Shivraj Singh Chouhan is a political Houdini. The Madhya Pradesh chief minister escaped unscathed from scam allegations early on during his reign in 2007 when he and his wife came under scrutiny in the buying and selling of dumper trucks. Once again, Chouhan is on the mat with probes into the Rs 2,000 crore recruitment and admission scam now reaching his doorstep.
There are allegations that phone calls were made from the CM’s residence to get certain candidates recruited in various jobs. Former cabinet minister Laxmikant Sharma, who is considered close to the chief minister, has been arrested by the Special Task Force (STF) for his role in the recruitment caper.
Two more current ministers are under the scanner and the list of suspects includes two additional chief secretary-level officers and their spouses, and several senior state-level BJP leaders. One of them is Sudhir Sharma, former head of the party’s education cell, who has been evading arrest for the past eight months.
Those who have either been arrested or whose names figure in the FIR include Laxmikant Sharma’s private secretary OP Shukla, Governor’s OSD Dhanraj Yadav, former controller of the Madhya Pradesh Professional Exam Board (MPPEB) Pankaj Trivedi, Congress leader Sanjiv Saxena, IPS officer Sonali Mishra’s brother Bharat Mishra, MPPEB senior system analysts Ajay Sen and Nitin Mahindra, assistant programmer Chandrakant Mishra and DIG RK Shivhare. The FIR also names 150 others. Additional Chief Secretary Ajita Bajpai Pande’s husband Amit Pande has also been questioned and is not yet off the hook.
Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti also faces allegations of recommending the recruitment of several schoolteachers. The scam came into light in June 2013 and it is estimated that more than 1,000 people were recruited to government services between 2008 and 2010 in lieu of illegal gratification and greasing of palms.
It is also estimated that the same board has admitted more than 1,000 ineligible candidates in medical colleges in the six years between 2007 and 2013.
After Congress spokesman KK Mishra floated Chouhan’s name in the scam, the government has gone on the offensive. In a strange twist, public prosecutor Anand Tiwari has filed a defamation case against Mishra after Chouhan had initially threatened to do so. But Mishra is in no mood to back off.
“I have all the proof required and I will not be badgered,” he says. The state government has also withdrawn a security guard provided to him four years ago. Legal experts have advised Chouhan that the state government can take up the defamation case on his behalf as he is still in office, under the provisions of Section 199 (2c) of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Chouhan takes the usual line that the Congress is still reeling from the shock of having lost two consecutive Assembly elections. “The Congress is making these baseless allegations simply to keep itself politically relevant,” says Chouhan.
He wants the facts of allegations to be verified and has already issued a note clarifying his position on each one of them.
Mishra alleges that 139 calls were made from the chief minister’s residence by a woman to MPPEB controller Pankaj Trivedi and senior system analyst Nitin Mahindra during the scam period. Chouhan denies this and asserts that not a single call had been made from his residence.
Mishra also alleges that Chouhan’s maternal uncle Phool Singh was in constant touch with Trivedi and that it continued even after the latter was arrested.
The SIM card used by Phool Singh is still in use, according to Mishra. Chouhan rejects this outright, claiming he has no uncle named Phool Singh, but Mishra claims Singh is the brother of Shivraj’s stepmother.
The most serious allegation relates to 19 recruitments done in the transport department from Gondia, Maharashtra, which happens to be Chouhan’s sasural. Under the recruitment policy, a candidate has to be a domicile of the state. Chouhan claims that not a single recruitment has been done from Maharashtra.
Two former chief ministers — Uma Bharti and Digvijaya Singh — have demanded that the investigation should be handed over to the CBI. Mishra alleges that the cases should also have been registered under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA). The STF is only investigating the case under Sections 409 and 420 of the Indian Penal Code. Cases under the PCA are presented in a fast-track anti-corruption court and are non-bailable.
A political twist has been added by observers who claim that Chouhan is feeling the pressure of having supported LK Advani. There are reports that the PMO has drafted Madhya Pradesh cadre officer S Ramanujam to specifically monitor the progress in the case to the extent that he is expected to keep track of every bit of information appearing in the local newspapers. Chouhan has also rushed to Delhi to explain his position to party bigwigs amidst reports that both Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh directed him to meet Nitin Gadkari rather than give him time. State BJP leaders have so far shown faith in Chouhan and his survivor’s luck.