Congress leader Veerappa Moily was categorical when he told me in 1983 that the “Moily tapes” were a colossal heap of nonsense. I didn’t believe him. But despite his confidence in winning a legal battle, he was shattered by the allegation that he had offered Rs 2 lakh to MLA C Byre Gowda to ditch Janata Party and join Congress. That was when Congress was unashamedly trying to topple the Janata Party government of Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde.
In those days, when a mobile phone was still an engineering dream, Hegde told me that it was his idea to ask Gowda to keep a dictaphone in his coat pocket when he met Moily inside a car to record their conversation. Both Hegde and Gowda were “sure” that Moily was fixed and Congress was exposed. If Moily was crestfallen, the nation was shaken. There was an angry walkout in Parliament, and Janata Party president Chandra Shekhar said he couldn’t imagine anything “more sordid” than those tapes.
But four years later, a commission of inquiry cleared Moily of the charge for lack of evidence.
Fast forward to 2019: On Friday, Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy of JD(S) played two audio clips, one of which purportedly caught state BJP president BS Yeddyurappa offering Rs 25 crore — or Rs 10 crore as mentioned elsewhere in the conversation — to an MLA for switching sides. A second clip has another male voice, supposedly that of BJP MLA Shivangouda Naik, boasting about compromising the Assembly Speaker (with Rs 50 crore) and judges.
And on Saturday, BJP hit back with the replay of a 2014 tape which allegedly shows Kumaraswamy demanding money to give a Legislative Council election ticket to an aspirant.
Though hitting headlines, these rival tapes didn’t come as a terrible shock to the state, leave alone sending the nation into grief. The very idea — or even just a hint of it — of a party shopping for legislators or buying them with money or posts or doling out seats for cash might stun the inventors of democracy. But such tapes have ceased to produce the intended shock and awe. The reason is not just the resigned acceptance of political corruption as part of the Indian system but also that, more than three decades after the Hegde-Gowda tiff, tapes and counter-tapes have become as routine in Karnataka as elections.
Yeddyurappa was a target of one such tape only in May 2018, when elections produced a hung Assembly and he took oath as the BJP chief minister though he was short of majority. During the 24 hours before the scheduled trust vote, Congress came out with as many as five tapes to nail BJP.
Price of an MLA? Rs 25 crore if some of the tapes are to be believed.
In one of these, Yeddyurappa tells an MLA he would give him “whatever you want.” In another one, Yeddyurappa’s son tells the wife of an MLA: “He (your husband) will become a minister, why must you worry about it?” But the MLA himself denied that it was his wife’s voice and that she had ever received that call.
Yet another tape allegedly had mining tycoon Gali Janardhana Reddy telling Congress MLA Basavanagouda Daddal: “You will get a minister’s post...you will make 100 times the money you have made so far.”
And this is also not the first time that Kumaraswamy is flaunting such “electronic evidence” against rivals. In October 2010, he sprang a CD which allegedly contained a conversation in which a BJP MLA tried to woo a JD(S) legislator. This was claimed to be the result of a “sting operation” using four cameras. “We will complain to the governor and seek his action demanding dismissal of the Yeddyurappa government,” Kumaraswamy had said at the time, but that was the last we heard about that complaint.
This was a tit-for-tat against an audio clip that BJP released 12 days earlier with a voice, allegedly that of Kumaraswamy, wooing one of the party’s MLAs into JD(S).
There have also been videos and audios in Karnataka which allegedly established scams of bribery in mining contracts, allotment of party tickets, cross-voting in Rajya Sabha elections and sexual misadventures.
Nose-diving of morality and the giant leap of technology have happened at the same time, making the production of an audio or a video tape with bizarre allegations as easy as the push of a button. If a smartphone makes it simple to record a conversation, there is also easily available editing software to tinker with it.
As investigators have said before, tech savvy crimes can also be busted with tech savvy software. Using different software, it isn’t tough to detect anomalies in an audio or a video that has been faked or a part of it has been tampered with.
Yet it is rarely easy to establish with irrefutable finality that a crime like wooing an MLA with money has been committed on the basis of a tape, unless the allegation is also backed with other evidence. Besides being long-drawn, a forensic investigation may never convincingly prove that the recording is either authentic or fake. And as it always happens in India’s insufferable politics, it’s easy to question the fairness of — or attribute motives to — any inquiry.
It’s clear that both the producer of a phony tape or the victim of a real one can thus take comfort from this.
So the pattern has been tiresomely repetitive. After a party produces a tape that allegedly incriminates another, the accuser swears by its authenticity, while the accused calls it fake and even springs a counter-tape to fix the former. Both talk of an inquiry only to forget all about it soon.
The Moily tapes were a notable exception. Both Moily and Hegde wanted an investigation, though the accused got a clean chit in the end. Moily, in fact, wanted an inquiry by a Supreme Court judge, which was rejected by the union law ministry.
The result of all this has been that Karnataka’s spate of political audios and videos have proved only one thing: the price of an MLA has shot up from Rs 2 lakh from the days of “Moily tapes” in 1983 to Rs 25 crore in Kumaraswamy’s era.