With just a year to go for the state elections in Karnataka, the Congress unit in the state is caught in a sensational bribery scandal that has embarrassed many of its top leaders.

Last week, television channels reported on the contents of a diary recovered during a raid by the Income Tax department on the house of senior Congress leader K Govindaraj, who, among other things, is the Parliamentary secretary to Karnataka Chief Minister K Siddaramiah.

The diary was purportedly seized during a raid in March last year. The Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in the state has alleged that the contents of the diary – in the form of initials with amounts scribbled next to them – point to a massive scam and show that state Congress unit took kickbacks to clear a controversial steel flyover project in Bengaluru and passed it on to the top brass in New Delhi.

The diary has entries about amounts given to “RG” and “SG”, which the BJP claimed referred to the offices of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice President Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress has claimed that the diary is fabricated and held a huge rally in Bengaluru on Thursday, accusing the Union government of misusing investigation agencies to carry out vindictive campaigns against it. However, despite its dismissal of it, the scandal has evidently put the Congress on the defensive and has hit the party hard ahead of the 2018 state elections.

Wider ramifications

The diary also refers to an M Vohra, AP and DGS, which the BJP alleges implicates Congress leaders Motilal Vohra, Ahmed Patel and Digvijay Singh.

Speaking to Scroll.in, Govindaraj said the diary did not belong to him and the handwriting too was not his. He said the diary had been planted in his house by political opponents and that he would stand trial.

Within the Congress, the row over the diary has also given factions opposed to Siddaramaiah the much-needed ammunition to bargain hard on seat allocations for the elections.

For the BJP, “bribegate”, as the scandal is being called, is a weapon that could be used beyond Karnataka and could potentially neutralise the row over the Sahara-Birla papers, a collection of documents recovered during I-T raids from the corporate giants which, according to the Congress, suggest that Narendra Modi, as Gujarat chief minister, had received crores in pay-offs.

Curious timing

The timing of the Karnataka diary scandal has not gone unnoticed.

Former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, who was in October acquitted by a special Central Bureau of Investigation court in a corruption case, on February 12 alleged that about Rs 1,000 crore had been paid in bribes to Congressmen to clear the steel flyover in Bengaluru. Days later, the contents of the diary made their way to the media. The diary suggested that Rs 65 crore has been transferred to various leaders for the steel bridge project, which Yeddyurappa said backed his allegations and sought an investigation into the bribery charges.

For the Congress, the scandal comes as yet another setback for a project that had met with public protests and widespread criticism last year and was eventually stayed by the National Green Tribunal. The 6.72-km elevated road, being built at close to Rs 1,800 crore rupees, cuts through the heart of Bengaluru to connect to the city airport. Environmental groups had claimed project would devastate the city’s tree cover, as at least 800 tress have to be felled to make way for it.

Congress leaders had responded to the criticism with personal attacks on protesters. Development Minister KJ George, for instance mocked agitators by saying that “those who fly in private jets are the ones opposing the flyover”.

However, with the bribery allegations and the diary scandal, the project is being seen in an entirely different perspective, with the BJP leaders indicating that the kickbacks were the reason the government decided to push the project despite public anger.

The Lokayukta Justice P Vishwanath Shetty, the state’s anti-corruption ombudsman has been approached to investigate the bribery allegations.

Credit: Vishal Radhakrishnan
Credit: Vishal Radhakrishnan

Sahara comparison

Like the diary recovered from Govindaraj’s house, the Sahara papers, first brought to the limelight by lawyer Prashant Bhushan last year, contained notes with abbreviations and details of money paid next to them. Rahul Gandhi had jumped on these documents to claim that they were proof of Modi’s “personal corruption”. In a rally in Mehsana, Gujarat, in December, he said the Sahara papers indicated that Modi had received more than Rs 50 crore during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat in 2013 from the Sahara and Birla group of companies.

However, a senior Karnataka BJP leader said they now expected the Congress to stop talking about the Sahara diaries. “After the Govindaraj diary revelations, the Congress will have no locus standi to talk about bribes,” said the leader, a legislator.

The Congress is hoping that the row in Karnataka dies down soon, the way the controversy over the Sahara diaries fizzled out after the Supreme Court in January refused to order an investigation into the matter. The Congress is also gearing up to campaign against the delay by the CBI in filing an appeal against’s Yeddyurappa’s acquittal in the corruption case.