Just two years ago, Shivraj Singh Chouhan was in complete command as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, his popularity at a peak because of his carefully cultivated image as a humble politician. Some even said he harboured ambitions for a role at the national level. But something was brewing in the background as Chouhan led the Bharatiya Janata Party to success in the 2013 assembly polls and the general election the next year.
The buzz about a massive scam in admission and recruitment tests conducted by the Professional Examination Board (PEB) kept getting louder and today, Chouhan’s image as a loving ‘mama’ (uncle) protecting the interests of youngsters has taken a beating following revelations about the scandal that has resulted in more than 1,800 arrests.
The scam in the PEB , which conducts examinations for admissions and recruitment to various courses and government jobs, saw scamsters rig tests by employing imposters to write papers, manipulating sitting arrangements and even supplying forged answer sheets.
It all began in 2013 with a tip-off about some “imposters” from Uttar Pradesh staying in an Indore hotel before appearing for actual candidates in a Pre-Medical Entrance Test (PMT) conducted on July 7 of that year. Police raided the hotel rounded up seven imposters.
The Crime Branch in Indore found that the PMT, conducted by the PEB which had thus far a reputation for holding competitive tests in a fair manner, was being manipulated in a big way.
Police found the security of the impregnable PEB building in Bhopal had been breached. Suddenly the scam wasn’t just about imposters – answer-sheets were being filled within the PEB office to pass candidates. Middlemen were openly taking money and passing it on to PEB officials, who got candidates selected.PEB’s confidential systems wing was found to be completely compromised. Middlemen nabbed by police revealed the name of Nitin Mahindra, a principal systems analyst who seemed to have a magic wand and could get anyone to pass recruitment or entrance examinations.
Youth Congress workers organised a cartoon exhibition protesting against PEB scam and demanded chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan's resignation. (HT file photo)
Mahindra’s boss Pankaj Trivedi, the controller of examinations and chairman of the PEB, too was found to be neck-deep in the scam. After the well-connected Trivedi was arrested, it became clear the scamsters had the blessings of people right at the top.
PEB’s computers and records were seized and this opened a can of worms.
As the investigation progressed, the Special Task Force formed by the police came under pressure to reveal the names of the high and mighty involved in the scam. The investigation was largely based on excel sheets found in Mahindra’s computer in which he kept details of candidates, money received from them and the middleman or VIPs who had recommended candidates.The names in the excel sheets could have been summarily disclosed but STF chief Sudhir Sahi contended names would emerge as cases were registered after the verification of evidence.
Former minister Laxmikant Sharma and relatives of bureaucrats and police officials were arrested while the governor’s private assistant, Dhanraj Yadav, and the chief minister’s personal assistant, Prem Prasad, were found involved in the scam – giving a clear indication that scamsters had access to the top echelons of power, including the Raj Bhavan, CM’s House, Mantralaya, state police headquarters and BJP headquarters.
Governor Ramnaresh Yadav has become the biggest name to be snared by the scam after he was booked for criminal conspiracy, fraud and corruption by the STF on February 24 for allegedly recommending five candidates for recruitment as forest guards after taking Rs 4 lakh from each of them.
The opposition Congress knew this was a chance for it to nail the chief minister because it was Chouhan who initiated the process in 2011 to vest powers in the PEB to hold all recruitment tests for government departments except those for gazetted posts.
The move was intended to streamline the recruitment of teachers, policemen, forest guards and transport constables and make the selection process more transparent but what happened was just the opposite.
Now, senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh’s affidavit has given a new twist to the probe as he has alleged that the chief minister’s name figured 48 times in the excel sheets regarding the test for recruiting contract teachers in 2013, but was deleted by the investigating agency.
Chouhan has shown indifference towards Singh’s allegation but he has also avoided a debate on the issue. That the state assembly’s budget session was abruptly adjourned a month ahead of schedule amidst protests over the scam has strengthened this belief.
The Congress is thus baying for Chouhan’s scalp and people, particularly those cheated by the scamsters, want the complete truth to come out.