A political storm raged in Chhattisgarh Wednesday after The Indian Express published a report on purported conversations between key political players that suggest financial inducements could have been offered to make a Congress candidate withdraw at the last minute from an Assembly by-election in the state in 2014, giving the BJP a walkover.
Stating that the purported audio recordings confirmed its fears that the Antagarh by-election had been rigged, the Chhattisgarh Congress served a show-cause notice to its MLA Amit Jogi and sought an explanation from his father and former chief minister Ajit Jogi.
State Congress chief Bhupesh Baghel said: “We have given seven days to Amit Jogi. If his reply is not satisfactory, we will expel him from the party.”
“We have also asked for an explanation from Ajit Jogi. Since he is a CWC member, his reply will be forwarded to the party high command,” Baghel said.
The Congress also asked the Governor to sack Chief Minister Raman Singh and said a Supreme Court-monitored SIT must be formed to investigate the matter.
The Chief Minister and the BJP, meanwhile, distanced themselves from the matter, dismissing the allegations as “baseless… a result of the infighting in the Congress”.
The Indian Express has received tapes of several phone conversations purportedly between Ajit Jogi, his son Amit Jogi and Raman Singh’s son-in-law Puneet Gupta; between Congress candidate Manturam Pawar (who withdrew) and former Jogi loyalist Firoz Siddiqui; a third between Pawar, who is now with the BJP, and Siddiqui; between Siddiqui and another Jogi loyalist Ameen Memon; and between Amit Jogi and Siddiqui. Most of these purported conversations are in the run-up to voting day, in the last week of August 2014.
The purported conversations suggest that a deal was sought to be struck to make Pawar, then a Jogi loyalist, to withdraw his candidature for the Antagarh (ST-reserved) seat in Kanker district which voted on September 13, 2014. There are references to the Chief Minister’s house repeatedly in the purported conversations.
On Wednesday, Ajit Jogi and his son Amit both denied that the voices on the tapes were theirs, calling the allegations “baseless” and “fabricated”.
A press release issued by Amit Jogi said they would take legal recourse against The Indian Express, and additionally filed a complaint with the cyber crime cell of the Bilaspur police.
Pawar, the candidate who withdrew, too denied that the voice on the tape was his. “This is a conspiracy. I said before the entire state that I withdrew from the election because of lack of support from my party. The voice on the tape isn’t mine at all,” he said.
Baghel said while there was always suspicion that the Antagarh by-election had been rigged, the purported audio recordings confirmed his party’s fears.
“Everyone was in the know that the by-election in Antagarh had been engineered. The withdrawal of the Congress candidate was nothing but drama. And now, there seems to be evidence of why this happened. The Chief Minister has sullied democratic practices and brought shame to Chhattisgarh. Our first demand is that the Governor immediately sack the Raman Singh government,” Baghel said.
He also called for a probe by a Supreme Court-monitored SIT. “The Centre must call for a Supreme Court-monitored SIT into the matter. Prime Minister Narendra Modi says ‘na khaoonga, na khaane doonga’. The BJP here has done both. They say there is no involvement of their party. In that case, there should be no hesitation in calling for an investigation,” he said.
Chief Minister Raman Singh responded to the charges by saying that neither his government nor the BJP had anything to do with the matter.
“This is all a result of the infighting in the Congress, and they are trying to drag the BJP into it as well. The candidate who withdrew himself has said that he withdrew because his party was not backing him. I think the matter ends there,” he said.
Asked about the purported voice of his son-in-law Dr Puneet Gupta in the recordings, Singh said, “Dr Puneet Gupta has nothing to do with politics, and his name is being dragged in purely to try and target my family. If you don’t get anything against Raman Singh, you attack others. This is very low politics.”
Asked if he would order an investigation, Raman Singh said, “I think this is an internal Congress matter and they should look into it.”
Addressing a press conference, Shivratan Sharma of the BJP said this wasn’t the first time the party had emerged victorious in Antagarh. “So then, where is the question of doing any of this? It is known to everyone that there are two groups that operate within the Congress, one headed by Bupesh Baghel and T S Singhdeo, and the other by Amit Jogi. Their support in Chhattisgarh has been completely eroded. This is just drama, an attempt to remain relevant,” he said.