A businessman mired in multiple controversies and independent MLA from Bidar South, Ashok Kheny was inducted into the Congress party on Monday. But scores of leaders in the grand old party are not happy with the new entrant. In fact, top Congress sources have told TNM that many of them are planning to approach the high command in Delhi as they believe that this was a wrong decision taken by the leadership in Karnataka.
Ashok Kheny is the owner of Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise (NICE), which built the controversial ring-road in Bengaluru. He’s also the founder of Karnataka Makkala Paksha, a party that has now merged with the Congress with his induction.
Ironically, the induction happened despite that fact that Kheny, who is accused of forgery, land grabbing and murder in relation to the road project, is being probed by the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in the state. In 2014, a Joint Legislative Committee was formed to probe allegations of irregularities against him. In 2017, the Committee had even recommended criminal action against Kheny.
According to several Congress sources, it was Energy Minister DK Shivakumar who pushed for Kheny’s induction, and that the Chief Minister agreed.
A Congress source said that Ashok Kheny was inducted into the party to gather Lingayat votes in Bidar. "With both Kheny and Siddaramaiah campaigning in Bidar, the party will be able to get both Lingayat and Kuruba community votes," said the source.
But others in the top leadership do not agree with the decision, a top source told TNM.
Party leaders ST Somashekar, Rajarajeshwari Nagar MLA Munirathna, and KR Puram MLA Byrathi Basavaraj, and almost all leaders from Bidar have openly opposed Kheny's induction and are now planning to write to All India Congress Committee (AICC) President Rahul Gandhi, expressing their disapproval. TNM has also learnt that Dharam Singh’s son Ajay Singh, who is eyeing the Bidar South seat, is angry at Kheny’s induction.
However, Energy Minister DK Shivakumar claims the party leadership had taken the opinion of all party leaders in Bidar before inducting Kheny. "Kheny may have several allegations against him regarding the NICE road project, but there is no connection between the NICE company and Congress. There is no chance of abuse of power. We are inducting Ashok Kheny and not NICE company into the party. The Karnataka Makkala Paksha (party started by Ashok Kheny) has merged with Congress. The law and judiciary will take care of the NICE Road issue," DK Shivakumar said.
BJP slams Congress
Kheny's induction into the Congress has drawn serious flak from the BJP with leaders including R Ashoka, CT Ravi and Suresh Kumar accusing Kheny of corruption.
The BJP leaders have also alleged that Kheny was involved in forgery, land grabbing, and murder during the land acquisition process for the NICE Road Project.
"Congress has once again proved that it is a party which loots people, by inducting Ashok Kheny, who looted the people of Bengaluru into the party. The Congress has inducted him because they need money to campaign for the 2018 polls. Back then Siddaramaiah himself had accused Kheny's NICE company of irregularities worth Rs 2000 crore. Now he is embracing him with open arms. The money Kheny looted from Bengaluru is now being used for the election," said BJP leader R Ashoka.
How tables have turned
When the NICE road controversy broke out in 2012, Kheny had the support of the then BJP CM BS Yeddyurappa. Reports had also suggested that a probe conducted by the Home Department, which was then headed by R Ashoka, had given him a clean chit. Kheny's brother, Sanjay Kheny also happens to be a BJP leader.
When the NICE controversy had broken out, Congress leaders in Bengaluru had demanded jail term for Kheny for allegedly grabbing farmers' land for the road project. He is accused of utilising farmland to construct private, illegal townships along the NICE road.
Kheny's long-standing rivalry with JD(S) supremo HD Devegowda has also put the possibility of a Congress-JD(S) post-election alliance in jeopardy.
Activists and AAP fume
TJ Abraham, an anti-corruption activist who had filed several cases against Kheny in the Karnataka High Court has said that he will campaign against the Congress in Mysuru and Bengaluru.
"The Congress in their desperation do not know that they are reaching out to the worst people. After the North East results, they are going to any extent. I am going to campaign against the Congress in the Mysuru-Bengaluru belt where the NICE fraud took place. I know how many farmers have been affected," Abraham told TNM.
Reacting strongly to the turn of events, AAP also condemned Kheny's induction into Congress. "With this, we understand the Congress and the BJP have reduced the elections to an auction and the highest bidder might take it. The Congress is taking tainted leaders into its fold including those in the Bellary mining scam and the BJP is trying to give tickets to Janardhan Reddy and woo Katta Subramanya Naidu. Kheny is deeply involved in NICE road corruption and last time he won the election purely on money power. This is a sign of absolute desperation from the Congress to take these moneybags in hope of winning the elections," Prithvi Reddy, State Convenor of AAP said.
He also took a dig at Congress saying the party has a "short memory" regarding how it came to power in 2013. "They came to power in 2013 not because people liked them but because people were fed up with the BJP. They had the Lokayukta to thank them but as soon as they came to power they shut the institution," he added.
What is the controversy surrounding NICE Road?
In 1995, Kheny had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Karnataka government to construct express highways in the state. In 1996, Kheny incorporated NICE Ltd and signed an agreement with the government to construct the ring road surrounding Bengaluru. In April 1997, the project was approved and was expected to be completed in 10 years.
The details of the agreement had invited allegations that it was tilted in favour of NICE and that the government had given up its right of eminent domain ( the power of the government to obtain individual property, forcibly if required, if the land is needed for public purposes ) for the land under development. There were also allegations that government officials were hand in glove with Kheny from the beginning.