Skating on Thin Ice

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Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister faces imminent threat to his seat as Vyapam toll count grows and discomfort in the BJP grows

By Rakesh Dixit


Becoming Madhya Pra-desh’s longest serving chief minister has been Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s long cherished goal. But will his dream run end as yet another case of coming so close yet being so far? Right now, Chouhan is just four months short of surpassing his predecessor Digvijaya Singh’s 10 year record as CM. But the raging fire of the Vyapam admissions and appointments scam threatens to singe Chouhan’s grand ambitions. From a confident and proud CEO of his state, he has become a veritable political wreck. And questions are being asked in Delhi, and that too within his own party, the BJP, about whether he will survive this agnipariksha.

The scam hit the national headlines at a time when the BJP is battling an onslaught of corruption charges that has already corroded the clean image of the Modi government. But the Vyapam scam is unlike the allegations of impropriety leveled at external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. For a start there is no Lalit Modi to blame for leveling wild charges. Much of the facts that have become public are based on police investigations, court observations and government record. The scam involves thousands of victims, hundreds of crores of rupees and comes crucially with the stench of death. The list of those linked to the scam, who have died under mysterious circumstances, seems to be growing by the day and BJP spokespersons have been having a tough time defending the indefensible. If sources in the BJP are to be believed, there is a big question mark on how long the party will rally around Chouhan. Or will it leave the Madhya Pradesh chief minister to his devices and let him handle the crisis on his own?

TRAIL OF DEAD

The big blow for Chouhan came on July 9 when the Supreme Court ordered a CBI probe into the multi-crore admissions and recruitment scam. The court order followed an unprecedented nationwide outrage over mysterious deaths of over 40 accused and witnesses related to the multi-layered swindle that has caused over 2,000 arrests, including those of politicians, bureaucrats, job racketeers, middlemen and businessmen, apart from a large number of medical students and their parents. Nearly 500 suspects are still absconding while 55 chargesheets have been filed in the state’s 22 courts against the beneficiaries of gross subversion of pre-medical and recruitment tests conducted by the Madhya Pradesh professional examination board since 2008.

Although the scam had snowballed into a mega corruption scandal, a crafty Shivraj Singh Chouhan managed to keep his chin up. His refrain that the Special Task Force (STF) of the state police was doing a fine job under the supervision of the Madhya Pradesh High Court may have evoked sharp protests from the Congress. But people in Madhya Pradesh had been largely insouciant. After all, corruption in medical college admissions and government jobs is acknowledged as a given in this part of the world. It is only after the relentless reports about the spate of ‘unnatural deaths’ hit the national media that trouble for Chouhan began mounting.

The most troubling of them all was the death of Akshay Singh, a TV journalist on July 4. Although the real cause of the scribe’s death is yet to be ascertained, a shaken Shivraj did everything he could to ensure that his reputation did not suffer. He even went to Akshay Singh’s house in New Delhi to offer a job to the deceased scribe’s sister and financial support which the bereaved family rejected.

Chouhan should have seen red when the special investigation team (SIT), set up in November 2014 by the Madhya Pradesh High Court to monitor the progress of the STF investigation, reported 23 unnatural deaths of those accused and witnesses in the scam on May 27. The SIT is being led by retired judge justice Chandresh Bhushan. Its status report to the court containing names of the 23 dead immediately brought other suspected deaths into sharp focus. Media speculated that the actual number of dead might be over 40. In its subsequent status report to the high court, the SIT too updated the death figure to 32 with nine more deaths being detected.

(L-R) Aaj Tak special correspondent Akshay Singh, Jabalpur Medical College dean Arun Sharma and  MP governor’s son Shailesh Yadav have all died mysteriously in the past  few months
(L-R) Aaj Tak special correspondent Akshay Singh, Jabalpur Medical College dean Arun Sharma and MP governor’s son Shailesh Yadav have all died mysteriously in the past few months

Most of the dead were young men between 25 and 30 years. The SIT report created a sensation in the local media. Till then only four suspicious deaths had hit the headlines but the police declined to probe any of them. Medical student 19-year-old Namrata Damor’s death was explained away as suicide that had occurred long before the scam surfaced. Her body was found on the railway track near Ujjain on January 6, 2012. A student of Indore medical college, Namrata had allegedly cleared the pre-medical test in 2009 fraudulently. A panel of three doctors, who conducted her postmortem, had declared she died of violent asphyxia which pointed to murder. Yet, the Ujjain police closed the case as a suicide.

The very idea that the younger generation can be prevented from moving around or that freedom to use the internet can be curtailed, sounds ridiculous. This is evident from innumerable failed attempts to curb internet and free flow of information.

Likewise, the police refused to see any foul play in the death of Governor Ram Naresh Yadav’s son Shailesh. His body was found at his Lucknow residence in March 2015. The STF was on the lookout for Shailesh for helping eight candidates clear the contract teacher test after taking `3 lakh each from them. The police also did not deem it fit to probe the gruesome death of Jabalpur Medical College dean Dr GS Sakalle who allegedly committed suicide by pouring kerosene on his body at his residence on July 4, 2014. Dr Sakalle was scrutinizing the list of medical students who got admission since 2008. And Vijay Patel, an accused in three cases of job rigging, was found dead in April, 2015 in a hotel owned by a BJP leader in Kanker (Chhattisgarh). The MP police passed the buck on to their Chhattisgarh counterparts.

The government explained away the deaths as caused by road accidents, suicides and illnesses without promising a deeper probe. But Bhushan, assured the media that he would urge the high court to order a probe by the STF into the causes of these deaths. In the days that followed, the media patiently waited for the high court to issue such an order. No one in state establishment reckoned that it was a proverbial lull.

It was on June 28 that the storm broke. On that day, veterinary surgeon Narendra Singh Tomar, 28, died in an Indore jail under mysterious circumstances. He was in custody since February for helping two medical students clear the pre-medical test in 2009. Outrage over his death was compounded by the death of Dr Rajendra Arya in a Gwalior hospital. Dr Arya, who was accused of arranging impersonators to appear in exams, was on bail since February last year after being arrested.

There was media frenzy as Aaj Tak channel’s special correspondent Akshay Singh suddenly collapsed after allegedly frothing in the mouth in distant Meghnagar town of Jhabua district on July 4. He had gone to interview the father of Namrata Damor who had mysteriously died. Singh’s death assu-med a more sinister dimension when a whistle blower and forensic expert, Dr Anand Rai, alleged that the journalist may have been insidiously administered a slow poison that reacts late but fatally with the chemicals in the body. The recovery of Jabalpur Medical College dean, Dr Arun Sharma’s body in a New Delhi hotel the following morning had the media more furiously dubbing the Vya-pam as the most murderous scandal India had ever seen.

HE FINALLY BLINKED

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was, predictably, a very perturbed man as the national media screamed murder and the opposition gunned for his resignation with renewed vigour. Already scarred by Lalitgate, the BJP leadership was rattled by the vociferous outburst. The chief minister, who would earlier depute his ministers to deal with media queries on the issue, finally acquiesced to the party leadership’s advice to do the explaining himself. In the press conference on July 5 at his residence in Bhopal Chouhan’s characteristic élan was missing.

He stonewalled all questions on a CBI probe by pointing out that the Madhya Pradesh High Court was satisfied with the STF enquiry and the Supreme Court too had endorsed the lower court’s decision to reject petitions for a CBI probe in the past. There-fore, he argued that agreeing to any independent probe at this stage would tantamount to insulting the high court and he would not do that. “I have utmost regard in the Indian judicial system,” he repeated ad nauseam in the press meet, only to take a U-turn the very next day.

Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh alleges that the chief minister had his name replaced with that of Union Minister Uma Bharti in a tampered excel sheet.

On July 6 the chief minister called media-persons to tell them that he was going to write to the high court that the state government intended to handover the STF probe to the CBI in view of growing public pressure. He attributed his decision to the public perception that he had something to hide by opposing a CBI investigation. Later, however, it transpired that his sanctimonious reverence to public perception (lok laj) was not the reason behind his volte face. The real reason was BJP president Amit Shah’s call, asking him to spare the party more opprobrium on account of the Vyapam scam.

The chief minister’s move was viewed as a desperate attempt to make a virtue out of necessity. A clutch of four petitions for a CBI probe was already slated to be heard in the Supreme Court on July 9. It was almost a foregone conclusion that in the light of the damning disclosures in the scam, parti-cularly over the 40 suspicious deaths, the apex court would have no hesitation in upholding the petitioners’ pleas. And precisely that happened. The Supreme Court also expressed displeasure with the Madhya Pradesh High Court for “washing its hands off” a similar petition of the state government a day before. The high court had refused to act on the state government’s petition for a CBI probe, citing the four petitions pending before the Supreme Court.

On the same day, the Supreme Court also served a four-week notice to the Madhya Pradesh Governor Ram Naresh Yadav and the union government on a petition seeking his removal from his post. The governor was accused of taking `3 lakh each from five candidates who appeared for a professional examination board exam. He allegedly took the money from them in the Raj Bhawan premises. The governor’s then officer on special duty, Dhanraj Yadav, is already in jail on similar bribery charges. The governor’s son, Shailesh, was also involved in the racket. Yadav’s continuation in his post had become untenable after an FIR was lodged against him in April this year on the Madhya Pradesh high court‘s direction to the STF. However, the same court stalled any action against the governor a month later accepting his contention of constitutional immunity.

SNOWBALLING EFFECT

When Chouhan ordered setting up a STF to probe into the Vyapam scam a month after it surfaced in Indore in July 2013, he probably thought it a smart move that would effectively silence the opposition. At that time, Shivraj’s popularity was at its peak. The assembly election in Madhya Pradesh was barely three months away and the main Opposition, the Congress, was too demoralized to make the burgeoning scam a potent poll plank. His gambit paid off. People bought into the chief minister’s assertion that he sincerely wanted to get to the bottom of the case. Result: the BJP returned to power in the election with a bigger majority than before.

But the scam snowballed. Initially, it looked like an exposé of a homegrown nexus of pre-medical test admission mafia and the MP professional examination board officials. But it metamorphosed into the biggest swindle of India as the board’s examination controller, Pankaj Trivedi, started singing like a canary in police custody. He confessed that a dozen-odd recruitment tests conducted by the board had been rigged since 2008. The board’s chief system analyst, Nitin Mahin-dra’s computer hard disk was a veritable minefield where names of those recommending candidates were duly mentioned in excel sheets. They included the governor, Union Minister Uma Bharti, RSS leader Suresh Soni, bureaucrats and their relatives apart from middlemen and job racketeers. The scam simply got bigger and bigger. It also gained a momentum of its own.

In Bhopal there is much speculation on what will happen to the chief minister once the CBI takes over the probe from the STF. Like the governor, the chief minister too is facing allegations of direct complicity in the scam. He is accused of having tampered with an original excel sheet from a hard disk in the Vyapam board office that had the chief minister’s name entered 48 times as a person who recommended candidates for a contract teachers recruitment test. Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh alleges that the chief minister had his name replaced with that of Union Minister Uma Bharti in the tampered excel sheet.

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At the moment the chief minister is clearly skating on thin ice and will need all the support of his well-wishers in the BJP high command. But will party back him? Or will his detractors seize the opportunity to settle old scores? The chief minister looks visibly shaken and unsettled and is already the shadow of the man he used to be only a few months ago.
 

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