After spending nearly 24 hours in police custody, three members of Congress poll strategist Sunil Kanugolu’s team were let off on Wednesday, 14 December. But not before they were handed notices under 41(A) of the CrPC and told to appear for questioning whenever investigating authorities sought their presence.
Police are also preparing to issue a notice to Sunil Kanugolu, who, according to sources in the police and the Congress, has been named an accused in the case. Charges of creating, posting and distributing defamatory content, including under section 501 IPC, have been invoked in the case, sources said.
What started off as an inquiry into complaints of “objectionable” social media posts and raids at the offices of Kanugolu’s MindShare Analytics and INClusive Minds — engaged in election management and campaign strategy consultancy for the Congress — reached the floor of Lok Sabha with Congress MP Manickam Tagore raising the issue during Zero Hour.
While all the action unfolded in a matter of hours, Telangana police insist that they have been investigating the matter over months now.
“This is not a new case. Over the last few months, there were five FIRs registered at different police stations in Hyderabad City Commissionerate after complaints were received. After detailed enquiry, the IP address of the post led to the MindShare Analytics office. We are enquiring into it under the law. There is no motivation. We checked the content and then we started the investigation,” Joint Commissioner of Police Dr Gajarao Bhupal told South First.
Police are probing if fake identities were used to create anonymous account with the intent to defame leaders of the BRS, including Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, and if sections of IT Act were violated while creating and managing content.
Unintended attention or deliberate targeting?
Police personnel as well as leaders of KCR’s newly-renamed Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) insisted that the investigating authorities had no clue that the office they were searching for was the Congress’ war room.
“Abusive, offensive, morphed photographs of the chief minister have been put up by social media handles, and these handles’ IP address has been found at Mindshare. They have put out unlawful, abusive content from the Madhapur office to which the IP address was traced. It was only after Congress leaders arrived at the location did we get to know that it was a party war room,” Krishank Manne, Social Media convenor of BRS, claimed in a statement.
Leaders of BRS suggested that the police were simply probing a case filed by citizens who took objection to the content being shared by several social media pages and happened to tumble upon Congress war room. They did not anticipate the backlash or the noise the issue made.
“Police didn’t even know that the office was associated with the Congress or that such largescale online operations were being run from there,” a leader claimed.
The office, however, has been running from the location for over seven months, and the Congress is sceptical of the BRS and police claim of ignorance about it being the party’s war room.
BRS party, having come under severe fire for adopting “BJP’s style” of going after political opponents despite claiming to be a counter to the saffron party, seems to have landed itself in embarrassment over what some claim was “overenthusiasm” by police personnel.
And it has given the Congress an opportunity to play the victim card.
‘Attempt to steal data, stall campaign’
While Congress cadres staged protest across Telangana, some courted arrests while others claimed to have been placed under house arrest by police, leaders of the party repeatedly drew parallels between KCR and the BJP’s approach towards Opposition parties.
“They (the BRS government) are throttling democracy in Telangana. What is the difference between KCR and (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi?” Pawan Khera, chairman of the Congress Media and Publicity Department said at a press conference at the Congress headquarters in Delhi.
Telangana Congress Chief Revanth Reddy even accused KCR of hobnobbing with BJP to steal Congress’ data.
“This is a conspiracy by K Chandrashekar Rao, in cahoots with Narendra Modi, to steal sensitive survey and analytical data from Congress’ war room. This is an attempt to steal data on Karnataka elections where Rao has announced an alliance with HD Kumaraswamy’s JDS,” Revanth Reddy told reporters in New Delhi.
Congress has vehemently opposed Telangana police’s move to make Sunil Kanugolu — a member of the AICC Task Force — an accused in the case.
“Never has such action been taken against a political party’s war room, that too over social media posts. We were taken aback and did not expect Telangana government to target us. No due process, no procedure has been followed,” Manickam Tagore told South First.
“Chandrashekar Rao has bought out the media in Telangana, and the Congress was using social media as a medium to bring to light the failures of the state government,” Revanth Reddy said.
The timing of the raid and seizure of electronic devices too raised questions. The raid came on the eve of BRS party office inauguration in New Delhi. Congress workers suspect that the raid was an attempt to stop social media criticism against Rao on the day he was inaugurating his new office.
As a Congress leader put it, with the raids and the case over social media posts, Chandrashekar Rao has done a Narendra Modi while claiming to be taking on the BJP with his BRS.