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Above: The audio tape scandal has rocked the Karnataka Assembly/Photo: UNI

With the poll process in full swing, Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy decides discretion is the better part of valour and goes slow on the SIT probe into MLAs horse-trading charges 

By Stephen David in Bengaluru

Devadurga in Kannada means the mountain of god. Yet it is in this small town of north Karnataka’s Raichur district—270 km east of Hyderabad in Telangana state—that a young JD(S) leader, Sharanagouda, was lured in the early hours of February 8, 2019, by what Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy claims were BJP emissaries to a guest house to plot the downfall of the eight-month-old JD(S)-Congress coalition government. It was also the day that Kumaraswamy was to present the state annual budget in the assembly.

Hours before the budget presentation, Kumaraswamy hurriedly convened a press conference where he played two audio tapes—recordings from a mobile phone—in which Sharanagouda, son of Gurmitkal JD(S) legislator Naganagouda Kandkur, was allegedly approached by state BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa and his aides with a lucrative offer to get his father to switch to the BJP camp. With 104 MLAs in its kitty, the BJP is nine short of the 113 required to form a government in the 224-member assembly. It had put in place a plan to mop up the extra numbers from among Independents and disgruntled legislators of the Congress and the JD(S). The latter’s leaders claimed that the move to lure legislators, dubbed Operation Kamala, had the blessings of the central BJP leadership. While the mobile phone recording episode has come as a shot in the arm for the JD(S) and the Congress to slam the BJP’s claims of clean governance, there was also an unintended casualty of sorts.

One of the leading voices in the “audio gate” cast aspersions on the speaker of the Karnataka assembly, KR Ramesh Kumar, a long-time Congressman from Kolar. The voice claimed that Kumar was bound to accept the legislators’ resignations since he had already been “booked” for a hefty price.

That charge left Kumar seething with rage and he advised the chief minister to set up a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the allegations and counter-allegations and give the House a report within 15 days from that day, or before February 24, 2019.

It is almost a month since that 15-day deadline. Kumar, who had emotionally pleaded with the members of the House to “give me relief in 15 days” may have to press the accelerator again with the chief minister. Top BJP leader KS Eshwarappa said that the probe should have been limited to the charge against the speaker otherwise the JD(S)-Congress coalition government may misuse the SIT as a tool to unleash political vendetta. Even the speaker told the chief minister that the SIT should not lead to a witch-hunt and should be only to establish the truth about the charges against him. But BJP leader Yeddyurappa demanded a House committee—not a SIT—to investigate the allegations. He was of the opinion that since the SIT functions under the CM, a House committee would be more credible.

Kumar said that “identification and authentication of the person (making the bribe allegation) is important.…”

He further noted that he “cannot take this blemish. I can’t show my face to my wife and children. I don’t want to sit in the chair even for a minute, but I am not taking any hasty decision.…” Kumar adduced that the man offering allurements appeared to be one holding a statutory position. The voice was heard telling the potential turncoats that the required people would be taken care of in case the anti-defection law was invoked.

Yeddyurappa, the BJP Opposition leader and a three-time CM, says he has no regrets of mounting Operation Kamala: “We were so close to forming the government but lost it by a whisker.” Although he admitted that it was his voice on the audiotape, Yeddyurappa made a scathing attack on Kumaraswamy for releasing what he claimed were edited transcripts of the mobile phone recording. “The chief minister stooped to the level of sending someone and getting the conversation recorded, this is not done,” said Yeddyurappa, the prominent face of the state’s most powerful and largest caste bloc, the Lingayat community.

One Congress dissident legislator, Umesh Jadhav, has already switched camps: he personally handed over his resignation to the speaker who is yet to accept it, thus blocking what would have been a smooth transition to the next party. The BJP, on its part, has named him its Lok Sabha candidate to fight veteran Congress Opposition leader Mallikarjun Kharge from Kalaburgi, the erstwhile Gulbarga.

Congress leaders are mounting pressure in their own way on Kumar not to accept Jadhav’s resignation while the BJP leadership has maintained that they will explore all legal and constitutional avenues to ensure Jadhav’s release from the Congress.

In the meantime, the main character in the “audio gate” drama, Sharanagouda, has filed a police complaint against Yeddyurappa, local BJP leaders Shivanna Gowda and Preetham Gowda (he is the lone BJP MLA from former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda’s home district, Hassan) and Yeddyurappa aide Maramkal. The complaint was filed at Devadurga police station under Section 506 of the IPC (punishment for criminal intimidation).

Much to the relief of Yeddyurappa and company, the Karnataka High Court on February 22, 2019, quashed the first information report (FIR) filed against him and his aides on the “audio gate” allegations. Earlier, the Kalaburgi city civil special court had asked all the four to pay one lakh rupees each as bond. While Kumaraswamy tried to collar his BJP opponents with the mobile phone recording, BJP legislator Renukacharya also flashed a 2014 video CD which showed Kumaraswamy telling supporters of an MLC seat aspirant about demands of huge monies involving his MLAs.

It is widely believed that Kumaraswamy will let the “audio gate” allegations fade away from public memory because of his preoccupation with the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections in which his son and nephew are contesting from Mandya and Hassan, respectively. With his father, Deve Gowda, who will turn 86 soon, choosing not to contest the elections this time, it is left to Kumaraswamy to carry the JD(S) party on his shoulders.

If the party does well, he will get all the credit, besides strengthening his government, but if it comes a cropper, his government will begin to feel the heat. It is such factors that are forcing the CM to keep all options open and put the lid on “audio gate”—at least for the time being.

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