An inquiry into the tapping of phone conversations of Bengaluru’s current Commissioner of Police Bhaskar Rao and the airing of clips to a section of the media has plunged Karnataka into political turmoil again, just weeks after the Congress-JD(S) coalition lost a trust vote paving the way for a BJP government in the state.
A police probe into the surveillance allegations has revealed that phones of several politicians, bureaucrats and journalists were tapped in recent months during the tenure of former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy, who has since denied any involvement.
It began as an internecine battle between officers in the Karnataka Police for the post of Bengaluru Police Commissioner. And days after the clips were aired, Congress leaders like Siddaramaiah, former Home Minister M B Patil, leader Mallikarjun Kharge and former BJP Home Minister R Ashok are among those who have demanded a probe into the phone tapping.
Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa has asked for a report from the Chief Secretary about the alleged illegal phone taps that occurred around November 2018 — when the Congress-JD(S) coalition was under threat from rebels in its ranks and BJP efforts to topple the government.
The allegations surfaced last week after telephone conversations of Rao with a man allegedly linked to the Congress high command emerged on a local television channel in Karnataka. Rao was appointed Commissioner on August 2 by Yediyurappa, who was sworn-in on July 26.
In the leaked conversations, Rao, a 1990-batch IPS officer of ADG rank, was heard asking an alleged middle man Faraz to lobby on his behalf with a Congress leader for the post of Bengaluru police commissioner. The purported conversations also refer to efforts being made by a junior police officer to be appointed Commissioner by superseding all seniors.
The alleged conversations — the authenticity of which is yet to established — seemed to have occurred prior to June 2019 when the Congress-JD(S) coalition lead by Kumaraswamy was still in power and a few senior police officers in Karnataka were vying for the post of Bengaluru Police Commissioner.
On June 17, Kumaraswamy appointed 1994-batch IPS officer Alok Kumar – who had just been promoted to ADGP rank – as Commissioner, superseding 21 ADGPs. The move resulted in turmoil in not just police, but within the coalition too.
Before his appointment as Commissioner, Kumar was Additional Commissioner of Police (Crime) for the city and had powers to authorise phone taps of persons linked to criminal activities.
Kumar, however, was eased out of the Commissioner’s post by Bhaskar Rao after the BJP came to power. The bad blood between the officers was evident when Kumar stayed away from the customary handing over of charge to his successor despite Rao waiting in the Commissioner’s office to receive the baton.
Shortly after Rao assumed charge, audio clips of his purported phone conversations with the alleged Congress middle man emerged on a news channel. The leak occurred even as Kumar approached the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) against his premature transfer within days of assuming charge.
While Rao directed the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Sandeep Patil to conduct an inquiry into the origins of the leaked conversations, Kumar told reporters that the conversations were tapped while police were tracking the activities of Faraz. “We were intercepting the calls of Faraz who was a suspect in a ponzi scheme,” Kumar said at the time, suggesting that Rao’s phone was not directly tapped.
Rao did not comment on the leaked audio clips and phone tapping. He, however, complained to state DGP Neelamani Raju about the incident setting in motion the inquiry, sources said.
A report by the Bengaluru JCP revealed that police had been tapping phones of not just those involved in crime but also politicians and bureaucrats for over six months leading to the Bhaskar Rao tapping incident.
“There was illegal tapping of phones of MLAs and bureaucrats. Close associates of the current Chief Minister and other leaders were also being monitored,” said police sources.
While there is a prescribed format for phone taps, an officer of the rank of Additional Commissioner can authorise tapping for a week without government sanction. However, sources said some of the phone taps of politicians and their associates were illegal.
The preliminary inquiry also looked at how the tapped conversations, which are government property, were leaked. It found that on August 2, when the Police Commissioner was being changed, a senior police officer asked officials at a technical cell involved in intercepting phone calls to provide recordings of the new Commissioner’s phone conversations with the alleged Congress middle man on a pen drive.
The leaked conversations then allegedly found their way to a television channel through another IPS officer, said police sources.
Based on the preliminary report given to the DGP, the Karnataka government is likely to order a probe by the CID, according to sources. On Friday, Kumar withdrew his petition challenging the appointment of Bhaskar Rao as Commissioner of Police.
Kumaraswamy, who was in power when much of the alleged illegal tapping occurred, has distanced himself from the incident. “I have always said when I was the CM that power is not permanent. I did not have the necessity to hang on to power by tapping the phones of people. Allegations of my involvement in this matter is all false,” he said.