Mr Clean, who?

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s vehement “I am clean” posturing notwithstanding, it is clear that the man is, at least for the moment, in a spot of bother. The cat is out of the bag and its soiled pugmarks are everywhere on what was once a squeaky clean carpet.

Until two years ago, Chouhan was in complete control, having carefully cultivated the image of an upright and humble politician. Such was his lustre that ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, some influential elements in the Bharatiya Janata Party even spoke of the committed Sangh parivar man as a likely prime ministerial contender.

Today, Chouhan, who has been the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh since he replaced Babulal Gaur in November 2005, is no longer above reproach. The camouflage has come off and he stands exposed to pretty much the same tar that his party paints the Congress with.

The Vyapam scam trail goes right up to his door. The CM’s personal assistant Prem Prasad was found involved in wrongdoing and is now in custody. Not only that, Chouhan’s long-time private assistant Harish Singh, a class III state government employee, is under the scanner of the income tax authorities for owning property worth crores of rupees.

I-T officials found papers documenting Harish Singh’s property transactions in raids that came ten days after a crackdown on the premises of prominent Bhopal businessman Dilip Suryavanshi. Suryavanshi is known to be close not only to the RSS but also to Chouhan and his wife, Sadhna.

Harish Singh joined Chouhan’s office when he took over as the state chief minister and has been with him ever since. He is the brother of Bharat Singh, a contractor whose links with the BJP and RSS run very deep. So, what the world knows about the Vyapam scam may only be the tip of the iceberg. There is a case for taking this scrutiny beyond just a single scam because Vyapam is probably only one evidence of the rot in Madhya Pradesh.

A seasoned politician, 56-year-old Chouhan, since securing an order from the Supreme Court for a CBI probe into the Vyapam scam, has shown no signs of any undue strain. In fact, he has been stoutly attacking the Congress for targetting him. The Congress, he says, is smarting under the defeats that he inflicted upon them in two consecutive elections.

But so murky has been the Vyapam scam and so tardy — and insensitive — has the Chouhan government’s response been to the expose that it is no longer possible for anybody to take the CM at his word. A number of witnesses, many of the accused and some of those involved with the probe have died like flies in the past two years and the CM, until his hand was forced, pretended that all was fine with the investigation. It was only under relentless pressure from the media, the opposition and anti-corruption activists that he finally acceded to take the Vyapam scam probe away from the STF formed by the MP police.

At least two whistleblowers, Ashish Chaturvedi and Prashant Pandey, have gone to the extent of describing Chouhan as “a habitual liar.” Pretty strong words those, especially when they are meant for a CM of a state.

It is difficult to say what the CBI probe will eventually unearth about the Vyapam scam because neither the investigating outfit nor the politicians who hold its reins are known to be particularly fond of inconvenient truths.

It is obvious that the NDA is not only no better than the UPA when it comes to corruption, it is probably worse. During the UPA regime, several ministers — Shashi Tharoor, Ashwini Kumar, Pawan Bansal, et al — bowed to public pressure and resigned when they faced charges of corruption or impropriety.

Given a half a chance, they would have stayed put, but the party that they belonged to chose not to brazen it out. The NDA government clearly has no faith in such niceties, which explains why Chouhan, like external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, will not throw in the towel for something as “insignificant” as a scam in which not only crores of rupees were made through bribery, but many lives have also been lost.

Chouhan may, in the popular imagination, have been a clean politician, but the Vyapam scam isn’t the first instance of irregularity he has faced. Cast your mind back to the dumper scam of 2007, when Sadhna Chouhan had allegedly purchased four dumpers for Rs 2 crore and leased them out to cement companies.

The CM’s wife was alleged to have fudged her residential address and also furnished incorrect information on who her husband was. The couple went scot-free because the state lokayukta claimed before the court four years later that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed against the chief minister and his wife.

Do not wager on a dramatic CBI breakthrough: chances of history repeating itself might not be all that slim.



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