Until a few weeks ago, Shivraj Singh Chauhan was regarded as one of India’s most successful and responsible chief ministers. During the 10 years that he has held that post in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, he has transformed its agriculture, cared for the poor and for minority groups such as Muslims, and displayed a gentler Bharatiya Janata Party face than those of the nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi and tough party president Amit Shah.
Now Chauhan is at the center of one of India’s biggest and longest-running corruption scandals that, along with another scam linked to an Indian cricket league, is being used by the Congress Party-led opposition to stop India’s monsoon session of parliament from functioning.
Congress is calling for Chauhan to be dismissed along with two other top BJP politicians – Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister, and Vasundharan Raje Scindia, the chief minister of Rajasthan, who are caught up in the scandal involving Lali Modi (no relation to the prime minister) who founded the glitzy high-rolling Indian Premier League.
It is blocking parliament and its students’ branch has been staging noisy street protests in Delhi, not because it expects the three to be sacked or resign, but because this is a simple and high profile way of drawing attention to alleged corruption at the top of Modi’s party.
Reduced ignominiously in last year’s general election to just 44 MPs in the 543-member Lok Sabha lower house, Congress has been resorting with its opposition allies to disruption and sound-bite politics on many issues instead of generating debates.
This is not a new tactic – blocking parliamentary proceedings with protests has become a regular practice for 10 to 15 years. During the last Congress-led government, the BJP staged so many protests that 40 percent and 80 p-ercent of time was lost in the years from 2010 to 2014, according to PRS Legislative Research.
Arun Jaitley, then the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha upper house and now the frustrated finance minister, was pleased with what he had helped to lead. “Parliament being used as a forum in more than one ways to expose the weaknesses of the government, I think, is a positive development,” he declared, after one session had been totally wiped out.
The tables are now turned and Congress MPs have become the rabble that storms into the well of the parliamentary chamber to stop proceedings – no business took place today for the second day running. This parliamentary session is only scheduled to last for 23 days and if little business is done, as seems possible because of Congress threats, progress will have been blocked on about 15 bills including long delayed measures on sales tax reform and land acquisition.
The Chauhan scandal shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is for politicians not to be tainted by India’s endemic corruption. Manmohan Singh, prime minister in the last government, is a prime example of how a basically honorable man felt he had to let corrupt deals on telecoms, coal mining and other subjects, wash around his desk.
Chauhan similarly must have known about the scams but did little to ensure that official inquires actually made progress after they were started. Maybe it was simpler to allow the people involved to have their way.
Known as Vyapam, the scam engulfing Chauhan has involved masses of people obtaining civil service jobs, medical school places and false exam results for many years. Vyapam is an abbreviation of the Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal, which is Hindi for the state’s professional examination board, founded in 1970, that from 2007 also conducted entrance exams for government jobs. Investigations are in progress and a total of some 2,000 people have been arrested.
The story has hit the national headlines and become a major political issue in recent weeks because it is alleged to have led to at least 26 (some reports say 40 and it could be far more) mysterious deaths of people involved in various ways including, earlier this month, a 38-year-old reporter and the dean of a medical college.
Methods used in the scam, according to reports, have included an impersonator with a doctored admission card standing in for the student in the examination, plus an “engine and bogie” system (which starred in a Bollywood comedy Munna Bhai MBBS) where a clever guy sits between two other candidates who then copy answers from his (or her) paper – the examiners having been bribed to fix the seating arrangements. In a third system, candidates leave their answer sheets blank and are randomly given high percentages after the exam after which they fill in the answers.
One of the first complaints were registered back in 2000, but its scale only seems to have attracted attention in 2009 when a book appeared on the subject, and it then took another six years for investigations and arrests to start in 2013.
The other scandal centers around the highly successful but tainted India Premier League cricket tournament and its original promoter, Lalit Modi, who has been in living in London for the past five years to avoid court action in India.
Congress is demanding the resignation of Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister, because last year she told the British government that her ministry had no objection to it issuing travel documents to Modi, whose passport had been revoked by Delhi. The BJP argues that Modi was helped on humanitarian grounds because he needed to travel to Spain in connection with his wife’s ill health, and that Swaraj had done nothing illegal or immoral.
The resignation of Vasundharan Raje Scindia, the chief minister of Rajasthan, who was close to Modi when she held that post a few years ago, is being demanded because she helped his application for residency in the UK four years ago when she was in opposition and not chief minister.
Neither of these two ministers is accused of any serious corruption of the type or levels of graft and extortion that enveloped the last Congress government.
But there are hidden depths to all such scandals, and Congress hopes that its campaign will undermine the prime minister’s overstated claims that he is running a clean administration. The BJP has responded today with corruption allegations agains the Congress chief minister of the northern state of Uttarakhand.
It might have seemed logical for Narendra Modi to want to damp down the controversies, which he has not done. Maybe that is because Swaraj, who has seen herself as a possible future prime minister, belongs together with Chauhan and Scindia to a faction within the BJP that was opposed to Modi becoming the party’s prime ministerial candidate last year.
There are few better ways of taming opponents than letting them be exposed to public scandal – and then protecting them, which is exactly what the government is now doing for Swaraj in parliament.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the bottom right corner of Asia Sentinel’s homepage