Chhattisgarh: How Has The Mahadev App ‘Scam’ Affected The Congress' and BJP's Prospects?

While the BJP has made corruption allegations against Bhupesh Baghel a major poll issue, political observers in the state, however, are of the view that there is a perception on the ground that the chief minister is being 'targeted' by the BJP.

Raipur: On November 3, in a surprise raid at a housing board colony house in Chhattisgarh’s Bhilai, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) arrested a 34-year-old man, Asim Das. Das was arrested along with a Chhattisgarh police constable Bheem Yadav in the Mahadev app betting and money laundering case. Yadav is the third police personnel arrested by ED in this case, and Das, a driver by profession, was allegedly running a chapter of the Mahadev App from Supela, a suburb in Bhilai. After their arrest, ED released a press release, alleging that kickbacks amounting to Rs 508 crore were received by Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel.

Following the ED press release, Shubham Soni, the alleged owner of the Mahadev Betting App, released a statement alleging that he paid security money to a 2008 batch Indian Police Service officer “Verma Ji” and even held meetings with Baghel and his son, “Bittu Bhaiya”. Following this, the BJP, in a press conference, alleged that Soni in his video claimed that he had links to the chief minister house through Baghel’s political advisor Vinod Verma.

In poll-bound Chhattisgarh, where 70 out of 90 seats are set to go to polls on November 17, the press release and the video had an intentional effect: all conversations turned towards the Congress and its chief minister. “What I have been saying for months has finally come to fruition. The ED and IT are here to malign me. Look how shrewd ED is — after accusing me of taking Rs 508 crore based on the statement of an unknown person, they have said in a short sentence that his statement is a subject of investigation. Issuing a press release without any investigation only reveals the ill-intent of ED and the Central government,” Baghel said on November 4.

Also read: Chhattisgarh: ED Conducts Raids at Locations Linked to 3 of Bhupesh Baghel’s Aides

Baghel and Congress party leaders have continuously maintained that the BJP has been using central investigating agencies to destabilise the Congress governments in poll-bound states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, with Baghel even commenting that the real challenger from BJP against the Congress in the upcoming election is ED.

Between January and October this year, the ED released 11 press releases of actions across Chhattisgarh. Among the accused named in the press statements were Saumya Chaurasia, a Chhattisgarh state civil service officer who was ex-assistant to CM Baghel, and Anwar Dhebar, brother of Raipur mayor Aijaz Dhebar. It also attached properties of Congress leader Devendra Yadav, Ramgopal Verma and others. Yadav, the youngest MLA from the Bhilai city seat, is contesting again from the same seat and is known to be a Baghel loyalist.

The ED, in its dozen press releases just this year – (in 2022, the ED released only 2 press notes from Chhattisgarh) – went from ascribing the actions to “higher powers” to hinting at political involvement. In the Mahadev app money laundering case, the central investigating agency raided the house of former journalist Vinod Verma, political advisor and close aide of CM Baghel. “Despite showing them all the records, they seized a lot of my belongings. They didn’t even leave the jewellery my wife wears regularly on her ears and nose,” Verma had said after his house was raided on August 23, Baghel’s birthday.

Congress, BJP’s competitive campaigns

Earlier on November 3, Union home minister Amit Shah, who was visiting the state to conduct political rallies, launched the BJP manifesto for the upcoming election, in Raipur. The Manifesto titled Modi Ki Guarantee didn’t gain much traction. In a slew of promises focused on direct benefit transfers, the BJP promised much less than the ruling Congress.

“Paddy has always been an election issue in the state. Farmer factions were waiting for some bigger scheme from the BJP, but they seem to have only tried to one-up the Congress. By increasing one quintal in the acquisition quota and raising the price slightly, they have challenged Congress, albeit weakly. However, without the promise of a loan waiver, the challenge is empty and means less for the small to medium farmer. Although the payment of money in one-go instead of instalments might work for a large group of farmers in the hinterland,” a political commentator with a strong grasp of agrarian politics commented.

Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi during election campaign in the state. Photo: X (Twitter)/@bhupeshbaghel

Even as PM Modi, Union home minister Shah and other BJP bigwigs like Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Mansukh Mandaviya campaign in Chhattisgarh, Baghel has repeatedly maintained that the ED and IT are real faces of BJP in the election. Even the BJP on the ground seems to have utilised the investigation conducted by the central agencies heavily in their campaigning material. Through apps and digital and print magazines published enlisting all the scams the government is accused of, the BJP’s entire campaign is designed around the corruption of the Congress government.

“They can entail all the details through various media, but it is merely a topic of gossip, nothing more,” a political analyst in the state said. He added, “There are two major reasons for it, primarily, the BJP government was accused of a lot of corruption. Second, the BJP has failed to prove beyond doubt that corruption is affecting the people. The investigation has led to a lot of speculation and technical browbeating, but beyond the allegation that the Congress is siphoning off money to supply to the Delhi headquarters, not much has gotten through to the public on the ground. All of this is helping Baghel’s narrative, that he is being targeted by the Central BJP further.”

Also read: Chhattisgarh: To Remain Impervious to a Future Operation Lotus, Can Congress Pull Off a Big Victory?

Even as state BJP leaders are still infighting, the central leadership of the party seems to have made Baghel a worthy target; countering his tactic through a response, including the appointment of an OBC state chief.

All this should bolster the Congress’ image and public perception. And yet, the Congress seems to be feeling insecure.

Even as the Congress’s manifesto went above and beyond the BJP’s, days after the first phase of voting, the Congress added to its announcements, a Rs 15,000 scheme for women. A reaction to BJP’s Mahtari Vandan Scheme, the Congress decided to pay women across the state Rs 3000 more than the BJP’s promises.

The Congress’ knee-jerk reaction comes as the BJP attacks alleging a rise in corruption before the 70 constituencies in the state go to vote. In 2018, despite the strong anti-incumbency against the BJP government, it managed to win 12 seats among the 46 seats spread in six districts that are set to go to poll on November 17.

Opposed not only by BJP but a combination of small parties like Bahujan Samaj Party, Janta Congress Chhattisgarh Jogi, Hamar Raj party, Gondwana Gantantra Party and Janta Congress, the ruling party is also facing disgruntled opposition from former MLAs whose tickets were not renewed. Add to that mix a barrage of independent candidates from each seat who will inflict small damages, if at all, and Congress seems to be sitting a hard test of democracy.

The Congress, however, is responding to the multi-faceted opposition mounted by the BJP by increasing its facetime with the public. Even as leaders are holding more on-ground rallies, Vinod Verma in a press conference informed the media that he was filing a defamation suit against the BJP leaders who connected his name to the Mahadev betting app.

“The Congress government was the first to initiate action against the Mahadev betting app, with the Chhattisgarh police even getting a red corner notice issued against the main accused. It is a failure of the central BJP government that they are still at large,” Congress spokesperson Sushil Anand Shukla said.

Speaking to the press, he said, “The accused Asim Das has accepted in court that he was pressured to name CM Baghel in his statement. It seems the BJP is compromised with the owners of the Mahadev betting app and is working with them to implicate the Congress.”