In a major relief to embattled former chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, the Andhra Pradesh High Court on Monday, 20 November, granted regular bail to him in the ₹371 crore AP State Skill Development Corporation (APSSDC) scam case.
The relief came at a time when the TDP chief was preparing to go back to jail on 28 November, after the expiry of the conditional bail granted to him by the high court on health considerations.
The high court also lifted the restriction imposed on him that he could not take part in any political programmes. He can now lead political rallies and address public meetings — but only after 28 November, when the conditional bail expires.
Need to submit medical records
High court judge Justice T Mallikarjun Rao, however, said that Naidu would have to appear before the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) Court in Vijayawada on 30 November and submit all medical records pertaining to the treatment he had undertaken.
An upbeat TDP, hailing the decision of the high court in granting regular bail, said that it was a tight slap to the ruling YSRCP.
“It proves that the YSRCP is nothing but a bundle of lies and political conspiracies,” the party said in a statement.
The party claimed that despite efforts by the ruling YSRCP to constantly put Naidu under scrutiny and label him as a criminal, it had failed.
“This shows how scared the YSRCP is of the TDP,” the party said.
During the arguments that took place in the high court on 15 and 16 November regarding the bail petition, the prosecution was led by Additional Advocate General (AAG) Ponnavolu Sudhakar, on behalf of the AP Crime Investigation Department (CID), while Supreme Court lawyer Sidharth Luthra appeared for Naidu.
The court, after hearing their arguments, delivered the judgement on Monday.
Dismissed prosecution claim
While granting the bail, the court held that the prosecution’s claim that the petitioner indirectly influenced witnesses, the co-accused, and the party members, lacked substantiating material.
It also said that the allegation that the petitioner influenced key witnesses and hindered the investigation lacked supporting evidence. The judge said that the copy of the FIR filed in the Begumpet Police Station in Hyderabad did not show a violation of interim bail conditions by the petitioner, such as conducting a rally.
The court also said that it was unconvinced by the petitioner’s claim that the case was politically motivated as a “regime revenge” by the present government.
The respondent state had highlighted that the issue was raised by a whistle-blower during the previous government’s regime.
The respondent argued that the Income Tax authorities independently examined the petitioner’s role and found fraudulent transactions but provided no supporting material.
Court points out prosecution claims
The court also noted the prosecution’s assertion that the finance secretary who raised objections to the funds released for the APSSDC project, also emphasised that the funds should be released with necessary security in the form of bank guarantees.
Despite these objections, the chief secretary, with the chief minister’s endorsement, ordered the release of funds, the court observed. The prosecution did not argue that the chief minister lacked the authority to issue such directions when objections were raised for the release of budget release orders (BROs), the court pointed out.
The petitioner’s inclination to clear funds did not imply his involvement in the offence without evidence of funds being diverted to his or his party’s account, the court observed.
It also agreed with the Naidu’s senior counsel that the petitioner could not be held responsible for every sub-contractor’s evasion. There is no prima facie indication that officials informed the petitioner of such deviations, it said.
The high court also held that the prosecution had not alleged that finance secretary K Sunitha and her team submitted an incorrect report and actions were taken against them
The petitioner’s counsel argued that the respondent should acknowledge the project’s goodwill aimed at equipping students with skills, benefiting approximately 2.13 lakh students.
While it is undisputed that around two lakh graduates received technical training and appreciation letters, the prosecution contended that of the ₹371 crore in question, at least ₹241 crore was diverted to various shell companies.
Arguments opposing bail
AAG Ponnavolu Sudhakar, opposing bail to Naidu, had contended that the TDP chief had violated the provision of the interim bail granted by the court on health grounds.
He claimed that Naidu took out a rally in Hyderabad after his release from prison, which was a violation of the bail conditions, adding that the Begumpet police registered a case against him.
He said the argument of the petitioner’s lawyers that Naidu should be given bail because all other accused in the case had already got bail, does not hold water. He also said that for considering the bail application of Naidu, there was no need for the court to consider the medical reports submitted to the court.
In fact, they were supposed to be handed over to the jail superintendent in a sealed cover after the expiry of the conditional bail, which itself is a violation of the interim bail conditions.
Naidu’s counsels had argued earlier that the CID was acting in accordance with the diktats of the state government and insisted that it should serve the law and not its political bosses.
The CID was registering cases against Chandrababu Naidu to serve the political interests of the ruling class, they argued.
On 9 November, the Supreme Court had adjourned to 30 November the hearing on Naidu’s anticipatory bail petition in the FiberNet case.
The court also extended Naidu protection from arrest in the case till it hears the matter.
On 13 October, the Andhra Pradesh government had assured the top court that it would not arrest the former chief minister in the FiberNet case till 18 October. The undertaking was reiterated on 17 October and 20 October.
Posting the matter to 30 November, a bench of Justice Aniruddha Bose and Justice Bela M Trivedi said that there were overlapping issues in the matters — the APSSDC and the FiberNet case — and the judgement would be delivered on whether Naidu was protected under Section 17A of the Prevention of Corruption (PC) Act in both the cases after the Deepavali vacation.
Naidu approached the top court contending that no criminal prosecution could be initiated against him on the issues arising from the decisions he had made while discharging his official duties as the chief minister between 2014 and 2019, without the prior sanction of the Governor as provided under the Section 17A of the PC Act.