"I am not scared of anyone. The only people I am scared of are you people,'' thundered N. Chandrababu Naidu this Sunday while addressing a public meeting in Anantapuram. He was stung by actor Pawan Kalyan's taunt the previous day on whether it was the fear of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that was stopping the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from pressing for special category status for Andhra Pradesh.
The bad news came 48 hours later. The Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) special court in Hyderabad, acting on a petition filed by Ramakrishna Reddy, the YSR Congress MLA from Mangalagiri in Guntur district, ordered an investigation into Naidu's role in the cash-for-votes scam, which broke out in May last year in Telangana. The Andhra Pradesh chief minister has every reason to be apprehensive about how the people of both Telugu-speaking states would react to the way the case pans out.
The case pertains to the MLC election in Telangana in mid-2015. It was alleged that senior TDP MLA Revanth Reddy tried to bribe independent MLA Elvis Stephenson to cast his vote in favour of the TDP candidate. After Stephenson informed the ACB about the offer, the agency ensured the room in his home was bugged with several spy cameras and the entire transaction, which showed Reddy laying out Rs 50 lakh in cash before Stephenson, was recorded. Reddy, subsequently, cooled his heels in Hyderabad central prison for a month before securing bail.
Naidu could well have argued that Revanth Reddy was acting on his own and washed his hands off the entire unsavoury episode. But he had not bargained with Reddy's penchant for name-dropping.
Naidu could well have argued that Revanth Reddy was acting on his own and washed his hands off the entire unsavoury episode. But he had not bargained with Reddy's penchant for name-dropping. During the entire taped conversation, Revanth Reddy spared no effort to show how close he is to Chandrababu Naidu and how he has his blessings and support in whatever he does.
That wasn't all. Another accused in the cash-for-vote scandal, Bishop Harry Sebastian, a member of the TDP's Christian cell, reportedly made Naidu speak to Stephenson. Then a voice, allegedly that of Naidu, assures Stephenson, saying, "Our people briefed me. I am with you, don't bother. For everything I am with you. What all they spoke, we will honour."
Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao sensed an opportunity to corner Naidu, planting in friendly media the possibility that Naidu could be questioned by the ACB, named as an accused, and even arrested. That had the effect of forcing Naidu to move out of the common capital Hyderabad and work out of Amaravati, the area designated as the new capital of Andhra Pradesh.
Naidu simultaneously went on a tangent and accused KCR of tapping his phones, hoping to create a constitutional crisis, where the CM of one state was using the intelligence network at his disposal to overhear phone conversations of another CM. Naidu's allegation has not stuck: the ACB had stumbled on this phone conversation because Sebastian's phone had downloaded an app to automatically record all conversations on his phone. In fact, the ACB claimed that of the 516 phone conversations on Sebastian's phone, 102 pertained to the cash-for-vote case.
With Naidu moving out of Hyderabad, the case was subsequently put in cold storage, raising suspicion that Delhi had brokered peace between the two chief ministers. KCR had achieved what he wanted — almost kill the TDP in Telangana, with 12 of the party's 15 legislators moving to the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), seeing no future in the state in a party whose leader stood "discredited" in the public eye in Telangana.
Now the case has gathered momentum once again with the YSR Congress leader going to the ACB court demanding investigation against Naidu, accusing him of being the chief "abettor and perpetrator" of the conspiracy. He has also submitted test reports by an independent forensic lab, which state that the voice is indeed that of Naidu's.
It is obvious that the reopening of this almost-shut case and a possible visit by ACB sleuths to Naidu would embarrass the TDP supremo. It will give a handle to Jaganmohan Reddy to taunt Naidu's claims of a clean image.
The date is interesting because on September 1, 1995, Naidu was sworn in as chief minister of united Andhra Pradesh for the first time.
Much will depend on how much rope KCR decides to give the ACB. He has already achieved his aim of neutralising Naidu in Telangana and would not risk things get out of hand. Also, the voice that is alleged to be that of Naidu does not mention any amount of money and cannot be construed as a clear offer of bribe.
At best, KCR can tighten the screws by making Naidu an accused in the case, in a bid to ensure the TDP takes its pedal off criticism of the TRS government in Telangana. KCR cannot risk an investigation into whether any phones are tapped in his domain because many opposition leaders in Telangana have alleged that their phones are indeed tapped.
On Thursday afternoon, Naidu approached the Hyderabad High Court, seeking a stay on any ACB proceedings against him. His argument is that Ramakrishna Reddy, the complainant, as an MLA from a neighbouring state, has no locus standi in the case, as he is "not a victim nor an aggrieved person".
The date is interesting because on September 1, 1995, Naidu was sworn in as chief minister of united Andhra Pradesh for the first time. That day, after the swearing-in ceremony, he drove to N.T. Rama Rao's home in Hyderabad and knocked on his door to seek his blessings. But NTR, who was also Naidu's father-in-law, was terribly hurt at the manner in which Naidu and his friends had toppled him in a palace coup and shut the door on Naidu's face, refusing to meet him, leave alone bless him.
Today Naidu has knocked on the high court's door, hoping it will not do an NTR. The abbreviation in this case, would stand for "Nothing To Restrain".
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