The Supreme Court, not unexpectedly, has asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the Madhya Pradesh Vyapam scam and the deaths related to it. Responding to a clutch of public interest petitions filed before it, the court also sent a notice to the Madhya Pradesh Governor, who is also alleged to have been linked to the scam.

The Vyapam scam is unusual not for the corruption uncovered in how seats were allocated in engineering and medical colleges, but for the sheer number of mysterious deaths involving students, parents and middlemen involved in it. At last count, more than 40 people associated with Vyapam were dead, but not all of them may necessarily have been bumped off. Even the Governor’s son died under suspicious circumstances.

AFP imageAFP image

AFP image

As the stuff hit the fan in 2009-10, a committee was set up by the state to probe it. But in 2013, as more shady seat allotments were uncovered, the Madhya Pradesh government created a Special Task Force (STF) to probe the scam, and the Madhya Pradesh High Court was monitoring a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to unravel the conspiracy involved.

Between them, the STF and SIT are said to have arrested more than 2,000 people, most of them students and parents, and some middlemen.

The shift of the investigation to the CBI – which already has its hands full with other scams, including 2G and Coalgate – thus has many implications:

First, the political pressure on beleaguered CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan will ease for a while, but the opposition aggression will now shift to Delhi, where Narendra Modi faces a stormy monsoon session of Parliament. The Prime Minister will be expected to make a statement on Vyapam, not to speak of the many other controversies stirred up by former IPL boss Lalit Modi, including the favours shown to him by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and his business deals with Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje. The monsoon session may well be a washout for key legislation, as the opposition has smelt blood. The CBI’s entry  is like a safety valve to release the pressure building up on the BJP and Chouhan, but the pressure will now shift elsewhere – to Delhi.

Second, the insertion of the CBI will actually delay progress in the investigations, as the efforts of the STF and the SIT will have to be duplicated. The Supreme Court will, of course, expect both the STF and SIT to share their data with the CBI, but as any bureaucrat knows, agencies tend not to share data easily. Moreover, with the CBI entering the picture so late, some of the data may already be lost or doctored. Further delays can be expected as Vyapam is not a simple scam to solve.

Third, the CBI’s impact will be felt most in the investigations around the murders/mystery deaths. Yesterday (8 July), the media found that the autopsy report on one of the mystery deaths involving Namrata Damor, an MBBS student implicated in the admissions scam, had been ignored by the police. The autopsy suggested homicide by asphyxiation, but the police called it suicide. The case is now being exhumed. Like the Damor case, all the deaths surrounding Vyapam will be re-investigated for possible foul play. This is the area where the CBI will be expected to make fast progress, as this angle was under-emphasised by the state-led probe.

Fourth, the CBI will also look into the involvements of more powerful people who may have masterminded the scam, which has been going on for more than a decade, and possibly predates the Chouhan government. However, the intensity of the scam possibly accelerated during his watch, and he himself has been mentioned as a key player on the basis of an Excel sheet maintained by an accused. The Congress has accused the government of doctoring the records by changing the words “CM” at several places in the Excel sheet with other names. The Excel sheet’s authenticity is in some doubt, but the CBI could go deeper and authenticate its source. Shivraj Chouhan is not out of the woods. But the BJP in Madhya Pradesh is clearly damaged.

Fifth, while the CBI’s investigations will open a new Pandora’s box, the chances are its entry will do more political damage to the BJP than secure actual convictions of the guilty. The CBI has had a very poor record of obtaining convictions. According to this DNA report, of the more than 7,000 pending cases as at the end of 2012, “at least 182 cases have been pending for more than 20 years, 457 cases have been pending for over 15 years, while 876 cases have been pending for more than 10 years.” The quality of its convictions have also been poor – snaring the weak rather than the powerful. Says the DNA report: “Those convicted in corruption cases have mostly been low-rung officials and non-influential commoners while just a handful are politicians, senior bureaucrats, high-profile businessmen and police officials.”

This is precisely why there has been an outcry against the STF-SIT investigations in Madhya Pradesh.

Sixth

, the Vyapam scam has now got murkier because

even the children of judges are alleged to have benefited

. The CBI will end up opening another can of worms if it goes into these cases in details. The Supreme Court will certainly not be pleased to learn that even judges may be involved.

The core of the Vyapam scam is that candidates (or their benefactors or guardians) could pay money to gain medical and engineering seats. This was facilitated by letting candidates copy at examination halls, by allowing impersonators to write the exam, or even by finding ways to award high marks on earmarked blank answer sheets. This means hundreds of thousands of people were involved, from ministers to college invigilators to parents and students, not to speak of the middlemen who enabled it all. In one part of the scam, even computer analysts were involved; they apparently used their systems to allot roll numbers to fake students to specific exam centres.

The reason why Vyapam – acronym for Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pareeksha Mandal – has caught the headlines is the sheer number of deaths associated with it, leaving one with the suspicion that those who knew too much needed to be eliminated to avoid implicating the higher-ups. The CBI is surely better equipped to investigate that the state-level agencies, but a lot depends on whether the Supreme Court will monitor the probe directly. But like the CBI, the Supreme Court too has too much on its plate.

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Vyapam scam: SC transferring probe to CBI gives Chouhan relief but makes things worse for BJP