Two double deaths in close succession, a flurry of petitions before the apex court and mounting public outrage has made the Madhya Pradesh chief minister—once talked about as a prime ministerial candidate—a political liability
Bhopal: That Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan – cornered by the spreading tentacles of the Vyapam scam – is staring at the worst political crisis of his career is to state the obvious. What is not apparent though is that the embattled CM is facing a severe crisis of credibility within the Bharatiya Janata Party as well.
Those familiar with the BJP’s inner circles say that defending the chief minister has become increasingly harder for the party since the last week of May when relentless media coverage about Vyapam-related deaths – 32 official, 46 unofficial and counting – unleashed a wave of nationwide outrage.
The deaths of two of the accused – Narendra Singh Tomar, a veterinary surgeon, in Indore jail and Dr Rajendra Arya in Gwalior hospital on June 28 – in close succession, had rendered the Shivraj government hopelessly defensive.
Then came the shocking news of two more near-simultaneous deaths: that of Aaj Tak news channel reporter Akshay Singh in Meghnagar of Jhabua district on July 4, followed the next day by the death of Dr Arun Sharma, the dean of a Jabalpur medical college who was involved in the investigation into the scam. DK Sakalle, Sharma’s predecessor at the college who was also involved in the investigation, too had been found dead in similarly suspicious circumstances, exactly a year ago.
Public anger that erupted following these deaths seems to have been the last straw for an already embarrassed BJP leadership, which has now more or less left Chouhan to fend for himself. Senior leaders like Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley, who so far had refrained from intervening in the Vyapam affair despite the media’s damning disclosures, were forced to publicly call upon Shivraj to ensure a “thorough and fair” probe into the journalist’s death.
Unsure of the party’s full backing, the chief minister, who would earlier depute the task of defending the government to his ministers, hurriedly called a press conference at his residence to defend himself. This was first time that Chouhan faced the media exclusively on the Vyapam scam since it surfaced in July 2013.
Between a rock and a hard place
His statements at the press meet were uncharacteristically defensive: “I did not commit a crime by ordering a probe (into the Vyapam scam)… What I did, I did in pure and pious spirit in the interest of the state… My intention behind ordering a probe was to cleanse the mess in the examination and recruitment system that I inherited from the Congress… No other state government in India’s history ever ordered such a comprehensive probe into irregularities to get at the truth with such promptness” and so on.
Meanwhile, the Congress is expected to mount pressure on the chief minister, who is also facing allegations of direct complicity in the scam. Chouhan has been accused of tampering with the original Excel file retrieved from the computer of Nitin Mahindra, chief systems analyst at the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examinations Board, known by its Hindi acronym, Vyapam. The Excel file contained the names of all the ‘recommenders’ of illegitimate candidates cleared through Vyapam examinations. According to former Madhya Pradesh chief minister and AICC general secretary Digvijaya Singh, the CM’s name was present in the spreadsheet as a recommender 48 times, which he says Chouhan later substituted with those of Union minister Uma Bharti and ‘Raj Bhawan’.
Although the Madhya Pradesh High Court dismissed Digvijay Singh’s ‘proof’, contained in a pen drive, as a forgery and gave a clean chit to Chouhan in April this year, the risk of an independent agency revisiting the evidence proof still haunts the chief minister. At his press conference, he ruled out the possibility of the state government agreeing to a CBI probe since there was already a probe underway that was being monitored by the high court, adding that such a move would amount to “insulting” India’s judicial system.
Chouhan has two good reasons to dread a CBI probe: first, he would lose control over the probe and second, this would put him at the mercy of his old rival in the BJP, Narendra Modi.
The STF, which consists of officers drawn from state police personnel, can hardly go against the chief minister, no matter how closely the high court might monitor the investigation. This also means that those currently incarcerated, no matter how high up, are unlikely to dare implicating him. Among the 1900-odd accused in jail are a former minister, his former officer on special duty (OSD), a mining baron, a former OSD to the governor, bureaucrats, businessmen and middlemen. Some of them have been known to have worked with the chief minister closely in the past, and likely to be privy to matters Chouhan would not want exposed.
A chequered record
Chouhan is just four months short of surpassing his predecessor Digvijay Singh’s 10-year record as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. But the raging controversy on Vyapam has cast a shadow on his cherished goal of being the longest serving CM of the state.
He had faced a similar crisis in 2007, when a petition filed in a Bhopal court claimed that his wife Sadhna Singh had bought four dumpers worth Rs 2 crore and leased them to a cement factory in Rewa. The state Lokayukta, which probed what came to be known as the ‘dumper scam’, eventually exonerated the Chouhan couple of all charges.
The chief minister was embroiled in another controversy in October 2012 when income tax sleuths raided the offices and residences of billionaire builder-contractor Dilip Suryavanshi across Madhya Pradesh. The Congress targeted Chouhan for his closeness with Suryavanshi, whose wealth had grown exponentially under the CM’s regime.
In June this year, Chouhan was once again in the spotlight, after the Congress party accused him of securing a manganese mine lease allotment in Balaghat district’s Paunia village for a company owned by his wife, in violation of rules.
Under Modi’s thumb
The chief minister weathered all such political storms in the past with aplomb, also because he had the unstinted blessing of BJP patriarch LK Advani. Chouhan is a prominent member of the Advani-Sushma Swaraj camp in the BJP, which once rivalled Modi’s own.
In the run up to the Lok Sabha 2014 elections, the media was abuzz with speculation that the Advani camp would pit Shivraj as a potential competitor to Modi. Chouhan, however, had assiduously scotched such rumours at the time.
Nevertheless, the vibes between Modi and Chouhan are far from warm. Modi trusts Chouhan’s rival in Madhya Pradesh politics, Kailash Vijayvargiya more. This is evident in Vijayvargiya’s elevation as BJP national general secretary, though he continues as a powerful minister in the Shivraj cabinet. Vijayvargiya recently broke ranks with his colleagues to suggest that an SIT probe into the Vyapam deaths was a possibility, contradicting home minister Babulal Gaur, who has consistently claimed the deaths were natural.
Under the circumstances, a probe by the CBI, which reports to the Centre, would make Chouhan completely vulnerable to his one-time political rival, the Prime Minister.
So far, the chief minister has been lucky as the Madhya Pradesh high court rejected demands such as those from Digvijaya Singh in November last year for a CBI probe into the Vyapam scam. The court, instead, set up a special investigation team to monitor the probe on its behalf. The Supreme Court too upheld the lower court’s verdict, much to the consternation of the Congress.
As of this week, a bunch of fresh petitions seeking a CBI probe into the scam are again before the Supreme Court. Three have been filed on behalf of the original whistleblowers – Prashant Pandey, Ashish Chaturvedi and Anand Rai. A fourth has been filed on behalf of Digvijaya Singh by senior lawyer Vivek Tankha, while a fifth has been filed on behalf of Aam Aadmi Party leader Kumar Vishwas.
The petitioners are optimistic that this time the Supreme Court will accede to their plea in the light of a whole host of fresh disclosures including unnatural deaths of the accused. Tankha says the scam has become more complex, more widespread and extremely sinister since time the Supreme Court had expressed satisfaction over the high court-monitored probe.
Digvijaya Singh, however, says that the high court probe has miserably failed. He also alleges that the STF’s investigators have been extorting money from some of the accused to let them off the hook. Besides, he avers, the STF sorely lacks the requisite wherewithal, especially the technical capability, to unravel the multilayered scam. Only the CBI has the competence and adequate manpower to take the case to its logical conclusion, he feels.
If Chouhan survives the coming petition wars, the party might rally behind him once again. Until then, however,, the BJP leadership is understood to be of the view that it is wiser to let Shivraj fend for himself.