In Chhattisgarh's Politics, the Sting (Operation) Always Curls Back

In the past, politicians seen as responsible for one sting operation have often been at the receiving end of another.

Raipur: The scorpion’s sting tail is curved – something makers of sting videos may not have cared to notice. After the sting, it always curls back.

It has been nearly two decades since the state of Chhattisgarh came into being, but making and using clandestine sting audio-videos have not satiated politicians. Every time elections comes around, voters are in for a treat. Amazingly, every politician from Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah, from former chief minister Ajit Jogi to chief ministerial aspirant Bhupesh Baghel, has at one time or the other taken decisions based on these stings. They have all failed to notice how the post-sting curl back has effectively destroyed careers of the dramatis personae.

The latest round of sting tales began about four months prior to the impending assembly elections, as if on cue. A journalist, Vinod Verma, was arrested from his Ghaziabad home by the Chattisgarh police in a midnight swoop. They recovered from him a stack of CDs and hard disc drives allegedly with porn clips involving a state minister, Rajesh Mudat. Verma, it turns out, is a relative of Chhattisgarh Pradesh Congress Committee (CPCC) president Baghel and the latter was also charged and arrested last week for having circulated these videos. Amit Shah, at a rally in Bhilai two days ago, roared that the Congress wants to run its campaign led by a “distributor of porn CDs”. Baghel on his part tried to make the most of the worst and refused to take bail, spending two days in Raipur Central Jail and going in and coming out with much fanfare.

The curl back was, however, waiting. On October 5, Baghel was summoned to Delhi to explain why he had been demanding money for tickets. Apparently, an audio sting had been delivered to Rahul Gandhi which implicates Baghel. There was strong speculation within Congress circles that he and Congress general secretary in charge P.L. Puniya may be removed, but the Election Commission’s announcement of the elections coming the same day may have saved their skin. Baghel, however, has lost Rahul’s trust, which he had earned through both hard work and with the help of another sting. A five-member committee including veteran Arvind Netam, Charan Das Mahant, Asha Manhar and T.S. Singhdeo apart from Baghel will now review all the names recommended by Baghel and Puniya for the 90 seats. It is obvious Baghel will not be able to push through his candidates anymore.

Baghel earned his place in Rahul’s court by exposing how Ajit Jogi had been undercutting the Congress, apparently in cohorts with Raman Singh. It is a perennial political story in Chhattisgarh that Jogi and Raman are actually one and Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) is considered the B team of the BJP. Before the JCC came into being two years ago, Jogi and family was supposed to be “damaging the Congress from inside”. Charan Das Mahant was the CPCC president in 2013 and had even got his swearing in Bandi tailored when the BJP scraped past the Congress by the barest 0.75% vote margin. Jogi is believed to have orchestrated the defeat of some of the sitting Congress stalwarts like then leader of the party Ravindra Choubey, which made the difference. Baghel, who was appointed CPCC president in the aftermath of the disaster, was eager on his stirrups. He contacted who else but a clandestine CD maker.

In the mid-term elections for the Antagarh assembly seat, Congress had put up Manturam Panwar, considered close to Jogi. Panwar announced a unilateral withdrawal from the race, leaving the Congress red-faced. A close confidante of the Jogi camp had clandestinely recorded conversations between Jogi and Panwar, and then sold it to Baghel for Rs 25 lakh who then played it for Rahul. Both father and son Jogi were excommunicated. Baghel grew close to Rahul and began an ambitious reign as CPCC president, till it came to nought with another round of CDs – this time implicating him.

It all began in 2003 when on the eve of assembly polls – the first after the formation of the state – BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Dilip Singh Judeo was stung by a bunch of amateurs allegedly being orchestrated by then 25-year-old Amit Jogi. A national English language newspaper also played along and claimed it had done the sting but slowly as the game unfolded there were several casualties. Judeo was dumped by the BJP and the Jogis were toasted, even as the BJP managed to win with the V.C. Shukla-led Nationalist Congress Party dividing the Congress votes.

Jogi was soon toast. Virendra Pandey of the BJP approached him just prior to swearing in and offered to bring in rebel BJP MLAs for a price. This happened in the chief ministerial house post the elections, and Pandey recorded it. Sting for a Sting, as the BJP called it. Arun Jaitley, a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, especially appeared in Raipur to expose Jogi’s shenanigans, playing the tape in a press conference. Jogi disappeared from the chief ministerial house and was soon seeking bail. Sonia Gandhi, whose name had figured in the tape as having sanctioned the bargain, suspended Jogi immediately. The BJP did not, however, reward Pandey handsomely, and soon he was out of the party.

Then, as if to break the monotony of Rajnath Singh’s first term as BJP president around 2007, a CD of Durg BJP MP Saroj Pandey appeared. Apparently it was made in a hotel bathroom and she vehemently alleged it to be a dastardly act by her detractors, who saw her as a threat to Raman Singh. Since then, there has been a simmering war within the state BJP, with her on one side and the rest on the other. She is ambitious and has since carved her career to her present position as party general secretary in charge of Maharashtra. On the day of Shah’s rally in Bhilai recently, all the state BJP ministers boycotted the function claiming she had disrespected them by not giving them any space alongside Shah on the stage.

What of the CD makers? It is believed that a couple of Muslim men are behind some of the most explosive exposes. One of them, known as Pappu Farishta, had been close to Jogi, Baghel and some state ministers in turns. He runs a newspaper and is still seen in the company of the very same leaders who he keeps stinging. It is also believed that some of the audio CDs may have been made by some intelligence operatives and clandestinely sold. It is possible to have the mobiles of every leader, bureaucrat, journalist and even judges on illegal “surveillance”. Therefore it is rumoured that several more sting CDs are in the offing, perhaps involving Puniya, agriculture minister Brijmohan Agarwal, Baghel and panchayat minister Ajay Chandrakar. But so far it’s all conjecture. The bottomline is, in the season of elections, if there is no release and talk of sting CDs in Chhattisgarh, it would be very out of character.

Neeraj Mishra is a senior journalist who has covered elections in central India for more than two decades.