Chandrababu Naidu’s Supreme Court Setback in the Skill Development Scam Case

New Delhi: In response to former Andhra Pradesh chief minister and TDP leader N Chandrababu Naidu’s appeal against the high court’s decision to uphold the FIR against him in the Skill Development Corporation corruption case, the Supreme Court on Tuesday handed down a divided decision.
The Prevention of Corruption (PC) Act’s section 17A was interpreted and applied differently by a bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Bela M Trivedi.

With effect from July 26, 2018, an amendment was made to Section 17A, which requires police officers to obtain prior authorization from the appropriate authority before beginning any inquiry or investigation into a public servant’s alleged criminal activity under the PC Act.

Justice Bose said that previous authorization was required in order to investigate Mr. Naidu for the alleged PC Act offenses, while Justice Trivedi maintained that section 17A could not be applied retroactively.

On September 9, 2015, Mr. Naidu was taken into custody on charges of embezzling money from the Skill Development Corporation during his tenure as chief minister in 2015. The state exchequer is said to have suffered a loss of ₹ 371 crore as a result. The claims have been refuted by Mr. Naidu.

On November 20 of last year, the Andhra Pradesh High Court had granted him regular bail in the case.

Mr. Naidu’s attorney argued during the matter’s arguments before the top court that section 17A applied in this case because the investigation began in December 2021 and that all of the accusations in the FIR related to decisions, instructions, or recommendations he made while serving as chief minister.

The TDP leader had argued that his detention was unlawful as the formal complaint against him was filed without the prior consent of the relevant authorities.

The state’s attorney, however, had contended that Mr. Naidu’s request to have the FIR quashed be denied since the CBI started looking into the issue in 2017 and section 17A of the PC Act only went into effect in July 2018. Therefore, the question of whether section 17A of the PC Act applies to this case does not come up.

Judge Bose said during the reading of the verdict’s main body that an activity taken in violation of the PC Act would be deemed unlawful if prior consent had not been obtained.

He noted that since the proper authority’s prior consent was not sought, Mr. Naidu cannot be prosecuted for the claimed offenses under the PC Act.

However, the relevant authority’s ability to request clearance under the aforementioned clause will not be restricted by this court’s ruling. In this instance, the state is free to request such authorization,” Justice Bose said.

He did, however, reject to impede the trial court’s September 10, 2023, remand order.

“Lack of approval in terms of section 17A will not render the entire order of remand non-est,” remarked Justice Bose.

Justice Trivedi said, “Essentially, I am disagreeing on the interpretation of section 17A,” as she pronounced the decision.

She said that a change this significant could not be applied in the past.

According to Justice Trivedi, a modification was made to section 17A, and it went into effect on July 26, 2018.

“Hence, the intention of the legislature was to make the amendment applicable prospectively from a particular date and not retrospectively…,” she said.

According to Justice Trivedi, the PC Act’s primary goal is to prevent corruption, and section 17A’s goal is to shield honorable and innocent public workers from persecution because of suggestions or choices they make while doing their official tasks.

She stated that the lack of consent prior to initiating an inquiry, investigation, or inquiry into alleged offenses committed by a public servant under the PC Act could not serve as a basis for dismissing the formal complaint filed against him. This is especially true if he is also facing charges under the Indian Penal Code related to the same allegations.

According to Justice Trivedi, the trial court had full authority to issue the remand order in this particular instance.

“The impugned judgement of the high court also does not suffer from any illegality or infirmity,” she said.

The bench ordered that the case be referred to the Chief Justice of India for further instructions since the two justices had differing views on how to read section 17A of the PC Act.

Mr. Naidu had petitioned the top court to overturn the high court’s decision to deny his request to have the FIR against him in relation to the purported fraud quashed.

The high court had said in rejecting his appeal that quashing a FIR should be the exception rather than the norm and that criminal proceedings should not be abandoned from the outset.