The political turmoil in Rajasthan took a serious turn on Friday with the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the State Police registering two criminal cases after incriminating audio tapes were made public in which a dissident Congress MLA is purportedly talking to Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and a middleman about toppling the Ashok Gehlot government.
On the legal tussle over disqualification, rebel Congress leader Sachin Pilot got a respite from the Rajasthan High Court . The court directed Assembly Speaker C.P. Joshi not to take a decision on the disqualification notices issued by him to legislators in the Pilot camp till July 21 evening. The Speaker had earlier given time till Friday to the MLAs to respond to the notices.
After a Division Bench headed by Chief Justice Indrajit Mahanty passed the direction, the Speaker’s office stated that Mr. Joshi had deferred the hearing on notices issued to 19 MLAs after taking into account the “dignity of judiciary” and in view of the matter being sub judice. The decision was taken with the consent of senior advocates representing both the sides, it said.
In the wake of the tapes that surfaced on Thursday night, the Congress announced the suspension of Bhanwarlal Sharma, representing Sardarshahar Assembly constituency in Churu district, who was allegedly in conversation with the Union Minister. Vishvendra Singh, who has been sacked as the Tourism Minister, was also suspended from the primary membership of the party. The party has issued show cause notices to them.
Discussion on bribes
Addressing a press conference, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the audio tapes had revealed the role of Mr. Sharma and Mr. Shekhawat in the conspiracy that involved payment of bribes, exchange of black money and hawala transactions. The horse-trading of MLAs was being done through middleman Sanjay Jain, who was a BJP leader, he said.
Mr. Surjewala demanded an investigation and arrest of Mr. Shekhawat if the SOG’s probe confirmed the misuse of office by him, which he said was “prima facie clear”. While alleging a conspiracy by “influential people” in the Union government and its agencies to topple the State government, he demanded that Mr. Pilot, dismissed as the Deputy Chief Minister, clarify his position vis-a-vis a specific allegation that he had provided a list of MLAs to the BJP.
The FIRs registered by the SOG under Sections 124-A (sedition) and 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of IPC, named Mr. Sharma, Mr. Shekhawat and Mr. Jain. SOG Additional Director-General Ashok Rathore said the matter would be under investigation until the persons said to be conversing in the audio tapes were identified.
The SOG, which had called Mr. Jain for interrogation on Thursday night, arrested him on Friday. A five-member SOG team left for Manesar in Haryana, where the MLAs loyal to Mr. Pilot are staying in a resort, to ascertain the version of those whose names had come up in the audio tapes and collect evidence. The SOG comes directly under Mr. Gehlot, who also holds the Home portfolio.
Congress Chief Whip Mahesh Joshi, who had lodged a complaint about the tapes with the SOG, told reporters that he could recognise the voice of Mr. Sharma talking to Mr. Shekhawat.
Rajasthan political crisis | Congress keeps channels open with Sachin Pilot
“If Mr. Shekhawat is saying that it is not his voice, we will also be happy, as the Union Minister talking in this manner is a blot on politics. He should volunteer to give his voice samples,” Mr. Joshi said.
While the newly appointed Pradesh Congress Committee president Govind Singh Dotasra said the BJP had this time selected a “wrong State” for its conspiracy, sources in the ruling party privately said the conversations in the audio tapes had made it clear that the Pilot camp was “buying time” and would strike when they got the support of more than 30 MLAs.
“Mr. Pilot is trying to fool Congress by giving statements that he is not joining the BJP or is speaking with [former Finance Minister] P. Chidambaram. We have conveyed this to the high command,” the sources said.
In the conversations recorded in the audio tapes, one person could be heard talking about more MLAs needed to topple the State government, while another individual expressed confidence that the government would not last long. There is also a discussion that it would take 10 to 15 days to topple the government.