The enemies of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu are overjoyed by Monday’s directive by a Hyderabad court to investigate his role in last year’s nearly-forgotten cash-for-votes scam. Some are even hoping that he will be arrested, though a big question mark hangs over whether Naidu’s arch rival and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao—known as KCR—will go the whole hog.
There is no doubt that the reopening of a virtually closed case must be embarrassing for Naidu, the publicity-conscious, tech-savvy darling of the corporate sector who prides in his lily-white image.
But if the investigation and the trial take the universally acceptable course, as they must, it’s doubtful whether the case will ultimately mean a legal water-loo for Naidu. The alleged evidence of Naidu’s involvement hinges on a phone conversation he had with an MLA, whose vote his party — Telugu Desam Party (TDP) — was trying to buy. But courts are famously allergic to accepting digital evidence as the sole basis for establishing guilt.
It’s even more doubtful whether the case will wreak any political or electoral havoc on the TDP leader, considering that the people of the two Telugu states are familiar with the vicious political games that even Machiavelli would shudder to contemplate.
The case is this: Last year, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) of Telangana arrested two TDP MLAs in Telangana— Revanth Reddy and Venkata Veeraiah—and a few others for allegedly paying Rs 50 lakh to nominated MLA Elvis Stephenson for his support to the party’s candidate in the Legislative Council elections. Their phones were seized and voices in their conversations related to the deal were authenticated.
Though investigation apparently brought to light at least one phone conversation in which Naidu himself took part, his voice samples were not sent for forensic analysis. This led to allegations that there was a rare, secret understanding between Naidu and KCR, as a result of which the ACB was going soft on the TDP leader. Whatever the reason was, the case was at a standstill.
By seeking and getting a directive from the ACB special court to investigate Naidu’s involvement on Monday, YSR Congress legislator Alla Ramakrishna Reddy claims to have filled a gaping hole in the investigation.
Ramakrishna Reddy had filed a complaint with evidence that he claimed established that Naidu was the chief “conspirator, abettor and perpetrator” in the case.
He said a scientific agency in Mumbai had confirmed that the voice in a phone conversation with Stephenson was that of Naidu by comparing it with the voice in a publicly available speech of the Chief Minister.
It was precisely such “voice identification” that the Supreme Court said in a landmark judgement in 2011 that courts must be “extremely cautious” about. Evidence of taped conversations were prone to tampering, doctoring and editing, judges B Sudershan Reddy and SS Nijjar said while acquitting Chhota Rajan’s associate Nilesh Dinkar Paradkar.
Paradkar had been arrested in 2005 for conspiring to murder diamond merchant Bharat Shah, and the prosecution’s case rested on interception of calls made by one of his four accomplices. The Bombay High Court convicted him. But the Supreme Court set him free, saying that, under the Evidence Act, taped conversations were no different from documents and photographs and that these were admissible as evidence only if it was proved beyond doubt that they were not tampered with.
The apex court had issued a similar warning before. Dismissing an appeal that challenged the election of Col Ram Singh to the Haryana Assembly in 1982, the court said in 1985 that the acceptability of taped conversations was subject to stringent safeguards to ensure their reliability. Even earlier, courts had accepted tape-recorded evidence only if it was duly corroborated by other evidence.
In his taped conversation with Stephenson, the MLA he was allegedly wooing, Naidu is said to have assured him that he would “honour the commitments and promises” made to him by his partymen.
This was something like the notorious “Moily tapes” which shook Karnataka in 1984. Back then, a Janata Party MLA produced a taped conversation, alleging that Congress leader Veerappa Moily had offered him Rs 2 lakh to defect. One of the grounds on which the RG Desai commission of inquiry gave a clean chit to Moily in the case in 1987 was that there was no mention of this amount in the alleged conversation.
In the case of Naidu, whether he was the mastermind of the bribery episode—he might or might not be—is difficult to establish. A few others accused in the case were caught red-handed. But all that there is against Naidu is a telephone conversation, whose authenticity is being vouched for by a rival party MLA.
Much will also depend on the extent to which KCR will go to fix Naidu. If the ACB investigators soon descend on Naidu to “question” him about his role, it will hardly be a surprise. But it will indeed be a big surprise, if KCR lets his ACB to arrest Naidu. For KCR, that would mean taking a huge risk of facing a law-and-order crisis and incurring the wrath of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose political ally the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister is and whose good offices the Telangana leader himself is wooing.
In the case of the Moily tapes, the Janata Party milked every ounce of political mileage from the alleged scam as long as it lasted. The Naidu tapes are unlikely to be anything different. The case will surely oil the propaganda machines of both TRS and YSR Congress, while the plague of buying votes in elections to Legislative Councils and the Rajya Sabha will continue across India.