Just as three days are left for the Assembly elections in Karnataka, the two key contenders--Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress—have plunged into heavy mudslinging after nearly 10,000 "fake" voter ID cards were seized from a flat in Rajrajeshwari Assembly seat on Wednesday.
The issue snowballed into a massive controversy that rocked the state, prompting the BJP to demand countermanding of the election claiming Congress was behind the racket, while the latter dismissed the charge as a "lie".
Interestingly, each claimed the flat belonged to a woman associated with the rival party.
Early in the day, Union minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters that Congress candidate and sitting MLA Munirathna Naidu was behind the alleged racket, which was exposed by BJP worker Rakesh. Reacting to it, Congress spokesman Rajdeep Singh Surjawala hit right back, alleging that the flat owner Manjula Nanjamari and Rakesh had BJP connections and both contested Bengaluru Municipal Corporation elections on BJP tickets.
Amid the blamegame, Karnataka Chief Electoral Officer Sanjiv Kumar said a Deputy Election Commissioner rank official was being rushed from the national capital to Bengaluru for probe into the matter. Maintaining that prima facie the I-cards looked genuine, he said only a thorough inquiry will reveal the truth.
"It was earlier suggested that somebody was trying to break into our (computer) system to prepare fake ID cards.... that is not so," Kumar said, adding it was for the Election Commission to take a decision on countermanding the election.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attacked the Congress over adopting such tactics to win the election, in his campaign speech.
"Thousands of voter ID cards were seized, 1 lakh voters slips were seized in just one place. They must have planned such games in 40-50 constituencies. You (voters) be alert. Such sin cannot be allowed during the celebration of democracy (polls)," he told elections rallies.
The police seized thousands of fake cards with hologram, lamination machines and computers after BJP workers informed about the racket, Javadekar said.
"This is the philosophy of the Congress....if voters do not vote for you, create fake voters," he said, claiming a "fake voter ID printing factory" was being run in Manjula's flat. Manjula, he said, was once associated with the BJP but was now with the Congress, and demanded her immediate arrest.
Manjula had campaigned for the sitting Congress MLA from the seat and its candidate for the current Assembly election Munirathna Naidu in the last polls, the BJP spokesman said.
The Congress hit back, claiming the BJP was making false allegations in view of its imminent defeat.
"They are making such allegations because of their imminent defeat, and after their workers and leaders were caught red-handed influencing voters in collating and collecting fake ID cards in order to influence the results of the elections," Surjewala told reporters.
Surjewala claimed the flat belonged to a BJP worker and the ID cards and equipment were not recovered from the flat by the police but BJP workers.
"Prakash Javadekar had the audacity to lie, mislead the people of Karnataka by saying Manjula does not belong to the BJP. She is a former BJP corporator and Rakesh also contested corporation election on BJP ticket in 2015," he said.
"Javadekar runs a factory of lies. Rakesh was a tenant of flat No. 115 and its is mentioned in the list of BJP candidates who contested the corporation elections. Manjula is a former BJP corporator from Jalahalli," he said, citing newspaper reports.
While some TV news channels claimed Rakesh was Manjula's son, and others said she was his adoptive mother, the women at the centre of the controversy insisted they were relatives but had "no contact".
She told TV channels in Kannada, which was translated into English, that since she owned the land on which the apartment building stood, she had entered into a joint venture with a builder.
Manjula said she had rented or leased out the flats.
The flat under question was given on rent to a woman named Rekha Ranjan and not Rakesh for office-cum-residence.
When asked whether Rakesh was her son or adopted son, she said he was a nephew and that they had "no contact due to strain in family ties".
Javedakar, accusing the Congress of "telling lies loudly", said Manjula and Rakesh were "at loggerheads" and that he did not stay in her flat.
"The Congress ran an a fake I-Card issuance office there....this is what they are best at," he said.
Deputy leader of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma said the entire episode was "stage-managed".
He claimed Manjula was associated with the BJP and her "son" Rakesh had contested the municipal corporation election on a BJP ticket.
"The Election Commission must take action, and a police case be registered," he told reporters in New Delhi, adding the BJP was up to such tactics as defeat was staring it in the face.
(With PTI inputs)