Why Is the MLA a Commercial Commodity in Karnataka?

Offering a bribe to a public servant is a crime. Why, then, is it not being probed?

To pull down an alliance by hook or by crook, as is happening in Karnataka, is brazenly unconstitutional.

The pulls and counter-pulls have made the MLA a commercial commodity. It has made him vulnerable to pressures of highly tempting amounts and a berth in the cabinet.

Special flights are whizzing off and luxury resorts are being rented to maintain camps for rival factions. Yet, an MLA is a public servant as per various judicial decisions. Offering a berth to him or her in the cabinet, in addition to huge money to switch over to a party from which he or she was not elected, amounts to illegal gratification. 

Also read | Explainer: Do Karnataka Rebel MLAs Have a Case to Press Their Resignation?

Several audio clips and media reports have prima facie presented to the whole nation a criminal attempt to bribe legislators and dislodge a coalition government, which has five years of life unless it collapses on its own. 

Criminal law universally punishes the crime as well as the attempt to commit the crime. Offering a bribe to public servant, being an attempt to commit crime, is also punishable. Not probing such a criminal attempt, even though it is now an open secret, and allowing the government to fall is against the Rule of Law. Destabilising the government or paralysing it by keeping it under the threat of imminent fall for more than a year is illegal and unconstitutional.

The Indian Penal Code punishes sedition and spreading enmity against a government. Yet overthrowing a government with a political conspiracy is seemingly not a crime. However, bribing as part of horse trading is still a crime. The attempt to bribe, if not caught and curbed in time, will become routine practice by political parties.

The question now is why the Karnataka government has failed to probe the Bharatiya Janata Party’s conspiracies to topple it?

The following is the sequence of criminal conversations that should have formed the basis for a probe, with statements by leaders confirming their direct involvement.  

Before the trust vote (May 2018) 

In the Karnataka assembly elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, but was stunned by the quick stitching together of a post-election alliance by the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress. In the 225-member state assembly, the Congress had 80 MLAs, including the speaker, and the JD(S) had 37.

Instigating (May 18, 2018)

“You will be a minister, so you can make 100 times more money,” is what was allegedly said by mining baron Janardhan Reddy, who is close to BJP and B.S. Yedyurappa, to lure Raichur Rural Congress MLA Basanagouda Daddal, a prominent leader of the Valmiki community, in an audio clip released by Congress. Daddal was previously a member of the Badavara Shramikara Raithara (BSR) Congress, the party floated by Reddy’s aide B. Sriramulu in 2011 after the split in the BJP’s ranks over the mining scam

Translated excerpts from the conversation heard in the audio clip are as follows:

Janardhan Reddy (allegedly): Is it Basanagouda? Are you free?

Basanagouda Daddal: Yes, it is me.

JR: Forget all that has happened before, forget all the bad things. I am telling you that my good times have begun. And I will arrange a meeting with the national president and you can speak to him one-to-one and we can take the next step.

BD: No sir, when I was on my last leg they made me MLA.

JR: I will tell you one thing. Under BSR we had a very bad time when we formed the party. There was a lot of opposition. There is no doubt that you have lost a lot by believing in us. But I am telling you, you will grow a hundred times more. Shivanagouda Nayak became a minister because of me. Today he is strong and able to look after himself. It all happened because of me. Raju Gowda also benefitted because of me.

BD: Yes.

JR: It was your misfortune that it was our bad time. Today Shivanagouda winning is not useful. You will become minister. Do you understand? Directly, we will make you meet the big man. I will make you speak to him… you will make 100 times the wealth you made so far.

BD: I am sorry sir. I was on my last leg when they gave me a ticket and helped me win. In such a situation I cannot betray him. I respect you…

Back then, Congress leader Siddaramiah also alleged that MLA Anand Singh had been “abducted” by the BJP and taken to Delhi. Former home minister Ramalinga Reddy too alleged that BJP leaders have been calling MLAs incessantly to try to bribe them. 

Siddaramaiah also led the charge of allegations against the BJP during ‘Operation Lotus’. Photo: PTI

This particular clip was released one day before the floor test to be taken by Yedyurappa. BJP brushed it aside calling it a “dirty trick” by Congress, but Yeddyurappa agreed that legislators would be coming over to their side “on their own” on the day of the trust vote and said that Congress was bound to lose. Yet the Congress-JD(S) coalition won the next day. 

Second bribery attempt (May 19, 2018)

“We will have our speaker. You need not resign or face election,” was another offer from BJP leaders, this time to Congress legislator B.C. Patil. Patil too recorded the conversation and Congress released it. Yet the paradox is that Patil is now in the BJP’s camp in Mumbai.  This second audio clip allegedly revealed that BJP’s Yeddyurappa, B. Sriramulu and Muralidhar Rao were trying to bribe Patil.  

Sriramulu: Namaskara, I am Ramulu speaking.  

Patil: Namaskara

Sriramulu: What amount are you expecting? 

Patil: Sahebru (boss) didn’t tell me anything.

Sriramulu: Tell me what amount are you expecting?  

Patil: That, you should tell. 

Sriramulu: Some 25 have been spoken to. How many people do you have with you? 

Patil: Three or four people are with me. I have to clarify. I am confident. 

Sriramulu: Will get them 10-15. 

Patil: What about their position? 

Sriramulu: Will make them ministers…Don’t worry, there won’t be an election. We will elect our speaker and prove the majority. Like in Andhra and Telangana, there won’t be any disqualification of MLAs. So, you don’t have to worry about an election. I will now give the phone to Muralidhar Rao, you speak to him. 

Rao: There is no question of resigning. You don’t have to go for elections again.  

Patil: As three to four people are with me, you have to tell me the figures 

Sriramulu comes to the phone: I have already told you 15.  You don’t ask him the figures.  

Rao: We are ready. And no election for anybody. It’s about the speaker. In every state, it’s the same thing.

Now that Patil has switched sides it is clear that the attempted crime has become a committed crime.

Encouraging defections (January 18, 2019)

Four Congress MLAs, Ramesh Jarakiholi, Mahesh Kumtalli, B. Nagendra and Umesh Jadhav, voluntarily gave up their original party memberships. They remained deliberately absent at a Congress party meeting, after which the remaining 76 legislators were moved to a resort.

Also read: The Imminent Implosion of the Congress-JD(S) in Karnataka Has Happened

Threat of legal action (February 8, 2019)

On the day, former chief minister Siddaramaiah said, “All four dissenting lawmakers wrote a letter to me in which they said that they can’t come before February 15. I have already given sufficient opportunity to them. Now, the unanimous decision of the party is to proceed with legal action against all four of them under the anti-defection law.”

A third attempt at bribery (February 8, 2019)

This was roughly the time when chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy asked a question on the nature of the money.

“BJP is saying they will give Rs 50 crores to the assembly speaker K.R. Ramesh Kumar. Where are you getting the money after demonetisation? Are you offering white money or black money? That too to the speaker?” he had said.

The BJP then tried to bribe JD(S) legislator Nadangouda Kankur’s son Sharangouda. Telephone calls from Yeddyurappa record the latter allegedly coaxing him to defect to BJP. Sharangouda himself was present in the press meet that followed the alleged reveal of the tapes. In it, he said that he went to meet Yeddyurappa at Devadurga only after informing Kumaraswamy.

H.D. Kumaraswamy had threatened to resign if the audio clips had proven to be false, earlier this year. Photo: PTI

He also said, They said they would make my father district-in-charge and give him a minister’s post. They asked my father and me to go to Mumbai and also offered Rs 25 crore. They offered me a ticket to contest elections…Yedyurappa said, ‘Brother, we have given Rs 50 crore and booked the speaker. We have judges on our side’.”

Their recorded and alleged conversation went as follows:

Yeddyurappa: I can tell you that one thing is confirmed. 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.

Sharangouda: But the Speaker is a Congress leader. So…

Yeddyurappa: 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.

Whose voice? (February 9, 2019)

Who spoke? The speaker Ramesh Kumar said that he could not easily discern the identity of each voice on the recording and that Yeddyurappa did not say clearly say he had bribed him.

“I received the audio clip and before speaking to you (the media), I listened to it carefully. One cannot understand who said what to whom in that tape. Yeddyurappa did not say that he had bribed the speaker. Some leaders who were trying to convince him (Sharangouda) said that speaker is a Congress person and someone else who was present said that he had spoken to the speaker. One cannot clearly determine who spoke those words”. 

Also read: As Speaker Pleads Inability to Decide on Rebel MLAs’ Resignation, Uncertainty Greets SC Order

Return of Rs 5 crore (February 10, 2019)

Srinivas Gowda, an MLA from Kolar, next alleged that as part of Operation Lotus, BJP leaders — MLA Ashwatnarayan, C.P. Yogeshwar and Vishvanath — had offered him Rs 30 crore. He claimed that he accepted Rs 5 crore as advance and alleged that he was promised the rest once he joined BJP. “On the advice of Kumaraswamy,” the MLA said he returned the Rs 5 crore through former deputy chief minister R. Ashok. Srinivas said that this offer was made about two months before February and ever since then, BJP leaders have been pressurising him to jump ship. 

B.S. Yeddyurappa. Credit: PTI

B.S. Yeddyurappa had claimed that it was not him but a mimicry artist that the Congress had used in the audio clips, to impersonate him. Photo: PTI

Kumaraswamy reportedly said that this point that Yeddyurappa had claimed that the Congress-JD(S) combine were using a mimicry artist. “He says that I have concocted this audio because I am movie producer. He even said he will retire from politics if true, but if it’s fake, then I will retire from politics,” he had explosively added.

The next day, Yeddyurappa accepted that he had indeed spoken with Sharanagouda, but made the crucial addition that it was Kumaraswamy who had sent him to meet him.

Fourth attempt at bribery (February 11, 2019)

Kumaraswamy then firmly accused the BJP of trying to dislodge the state government. While he released the audio clips, it was also discovered that Yeddyurappa had allegedly also tried to lure JD(S) legislator Naganagouda Kandkur with Rs 25 crore and the promise of a ministerial berth.

The chief minister also constituted an SIT for probing the audio clips, the veracity of which were doubted by Yeddyurappa. The speaker Ramesh Kumar also took cognisance of the attempt to bribe legislators, which is a privilege issue, and asked for the probe to be completed within 15 days. 

Also read | Karnataka’s Quandary: To Believe or Not to Believe

The opposition party threatened to release a video of Kumaraswamy from 2016, allegedly asking a ticket aspirant to pay him Rs 25 crore. 

Then the ‘resignations’ of Congress and JD(S) MLAs followed. How can the resignation of legislators who were mentioned and party to the audio clips be considered as genuine and voluntary?

Can a political party be allowed to dislodge a government by bribing? If they constitute next government, what will happen to any attempt to bribe any public servant? Will they be regarded as crimes or not?

New definition 

To catch the corrupt, the NDA claimed to have strengthened the Prevention of Corruption Act by an amendment in 2018.  A new term added is “undue advantage,” which has been defined to mean any gratification other than legal remuneration.

A berth in the cabinet is being used as a gratification here. And the BJP as a political party will gain undue advantage out of these engineered resignations. The term “gratification” has been clarified to include all forms of gratification estimable in money besides pecuniary gratification, which again should include powerful positions being offered as inducement for defection.

Section 8 punishes persons abetting a bribe or attempting to indulge in corruption with a public servant. Every owner of the voices which offered these bribes either attempted or abetted bribery.

The audio clips, luxury resorts, MLAs coming from airports to meet speakers and returning to their unknown destinations in Mumbai by special chartered flight, all of this should have been offences under the amended Act.

Why did the NDA government not allow a probe into these brazen acts of corruption?

M. Sridhar Acharyulu is professor of constitutional law at Bennet University and former central information commissioner.