Cash-for-vote scam

The battle between the Telangana Rashtra Samiti and the Telugu Desam Party hits a new low with the names of a TDP MLA of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu coming up in a cash-for-vote scandal and the latter accusing the Telangana government of illegal surveillance.

Published : Jul 08, 2015 12:30 IST

TDP legislator A. Revanth Reddy being taken away by the Telangana Anti-Corruption Bureau for questioning on June 9.

TDP legislator A. Revanth Reddy being taken away by the Telangana Anti-Corruption Bureau for questioning on June 9.

ANDHRA PRADESH and Telangana have been rocked by damning audio and video recordings that are turning out to be as dramatic as Tehelka magazine’s sting operation in 2001 showing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Bangaru Laxman accepting a bribe of Rs.1 lakh and the waving of cash in Parliament in 2008 during the vote on a no-confidence motion over the India-United States nuclear deal. An alleged audio recording of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s voice promising a nominated member of the Telangana Assembly to “honour” his “commitment” is at the centre of the controversy.

The incident in one stroke smashed Chandrababu Naidu’s attempt to project his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government as clean and free from corruption. The TDP contested the 2014 Assembly elections, which were held following the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh to form Telangana State, on the anti-corruption plank to take on its principal rival, the YSR Congress led by Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. The latter is facing charges relating to alleged quid pro quo investments made in his businesses by individuals who received favours during his father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s tenure.

On May 31, hours before the election to six of the 40 Telangana Legislative Council seats, Anumula Revanth Reddy, the suave, 45-year-old Deputy Floor Leader of the TDP, was caught on camera offering Rs.50 lakh as part of a Rs.5-core “payment”. It was a “token gesture” to secure the vote of the Anglo-Indian nominee, Elvis Stephenson, for the TDP candidate Vem Narender Reddy (who, incidentally, lost the election).

The almost broadcast quality video clips, with considerable voice clarity, were initially leaked to two media outlets—the Telugu news channels V6 and TV9—just before Sunday’s prime time television. The Telangana Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), which carried out the recordings in what is described as a “reverse trap”, has denied being the source of the visuals.

The reverse trap, according to the ACB, was laid to catch Revanth Reddy following Stephenson’s May 28 complaint of a “cash offer” by the TDP. Reports in the media, quoting ACB sources, said three locations were bugged—Stephenson’s two houses and his son’s house in Secunderabad, where the transaction took place. The recordings appear to be from different cameras; some reports say there were eight cameras.

In one of the videos, Revanth Reddy and Stephenson are heard discussing a deal and trying to arrive at a sum. Revanth Reddy is heard saying he has been “authorised” to negotiate an “upper limit” of “two to two and a half” crores. Stephenson says it is “too less” for something that will change the course of his “life”. Revanth Reddy does not mention the name of Chandrababu Naidu during the negotiations on money, but there are ample references to him at other points in the conversation.

Revanth Reddy begins by saying, “I need your help. I need your support. Chandrababu Naidu is there. Whenever you want, I’ll pick you up, no one knows, directly I will take you to Chandrababu Naidu garu . Whatever you want to talk, you talk directly to Chandrababu Naidu garu . We’ll [provide] car. 100 per cent confidential, no one knows that you met.”

The conversation then changes to money dealings and the chances of Stephenson getting exposed. Revanth Reddy assures him that the vote is secret and that he is in touch with the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) and TDP MLAs. Informed sources said the TDP was in touch with 16 TRS MLAs and had zeroed in on six (including Stephenson), with an “assurance” of paying Rs.10 lakh for their votes to defeat the TRS in the hotly contested Council elections. The TRS MLAs (who were approached) were said to be unhappy about various inner-party issues and some governance aspects of Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao which affected their constituencies. The sources said that Chandrashekhar Rao got wind of the TDP’s plans and approached Stephenson, who offered to cooperate in the “reverse trap”.

Two other video clips show a man carrying the cash in a duffle bag and placing wads of currency notes on a living room table. One video is a static two-frame shot showing the duffle bag next to Revanth Reddy and the third is a shaky close-up, leading some to believe that it could be a spy camera placed on Stephenson’s person. Eventually, the ACB sleuths enter the room and arrest Revanth Reddy and two others.

The arrests were planned in such a manner as to ensure that Revanth Reddy was caught on camera entering the police vehicle. The clips were aired on news channels within minutes. Others arrested in the cash-for-vote scam were Harry Sebastian, a friend of Stephenson who is said to have brokered the deal, and Uday Simha, a former BJP youth wing leader. On June 5, Stephenson wrote on his Facebook wall: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. 2 Timothy 1:7.” Stephenson attached a report from The Hans India newspaper to the post, which praised him for making his community proud.

A week after this incident, T News, the TV channel of the TRS, aired an audio recording of the alleged voice of Chandrababu Naidu assuring Stephenson: “I am with you, don’t bother. For everything I am with you. What all they spoke, we’ll honour. Freely you can decide. No problem at all. That is our commitment, we’ll work together.”

The coordinated nature of the video and audio recordings and the outlets chosen to “leak” them have provoked the TDP to allege that these were part of a widespread illegal surveillance plan to keep tabs on the TDP’s and the Andhra Pradesh government’s activities. The TDP, with 15 MLAs (five of whom joined the TRS in the past eight months) in the 119-member Assembly, is the second largest opposition party.

The week following the release of the audio tape, TDP workers across Andhra Pradesh filed a slew of phone-tapping and defamation complaints against Chandrashekhar Rao (88 at the time of filing this report), which have been handed over to a Special Investigation Team. J.V. Ramudu, Director General of Police, Andhra Pradesh, told Frontline: “How does the question of jurisdiction arise? Many, many cases have been filed. Some of them are of defamation and telephone tapping. Suppose your reputation is affected? A case can be filed at the place of occurrence of such defamation. That’s the law. Those who filed the complaint must have taken legal advice before filing. We don’t know if phones have been tapped. If they have been, it is illegal. And if they haven’t, the audio clips could be considered defamatory.”

The Andhra Pradesh Cabinet immediately resolved to seek framing of “rules and guidelines” under Section 8 of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act. Section 8 places law and order, public safety, and “security of life, liberty and property” in Hyderabad in the hands of the Governor. It says: “The Governor shall, after consulting the Council of Ministers of the State of Telangana, exercise his individual judgment as to the action to be taken. The Governor is required to act in the exercise of his individual judgment, the decision shall be final.” Chandrababu Naidu even met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to press his demand, but the Modi government’s response has been rather lukewarm.

There was a spurt in activity at Chandrababu Naidu’s upscale Jubilee Hills residence with the deployment of additional forces from the Andhra Pradesh Police. Ramudu dismissed it as “routine”, but Chandrashekhar Rao fumed at a press conference in Hyderabad that his government was not intimated about the move. Denying that phones were tapped, Chandrashekhar Rao said Stephenson volunteered to cooperate in the investigation. He said: “If we had tapped so many phones why did the AP government keep mum for the past one year? What happened to Bangaru Laxman when he was caught receiving Rs.1 lakh?” (Laxman was caught on a spy camera accepting Rs.1.5 lakh as a “small new year’s gift” in Tehelka ’s ‘Operation West End’, which exposed kickbacks in arms procurement deals.)

Chandrashekhar Rao also pre-empted any knee-jerk reaction from the Centre by saying, “I don’t expect Narendra Modi to support such treachery, the worst kind of corruption.” The BJP has been silent on the bribery scandal. It is significant that the TDP, which contested the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh elections in alliance with the BJP, does not require the BJP’s support in Andhra Pradesh as it won 102 seats in the 175-member Assembly. Yet, it has accommodated two BJP MLAs in the Cabinet, a hospitality extended out of desperation to secure Central funds for the cash-strapped State.

Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), told Frontline : “Look at what happened in 1995. [Chandrababu] Naidu wrested power from his father-in-law N.T. Rama Rao. What goes around comes around. And why is the BJP so quiet? They were blaming the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] for corruption. Their silence shocks me.” The BJP State leaders contacted by Frontline did not wish to comment on the developments.

Chandrababu Naidu has neither denied nor admitted that the voice in the tape is his. TDP leaders first denied that the voice was that of their leader and later described the recording as a “cut-and-paste” job. TDP leaders are accusing Chandrashekhar Rao of engineering defections and allowing elected MLAs to continue to hold office instead of seeking a fresh mandate.

Former TDP MP and Polit Bureau member Ravulla Chandrasekhar Reddy said: “We have enough votes to secure our candidate’s victory. Five MLAs crossed over to the ruling party. One MLA crossed over just a day before [voting]. Madhavaram Krishna Rao, MLA from Kukatpally, went at 2 a.m. [on May 30] to the farmhouse of Chandrashekhar Rao. So it is the TRS that has created havoc in Telangana. It is known for manipulation and manoeuvring.” A young and first-time TRS MP, Balka Suman, countered this by saying, “The story, screenplay and script are from Chandrababu Naidu. He should come out and deny that it’s his voice on the tape. If he is so certain, why hasn’t he asked for a forensic test?”

Krishna Rao was elected on the TDP ticket from Ranga Reddy district, which almost encircles Hyderabad, where the TRS is weak. While the TRS won only four of the 14 seats in Ranga Reddy, the TDP won seven, the Congress two and the BJP one. Three of the five TDP MLAs who have joined the TRS are from this district.

In the past year, ever since the TRS came to power in Telangana, there have been a string of defections from the opposition ranks to the ruling party. The TRS came to power on the Telangana sentiment but won only 63 seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which contested the elections here for the first time, won two seats in the TRS stronghold of Adilabad in northern Telangana. The two BSP MLAs have joined the TRS now. The Congress, the principal opposition party, won 21 seats; four of its MLAs are now with the TRS. Two of the three YSR Congress MLAs have also joined the TRS, taking the ruling party’s strength in the 119-member House to 76, almost to a point where it does not need the support of the seven AIMIM MLAs.

The controversy is now over how these opposition MLAs were inducted into the TRS and did not face disqualification from the legislature. None of the 13 MLAs who have joined the TRS has resigned from the party on whose ticket they got elected, in effect remaining members of their respective parent parties.

Political analysts point to a long history of such practices adopted by all the parties that have ruled from Hyderabad, a practice honed by Congress Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. Despite winning a comfortable majority in the 2004 Assembly elections, YSR, as he was popularly known, effected gradual defections from opposition ranks. Says the political commentator and civil rights activist Kancha Ilaiah: “The TRS had won about 26 seats then. But by the time the 2009 elections took place, the party’s strength was reduced to 18. The TRS had demanded that the MLAs [who crossed over] resign and seek re-election, but the matter was kept pending” by the presiding officer of the House. Rules prescribe a format of petitioning the Speaker of the House, or the Chairman of the Council, who then takes a decision on disqualification. The matter most of the time gets held up there, particularly when the Speaker is from the ruling party.

This political tactic has been employed to distract the opposition from focussing on issues that matter—governance, welfare and the greater public good—and playing the role of a principled opposition. Instead, the parties would remain busy keeping their flock together for the rest of the term. The heavyweights in the opposition are usually lured with ministerial positions. They also sometimes find themselves pushed into changing sides by difficulties created in their constituencies—such as delayed disbursement of funds under the MLA Local Area Development, stalling of sanction for development projects such as hospitals, schools and roads, and late disbursement of salaries for the district administration staff. All of this would alienate the elected representative from the administration in his constituency. Chandrashekhar Rao rebuts the charge of breaking opposition ranks by pointing to similar practices used by his Andhra Pradesh counterpart. Seven of the 67 YSR Congress MLAs have joined the TDP despite the ruling party enjoying a comfortable majority in the House.

Another reason why the Legislative Council elections became hotly contested is Chandrababu Naidu’s calculation that he would at a later stage regain political relevance in Telangana whereas it would be impossible for Chandrashekhar Rao to do so in Andhra Pradesh. In the past year, Chandrababu Naidu has appeared to be taking a conciliatory approach to the Telangana cause by saying he will “never seek the reunification of the two States”.

With high-profile defections under way (Teegala Krishna Reddy told Frontline that “another two MLAs are going to join the TRS in the coming months”), Chandrababu Naidu wanted to prove the TDP’s relevance in Telangana by winning at least one of the six MLA quota seats. Each party needed 17 votes to elect a candidate. With the YSR Congress announcing that its lone member would vote for the TRS, and with 83 of his own, counting the defections and the AIMIM support, Chandrashekhar Rao was short of one vote to win five seats.

Given that Stephenson was a TRS nominee, it was concluded that he would vote in favour of the ruling party. The issue this time is not just horse-trading but the use of means that have only been in the realm of speculation before.

Admissibility of evidence

Legally, both Chandrababu Naidu and Revanth Reddy appear to be on a sticky wicket. The ACB is reportedly building a strong, evidence-based case for the prosecution of Revanth Reddy. As for Chandrababu Naidu, even assuming the audio recording is illegal or deficient in compliance, it would be considered admissible evidence in the Hyderabad ACB trial court, where the case has been committed.

On the issue of admissibility of “illegal phone-tapping”, the Delhi High Court observed in Dharambir Khatar vs Union of India (2012): “It is apparent that the Supreme Court categorically held that the question of admissibility of a tape-recorded conversation illegally collected or obtained was no longer an issue in view of the decision in R.M. Malkani vs State of Maharashtra (1973), where the Supreme Court held that a contemporaneous tape record of a relevant conversation was a relevant fact and was admissible. The Supreme Court clearly held that the non-compliance or inadequate compliance with the provisions of the said Telegraph Act did not per se affect the admissibility.”

L. Ravichander, a senior lawyer practising in the High Court in Hyderabad, said: “If a defendant is beginning his defence questioning the admissibility of the evidence, he is beginning on a weak wicket. He should be able to refute the evidence itself. The question is whether the evidence is true or false.”

At least two Acts are applicable in the case of phone-tapping—Section 5 (2) of the 1885 Telegraphs Act and Section 69 of the 2000 Information Technology Act. These Acts have laid down procedures to obtain permission for phone-tapping and collecting data from computer “resource”. While the landmark judgment in People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs Union of India (1971) has laid down procedural safeguards to prevent abuse of power in spying on Indian citizens, it has permitted the State government to act independently without the Centre’s permission to tap phones if it was “satisfied that it is necessary for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to above or for investigation”. As things stand now, Chandrababu Naidu has “dared” the TRS government to issue summons for questioning by the ACB, making it a prestige issue.

A month after his arrest on May 31, Revanth Reddy along with two others secured bail from the High Court in Hyderabad. The ACB plans to challenge this in the Supreme Court.

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