Why K’taka’s latest audio tapes is just another tiresome tool for its politicians

“No one has ever gone to jail over a leaked tape,” says one IPS officer.
Why K’taka’s latest audio tapes is just another tiresome tool for its politicians
Why K’taka’s latest audio tapes is just another tiresome tool for its politicians

Audio tapes in India are a great leveller – leaders from every political party at some point or the other have leaked them, used them to shock the public to make the other side look dirty.

Except that the other side too, whichever that is, has used audio tapes right back to get back. If one were to compile an LTL therefore, the Leaked Tapes List of Indian politics, a slice of it could read something like this:

March 2015: A mysterious tape surfaced in which Aam Aadmi Party supremo Arvind Kejriwal purportedly spoke of “poaching Congress MLAs to form the government in Delhi”; followed by another audio tape the very next day in which he spoke of “Muslims having no option other than AAP to stop the Modi wave”.

December 2017: The then-Maharashtra Congress Secretary Shehzad Poonawalla  is purportedly heard conversing with former Union Minister Manish Tewari on the polls for the party president being “no secret ballot” and asking “how long will dynasty override merit”. In response, Tewari allegedly says in the leaked tape, “The fact is that the Congress is a proprietorship…no party in India is a political party, they are all proprietorships.”

February, 2019: BJP’s All India General Secretary, West Bengal Kailash Vijayvargiya, whose “chocolatey faces” remark against Priyanka Gandhi landed him in controversy in January was also allegedly part of a tape leaked just days ago. He is purportedly chatting with party leader Mukul Roy on getting the CBI to monitor four IPS officers in West Bengal.  

Denials, elections and more leaks

There are two common feature that threads through all tape leaks: First, the rubbishing of the tapes by the accused party as ‘fake’ with denial and dismissal of every charge that is apparent in the audio. Second, the elections that are invariably around the corner during the time of leak. After all the noise, the case is forgotten. Until the next leak surfaces in the next case.

In this scroll of the robust history of leaked tapes, Karnataka has its own page and chapter. It was in May last year, right after the state Assembly Elections which delivered a fractured verdict, a tape began making the rounds. Just a day ahead of then Chief Minister and BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa’s floor test in the Legislative Assembly, the Congress released an audio tape allegedly of tainted mining baron and former BJP Minister Gali Janardhana Reddy offering a bribe to MLA-elect of Raichur Rural, Basavagouda Daddal of the Congress. In the tape, the voice purportedly belonging to Janardhana Reddy says, “Join BJP, your wealth will grow 100 times”.

A charge rubbished by BJP leader and former Chief Minister Sadananda Gowda who took to Twitter to say, “Mimicry artists are in great demand” in the Congress party office in Bengaluru.

The Congress went on to release more audio tapes in which voices purportedly of Yeddyurappa and senior BJP leader Muralidhar Rao were allegedly heard negotiating terms with Congress MLA-elects. However, in the next few hours, Congress’ own party MLA Shivaram Hebbar put up a post on Facebook saying that the conversations released by his party in those tapes were “fake” and that it wasn’t his wife’s voice as it was being made out to be.

Ugrappa, Congress senior leader, was brought in for face-saving, to say that the tape was in no way fake, but it was actually a sting operation by a media channel and that a reporter had “posed as Hebbar’s wife”.  It didn’t matter though who did the sting, the leader said, as the tape demonstrated “what corrupt practices are used to pass the floor test”.

All this gave the BJP much ammunition, which then turned the tables and released a tape with a voice purportedly of JD (S) leader HD Kumaraswamy allegedly luring the then BJP MLA Appachchu Ranjan “promising to make him a minister”, a tape ‘exposed’ by Ranjan himself to the media.

The latest explosive allegations

More than eight months after the last set of audio clips, on Friday, came the big daddy of all explosive allegations by HD Kumaraswamy, now the Chief Minister of Karnataka – that the “BJP had offered bribe of Rs 50 crore to Ramesh Kumar, the Speaker of the state Assembly”, quoting and releasing an audio tape in a press conference before he proceeded to present the Budget.

“Where are you getting the money after demonetisation…are you giving white money or black money?” thundered the Chief Minister playing out an audio tape to a room packed with media persons and their rolling cameras. In the audio tape released by Gurmitkal MLA Nandangouda Kankur’s son Sharangouda, he alleges that he had got calls on his phone from Yeddyurappa early Friday morning asking him “to defect to BJP” and had offered him Rs 25 crore, an election ticket, and to his father Nandangouda Kankur, the post of district in-charge minister.

The audio tape has Yeddyurappa purportedly telling Sharangouda: “You are important and the plan is to make 15 MLAs resign. And to ensure resignations are accepted, Ramesh Kumar has been offered Rs 50 crore.” He then goes on to add, “Ramesh Kumar is a good friend. I will tell the Governor that it will be against the Constitution for the coalition to continue as they don’t have majority. Amit Shah and Modi and... will ensure that the Governor will side with us. Even if the Speaker creates problem, they will take care of it.”

Responding to the audio tape leaks, the former Chief Minister Yeddyurappa also convened a press conference and refuted all charges, stating that the audio is fake and that he would retire from politics “within 24 hours” if HDK proves it. “Kumaraswamy is an expert in voice recording and can produce anything he wants,” alluding to the Chief Minister’s well-known interest in cinema and film production in Karnataka.

‘No one has ever gone to jail over a leaked tape’

The question now is what next? While party after party will continue to ‘expose’ rival after rival via leaked audio tapes, and beyond merely giving grist to media houses for their daily news cycle, do these cases and allegations even get any further?

From an investigation point of view, there isn’t much that happens after an audio leak, a senior IPS officer of Karnataka, says on condition of anonymity.

“First of all, is recording a conversation a crime per se? No, you are within your rights and it is not an offence to record your conversation... It is an offence if a third person is recording the conversation. It is a bigger offence if the state is recording it. Someone tapping the phone, now that is a violation of the Telegraph Act,” said the officer.

He goes on to say that the investigation, if it comes to that, “is a complicated matter, because then the veracity of the audio tape has to be established at the forensic lab, which are few in the country anyway. Practically speaking, all such tapes have lost their political relevance. Everyone knows everyone is trying to buy everyone. A buying B or B buying A, enticing – doesn’t surprise anyone anymore; our moral values have anyway gone down... All these events only get eyeballs, no one has ever gone to jail over a leaked tape; honestly none of these will even qualify as a ‘crime’ to warrant the need for the tape to be sent to the forensic laboratory.”

‘A political exercise’

In his experience, elected representatives do not take recourse to civil or criminal court, but try to settle it through the privileges of the House, as “they would like to keep things under their control”. Not surprising that occurrence, given the faith that institutions like the CID or the CBI have in the public eye, often seen as toeing the lines of whoever their political masters.

The option of the accused approaching the House is a matter that advocate Ashok Gubbi of Factum Law, concurs with. “If the accused is entirely confident that the allegations are unfounded, he or she can go before the Privileges Committee. In this case, he can say that the aspersion cast against the Speaker and myself, amounts to breach of privilege,” says Ashok.

However, Ashok, who practices before the High Court of Karnataka, says it is a purely political exercise, “I don’t think anyone here is counting on allegations standing legal scrutiny. First of all, a complaint has to be made. And then the question of who investigates it. Identifying the impartiality or integrity of investigator is a challenge. The Lokayukta is answerable to the state, the CBI we know has its own set of problems. For any impartial and independent probe, it will then have to be a committee headed by a retired HC judge.”

While India’s track record of conviction in cases of corruption stays at a dismal 19 out of 100 cases, Ashok cites the case of the US where the “swift pace in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) gets involved, makes politicians really scared of the repercussions.”

The Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2009 was caught, prosecuted, ousted by his state Senate, where fellow senators voted 59 to 0 for trying to auction off Barack Obama's Senate seat for personal gain, and is still behind bars serving his sentence.

In an ideal society, law-enforcing agencies have to suo motu investigate when such an allegation is made, but that prospect remains utopian. In India, every political party is to blame for the current scenario for absolute lack of accountability, he concludes.

Karnataka, that has only recently witnessed the ‘resort’ drama playing out for days between the coalition JD(S)-Congress government and the opposition BJP, has not much attention from the leaders its people elected less than a year ago. 

When a government has to constantly fight for its own survival, unsure of completing its 5-year tenure, and whose primary worry is to not address the issues that plague the state or the drought in most taluks across the 30 districts, but to keep its flock together for fear of being poached, governance takes a backseat. 

(Vasanthi Hariprakash is a journalist, radio anchor and social commentator, formerly correspondent with the NDTV 24x7.)

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