In the age of 24x7 breaking news, even ‘scams’ have a limited shelf-life. If June was dominated by every tweet and soundbite of a Lalit Modi, July has seen the Vyapam issue become a screeching headline. On the face of it, you couldn’t have two more different plots: One, a story of how a cavalier businessman in self-exile in London was getting special favours from the country’s high and mighty, the other, a murderous tale set in the remote districts of Madhya Pradesh. And yet, the two stories have a common thread that unites: How the ‘system’ is compromised for private benefit at different levels by the country’s power elite.
The difference is in just who that ‘elite’ is, thereby mirroring contrasting social geographies. In the Lalit Modi case, the charmed circle is the movers and shakers of Lutyens’ Delhi and their celebrity partners in the world of business, sports and showbiz. This is the cosy club, which runs India at the top of the pyramid: The Forbes billionaires we venerate, the lal-batti car ministers who we fear, the sports and entertainment czars who we celebrate. This is the ‘creamy layer’ of India, of which Modi was an intrinsic part till he fell out of the Indian Power League (IPL).
But there is another IPL in mofussil India which stays out of the arc-lights but is no less dominant in its sphere of influence. This is where local MLAs, petty bureaucrats, area SPs and other district-level officials wield disproportionate power. If LaMo and friends can take a cruise down the Adriatic, this group has no such grandiose travel plans. Instead, they operate in the less glamorous terrain of a Jhabua or a Sagar, far-flung districts where survival is the name of the game. And yet, within their territory, they too are VVIPs, local ‘dadas’ who control sources of capital accumulation. It is this less-known IPL that has been instrumental in stitching together the Vyapam scam.
What is the Vyapam scam? Simply put, it’s an admission and recruitment scam involving collusion and bribery of local officials by candidates appearing for a state exam and desperate to get employment. The over 2,500 accused are no foreign exchange economic offenders living in luxury in a tax haven. A majority of them are lower middle class young men and women who saw in a government job a passport to a life of relative security. Lalit Modi, self-admittedly, was born with a golden spoon; here, most of the accused didn’t even have cutlery on the table.
In a sense, if LaMo represents the globalisation of the IPL networks (from London to Montenegro via Mauritius), Vyapam is a classic BIMARU network story: In a state with limited private investment and industrialisation like Madhya Pradesh, the government is ‘mai-baap’, often the sole distributor of local patronage. The millions of students who appeared for the Madhya Pradesh state exams were frantically looking to get a job because there were no other options. In the desperation of the students, the district-level IPL saw an opportunity to make easy money: No millions of dollars at stake here like in the LaMo case, but enough to keep the mofussil parallel economy churning.
Haven’t we seen in recent months instances of mass copying in Bihar being caught on camera with police officials as passive bystanders? Do we remember the NRHM scam in Uttar Pradesh where, like Vyapam, a bloody trail was left behind after it was exposed that local politicians and bureaucrats had siphoned off money from the National Rural Health Mission? Or teacher recruitment in Haryana for which former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala is in jail? Or even a little further back in time, the infamous fodder scam in Bihar where again local officials and politicians created fictitious accounts for purchase of fodder in the state animal husbandry department? The amounts were meagre compared to
a 2G or a coal scam, but large in the context of a semi-rural economy.
That providing government jobs (along with transfer and postings) has been a rewarding business enterprise is no secret. And yet, what Vyapam reveals is just how deep-rooted and institutionalised this state largesse is. The BJP leaders have claimed that even in the previous Congress governments in the state, jobs would be distributed through local patron-client networks. While this is probably true, it’s the scale and brazenness with which the well-oiled operation was conducted after the BJP came to power in 2003, which is staggering.
Whether chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan or his family members are directly involved is yet unproven, although it is tough to believe that he was unaware of such massive irregularities. But that one minister is in jail and several other key officials are under scrutiny is an indictment of his claims to provide a clean and purposive government. His eventual decision to hand over the matter to the CBI is, in that sense, too little, too late.
Even more glaringly, Vyapam conclusively dents the BJP’s slogan of being a ‘party with a difference’. For what is becoming increasingly apparent is that Vyapam had the blessings of the local Sangh parivar leadership in a state where the RSS has traditionally enjoyed greater influence than in other parts of the country. Just like the Congress was corrupted by its long years in power, it appears that the saffron parivar too has learnt how to wield the power game for enriching its own. The next time the prime minister claims ‘na khaoonga, na khane doonga’, he might want to make a trip to rural Madhya Pradesh.
Post-script: That despite many mysterious deaths, it has taken the tragic death of a journalist to focus prime time media attention on Vyapam says a lot about contemporary news media. In a TRP-driven world, LaMo and his celebrity contacts were seen as box office. By contrast, who really cared for a scam whose Hindi acronym is the decidedly non-attractive Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and an author. The views expressed are personal. The writer tweets as @sardesairajdeep