Former Karnataka Chief Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party Karnataka president BS Yeddyurappa on Wednesday was given a clean chit in a corruption case by a special Central Bureau of Investigation court.

Two central allegations had been made against him. Yeddyurappa was charged with misusing his official position as chief minister in 2008 to help his sons and son-in-law clinch a land deal, earning an illegal gratification of Rs 20 crore. He was also investigated for influencing mining policies in favour of two firms, which cost a government company revenue to the tune of Rs 878 crore. In return, an education trust administered by his family received Rs 20 crore in donations.

The case was the result of an investigation by Justice Santosh Hegde, who was the Lokayukta of Karnataka in 2011. The cases were registered on the directions of the Supreme Court in 2011.

The special court found no substance in either allegation and said the prosecution had failed to provide enough evidence to pin down the accused people, who included Yeddyurappa and 13 others. An analysis of the judgment suggests that key bits of circumstantial evidence failed to make an impression on the court.

Chronology of a land deal

Five important people were involved in the land deal taken up by the court: Yeddyurappa, his sons BY Vijayendra and BY Raghavendra, his son-in-law RN Sonam Kumar and former minister SN Krishnaiah Shetty.

The plot in question was of 1.12 acres in Rachenahalli village in Bengaluru. The prosecution alleged that in April 2003, Krishnaiah Shetty approached the owners of the land and executed an unregistered agreement for the sale. He took physical possession of the polot after paying Rs 12.35 lakh to the owners and later obtained a general power of attorney to represent the owners in all official proceedings related to the land.

This transaction took place despite the knowledge that the land had already been notified for acquisition by the government for a project named Arakavati Layout. Under prevalent laws, it was illegal to sell land notified by the government for acquisition.

Krishnaiah Shetty allegedly sold parts of the land to Yeddyurappa's sons and son-in-law in March and April 2006. At this point, Yeddyurappa was deputy chief minister and Shetty a legislator. When the sale deed was submitted for registration, the official concerned refused to do so, citing the government acquisition notification. The prosecution claimed the accused men forged documents to push for the registration.

Crucially, Krishnaiah Shetty, having sold substantial parts of the land to Yeddyurappa's family, was said to have continued to use the power of attorney obtained from the original owners to apply for the de-notification of the entire plot.

Finally, after going through official channels of the urban development and revenue departments, the files reached Yeddyurappa in 2008, who de-notified it along with few others in the same area. This plot was later sold to a company with links to mining at a rate of Rs 20 crore.

Yeddyurappa's defence

The defence circumvented the question of government notification for land acquisition by citing orders passed by former chief ministers SM Krishna in 2004 and and Dharam Singh in 2006.

It was argued that 131 acres of land notified for the Arakavati Layout, including the contested plot in Rachenahalli in Bengaluru, had already been de-notified by SM Krishna in 2004 to facilitate the creation of an Information Technology park.

The prosecution rejected this claim. It said that the 131 acres had been reduced to 60 acres by Dharam Singh in 2006. In addition, SM Krishna's decision had not been officially published in the gazette and remained as a draft, whereas Singh's order had actually been published.

The defence countered that publication in the gazette was only for the purpose of public knowledge and its absence does not jeopardise the de-notification. It also questioned Singh's 2006 order and said once a plot has been de-notified, the only way to notify it again was to start the acquisition process from scratch. This argument was accepted by the court.

The judge also analysed plots included in the 60 acres de-notified by Singh and concluded that the in Rachenahalli fell in this list. Therefore, there was no illegality in the registration of the sale deed.

Since de-notification of the land had been proved, this also weakened the prosecution's claim that no-objection certificates were forged to execute the registration. The court threw out this allegation though some witnesses stated in their depositions that the no-objection certificates did not carry signatures of officers.

Circumstances overlooked

While the court dealt with the legality of land registration and cleared the accused people of any wrongdoing, some developments that led to the land deal stuck out.

Take the case of the de-notification itself.

It was argued that in 2008, officials took the decision to allow the sale of the contested land based on the 2004 de-notification and that there were no legal impediments for its sale.

However, it isn't clear why Yeddyurappa chose to de-notify the land once again in 2008 if the officials were certain that SM Krishna had already done it in 2004. The court dismissed this question by saying that the 2008 decision was only superfluous in nature.

But the manner in which the de-notification took place seems curious.

On October 18, 2008, Yeddyurappa instructed his joint secretary to send a note to the urban development department. The note sought files related to de-notification of plots, including the one involving his sons and son-in-law.

Everything was done so swiftly that the files returned to Yeddyurappa by evening and the de-notification orders were passed on the same day.

Bypassing conventions

While convention demanded that any decision by a chief minister or a minister that involved personal interests should be placed before the Cabinet for scrutiny, this was not followed. The reason for skipping this practice was that the de-notification had no financial implications for the government since the lands had only been notified and were yet to be taken possession of.

Despite suggestions from officers that the matter be placed before the de-notification committee, the chief minister went ahead with his orders.

It isn't clear why it was necessary to pass an order of such importance on a single day? Besides, over 30 such requests for de-notification in the same layout have been rejected by the government in the past citing the acquisition clause.

During the trial, the defence justified the decision by pointing to past instances when plots had been de-notified without the concurrence of the committee, which they argued was only a recommendatory body.

However, when SM Krishna de-notified the 131 acres in 2004, there were no accusations of his relatives benefiting from the transaction. In 2008, the chief minister was de-notifying lands that included 1.12 acres that directly benefited his sons and son-in-law.

Another bit of circumstantial evidence was also handled softly. Some officers had claimed during the trial that a person attached to the chief minister's office had visited them and had asked them to expedite the process relating to the land. Former minister Krishnaiah Shetty had also met officials for the same purpose though the witnesses said they were not asked to do anything illegal by anyone.

The court also accepted the view that since survey numbers surrounding the disputed land had all been de-notified, Yeddyurappa could not have taken any other decision but to release the 1.12 acres in question.