rs 65 crore [from the promoters to the CM and his family]. With people upping the heat, the government just saved its own image by cancelling the project.”
The steel flyover kickback allegations and Govindaraj’s diary scandal have now reached the Lokayukta. But the BJP is insisting that anything less than a CBI investigation will not bring out the truth of the matter.
When it comes to Siroya’s diary, Manish Tewari says it is a state issue and that Congress will only act to defend its position. However, senior BJP leaders point out that Govindaraj is the same person who was allegedly the intermediary involved in receiving kickbacks from potential contractors of the steel bridge. “He had accompanied Siddaramaiah to Belgium when his son had health complications,” said a senior central Congress leader who chose to remain anonymous. “Govindaraj is in the CM’s close circle. The CM is probably left feeling alone with most of his colleagues mired in corruption charges, and with the sudden death of his closest friend and colleague Mahadeva Prasad. All this has left Siddaramaiah very weak and defenseless.”
Since demonetisation, there have been a number of raids on ministers and people who are close to CM Siddaramaiah – Congress MLC MTB Nagaraj, SC Jayachandra, Ramesh Jarkiholi and Lakshmi Hebbalkar, among others, have been found to be in possession of illegal money. Surprisingly, BJP legislators have escaped such raids and this has kept the opposition in the clear so far.
There is something else that is also protecting the BJP’s image. With this ‘diary’ episode, the BJP seems to have robbed the Congress of its most important weapon —of harping on the corruption allegations against PM Modi during his stint as the Gujarat chief minister. This quid pro quo situation presents Congress with a challenge of having to look for better charges to press against the BJP in the states, including Karnataka.
Yeddyurappa himself was, of course, accused of corruption, cheating, criminal conspiracy and forgery in an alleged Rs 40-crore mining scam, forcing his resignation as Karnataka’s chief minister in 2011. However, he was acquitted by a CBI court of all the charges in October 2016.
Many ministers have already deposed before IT officials in an enquiry that was carried out in connection with Govindaraj’s diary. Energy Minister DK Shivakumar, known for his organising skills in party circles, for instance, deposed before the authorities after the corresponding initials ‘DKS’ were mentioned in the diary. “But since then, I have told them I didn’t have any transaction with Govindaraj. The authorities are free to conduct any checks if they need to,” he has told the media.
In the meantime, Govindaraj plans to issue a legal notice against those who had conspired against him and his party.
The Congress in Karnataka is acting with caution to ensure that the Govindaraj diary row dies soon, as it has good chances of being permissible in court. The party is not yet exploring the case of Siroya’s diary, as the minister in question has already filed a complaint. Siddaramaiah is doing everything he can to retain the confidence of people, especially in the rural areas—his party won the zilla and taluk panchayat polls, but he might not find much favour with urban voters, what with the decision to construct a steel flyover and raids on his close aides that have revealed Rs 162 crore assets.
For its part, the BJP is looking to present further evidence of CM Siddaramaiah and his government’s corruption in the days to come. The Congress remains less worried about the Govindaraj diary and more apprehensive of their opponent’s next move.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)