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Bitcoin scandal can’t be buried as PM Modi reminds Bommai of priority — clean government

Karnataka CM claimed after last week's meeting with PM that while bitcoin scandal was discussed, Modi told him to 'not worry'. Now ministers say PM sought clarifications.

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Bengaluru: As the alleged multi-crore bitcoin scam in Karnataka continues to put the BJP government in a spot, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has advised caution to CM Basavaraj Bommai, ThePrint has learnt.

Sources in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP told ThePrint that Modi had sought clarifications on the alleged scam during his meeting with Bommai on 11 November, and also reminded the Karnataka CM what his priority should be — ensuring that the image of his government is not tarnished.

The sources’ claims contradict what Bommai had said after his meeting with the PM. The CM made no secret of the bitcoin issue being raked up at the meeting, but claimed that the PM “did not wish to dwell much on the bitcoin issue”.

“However, I myself raised it. The Prime Minister assured me not to bother much on the bitcoin issue,” he had said.

The Bengaluru Cyber Crime Police had stumbled on the alleged bitcoin scam while investigating a drugs case in 2020. The prime accused in the case is 25-year-old hacker Srikrishna Ramesh alias Sriki, who has been booked for hacking into the Karnataka government e-procurement portal and swindling funds, hacking an online poker site called Pacific Gaming Pvt Ltd, hacking bitcoin exchanges, and cryptocurrency theft. Earlier this month, Srikrishna, who is out on bail, was arrested by the Bengaluru police in a separate case — over a brawl at a luxury hotel — but was again released on bail.

The Congress has since accused the Karnataka government of disingenuous inquiry and cover up of crimes, more so since Bommai has dismissed the case as a “non-issue”. Bommai was the state home minister in 2020 when Srikrishna was arrested. He took charge as the Karnataka CM in July this year, after former CM B.S. Yediyurappa stepped down.

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‘Clarifications sought on bitcoin’

A senior RSS functionary-turned-minister in the Bommai cabinet, speaking to ThePrint about the CM’s meeting with PM Modi last week, said even if it is a chief minister, one does not get an appointment with the PM for an hour unless it is the PM who wants to talk about something.

“Clarifications have been sought on the bitcoin issue, but whether the PM was convinced with the response offered is not known,” the minister said, adding that these details were shared by the CM himself in an unofficial meeting with a group of cabinet colleagues after his return from Delhi.

More importantly, the Prime Minister is said to have stressed on the need for Bommai to maintain a “clean image” for the government, especially after B.S. Yediyurappa’s exit in July this year. Allegations of corruption and nepotism were brought in against the Yediyurappa government by the BJP’s own leaders, like Basanagouda Patil Yatnal.

“Whether you want to call it warning or advice, the PM has asked Bommai to maintain a clean image for the government and ensure smooth functioning without space for suspicion or dent in public perception,” the minister added.

Sources in Bommai’s office too expressed surprise at the length of the CM’s meeting with Modi last week. “The appointment was for 11 am. The CM came out only at noon. The length of the meeting has surprised us too,” a source close to Bommai told ThePrint, adding that Bommai gave an account of his 100 days in office to the PM and discussed various issues including the bitcoin fiasco.

A second cabinet minister, who was privy to what transpired during Bommai’s meeting with the PM, said the CM has been asked to not worry about the upcoming 2023 assembly elections in Karnataka, but to concentrate on the governance in the state instead.

“Bommai has been asked not to worry about increasing vote share, winning elections or expanding base, but to simply keep the government running smoothly. The PM has asked Bommai to leave it to him and the party to hit the ground running six months before the elections,” the second minister added.

The advice comes after the recently held by-polls in Hangal and Sindgi proved a disappointment to Bommai — though the BJP won Sindgi, it lost Bommai’s backyard seat of Hangal to the Congress.

“While it is true that the Congress candidate was strong in Hangal, we couldn’t consolidate Lingayat votes. We were hoping that Sadar Lingayats will vote en masse but they didn’t. That could have turned the results around,” the second minister said. The reference was important considering Bommai hails from the Sadar sub-sect of the Lingayat community.

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Bitcoin leaves BJP leaders cautious

The bitcoin fiasco, sources in the BJP and the Karnataka government suggest, has left party leaders cautious. Although BJP spokespersons have been defending the Bommai government in public, the only minister in the Bommai cabinet to have held a press conference to respond to Congress’ allegations was Health Minister Dr K. Sudhakar.

This has not gone unnoticed by the opposition. “Does HM mean Home Minister or Health Minister? Why is the health minister holding a press conference on the bitcoin scam that comes under the home minister’s purview?” asked Congress MLA and former IT minister of Karnataka, Priyank Kharge, on 13 November, hours after the health minister called for a hurried press conference at 9 pm.

BJP leaders too are said to be awaiting clarity on the case. “If the PM has taken interest in it, there must be a reason. This is not an instance where someone is making a mountain of a molehill. There is a need for inquiry and clarity,” a senior MLA with close ties to the central BJP leadership told ThePrint.

State BJP chief Nalin Kumar Kateel’s silence on the issue too has been noticed by the opposition, as well as party insiders. “We have approached Kateel to speak up about the bitcoin issue since we cannot speak on his behalf,” a second senior BJP MLA from Coastal Karnataka —  the area where Kateel also hails from Kateel — said.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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