Ill fortune has followed those associated with the notorious Vyapam scam as relentlessly as the Furies in a Greek tragedy. One by one, like a murder thriller, they have fallen by the wayside from causes ranging from suicide to ill health. Could so many people have died without there being something fishy about the whole thing? Remember Namrata Damor-Vyapam scam. Even if the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) manages to unravel the truth behind Damor’s death — the medical student’s mutilated body was found along the railway tracks in Ujjain in 2012 — and clears her of any Vyapam link, sadly, it would be difficult to remove the scam taint from her name.
Like Damor, there have been several other collateral damages of the Vyapam scam: People who died because either they knew too much or asked too many uncomfortable questions. To date, at least 30 people ‘involved’ in the scam have died. How did these people suddenly exit this world? Like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, they still haunt the peripheries of this ghastly scam.
There are no answers to these questions yet even though a Special Task Force had been investigating the case for the past two years. The probe was being monitored by a Jabalpur High Court-appointed three-member SIT. On Thursday, the Supreme Court, hearing a bunch of scam-related petitions, transferred the case to the CBI and criticised the high court for dithering in handing over the case to the agency.
It is the human aspect of the case — the number of deaths and the different kinds of people involved in it — that is the reason why this case has topped the news cycle in the last few weeks. However, this is not the first time that such an enormous scam and subsequent deaths have happened. We have had the fodder and National Rural Health Mission scams in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, respectively. In the fodder scam, there were 54 cases and more than 600 accused, of whom more than 500 have been convicted. In the NRHM scam — the CBI probe is still on — though the CBI has filed 71 cases plus around 14 charge-sheets. The body count has also been quite high: More than a dozen people in the fodder scam died in mysterious circumstances.
Five people, including three high-ranking officials, were murdered in the NRHM scam. But don’t forget that these cases happened before the networked news era and many deaths could have gone unreported. Then, of course, the mega buck plans of the Centre like the ICDS and the NREGA have had their share of scams.
The Vyapam scam shows the depth and the extent of the rot in the system, and how vested interests have managed to completely maul the state government’s showpiece organisation, which conducted nearly 21 entrance examinations. From top administrators to the lowest rung, the scam kingpins seemed to have perfected the art of forgery and run a well-oiled machine.
The rogues’ gallery includes not only officials of Vyapam, a Hindi acronym for the MP Professional Examination Board, but government officials and their relatives, technical staff of the organisation, owner of a chain of medical colleges, director general of police and people who handled the technical part of it. Even Madhya Pradesh governor Ram Naresh Yadav, who has been issued notice by the Supreme Court, and his two sons (one of them was found dead in Lucknow earlier this year) and his OSD have been accused of being a part of the Vyapam scam ring. Yadav, a Congressman, a former UP chief minister, became governor in 2011. How and why Yadav managed to stay put in the palatial Raj Bhavan in Bhopal despite the large-scale transfer of governors appointed by the Congress has raised several uncomfortable questions about the man who holds a constitutional position.
We can blame the parents and their children of being equally guilty but then when jobs are hard to come by, people will try to manipulate the system. I don’t have much sympathy for these people but I do understand where this desperation is coming from.
What could be the long-term effect of the entrance of undeserving people in the government on governance? A couple of weeks ago, I read an excellent piece by Satyananda Mishra, a former chief information commissioner and incidentally a former secretary to the MP government, on the effect of corruption on governance. The senior administrator wrote: “Much more ails the government than corruption. It is the spectre of incompetence that haunts it most. In a system full of incompetent people, the delivery of service is the first casualty and, hence, it has a premium. One who pays for it, gets it, even if partially. The one who does not — or cannot — ends up getting none or substandard service.”
Until now, MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has put on a brave face, claiming that he has the support of the BJP’s senior leadership. But, I am sure that even he knows Vyapam could turn out to be his political Waterloo. A BJP spokesperson told me that the media is holding Chouhan guilty even before the courts/investigating agencies have said so. But I think even Chouhan will agree that he has to own up some moral responsibility for all this mess and accept that he has failed.
Along with the scam disclosures and the deaths, Chouhan has also been done in by his ministers and at least one senior BJP leader. His home minister Babulal Gaur, a former MP chief minister, first said death itself is natural and so we should not look into the scam deaths as something other than a natural process of life and then said that it is tough to protect Vyapam witnesses, and central minister Uma Bharti said that she is scared to go to MP. Gaur does not have much clout in MP but when the home minister, who handles law and order, says something like this, the damage could be severe for Chouhan, who is now being called ‘Shavraj’.
Will the Vyapam scam damage the BJP the way the 2G scam did to the Congress? I don’t think so because some of the damage has been contained by the Supreme Court’s decision to hand over the case to the CBI — but the party will definitely find it difficult to re-establish Chouhan’s reputation as a clean chief minister and an able administrator. He has been the BJP’s pro-development, governance-first poster boy but then, like Damor, he too will find it hard to shake off the Vyapam taint. His legacy will always be read as Chouhan-Vyapam.