The Vyapam scandal is a threat to India’s credibility

The Vyapam scandal is a threat to India’s credibility

While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tours the world, there is a stark contrast between his international and economic outreach and imploding politics at home.

The Modi government faces what has now come to be acknowledged as the one of the biggest scams in Indian politics – the Vyapam scam.

What is the Vyapam scandal?

The ‘Vyapam’, also known as the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (MPPEB) established in 1970, conducts entrance examinations for recruitment to various professional services.

While the first whiff of malpractice in examinations came to light in 2000 when a police case was registered, it was only in 2007 that the possibility of an organized scam began to gain ground, with the incriminating report of the Madhya Pradesh (MP) Local Fund Audit.

This became a certainty when activist Anand Rai filed a Public Interest Litigation in the MP high court in 2009, alleging malpractice in admissions and recruitment. Evidence implicating 114 candidates for impersonation, revealed by a government-appointed committee, confirmed the existence of an organized scam. In 2013, a Special Task Force (STF) was appointed to begin an investigation.

While the scam is more than a decade old and may not involve a very significant number of cases of fraud – according to the MP government, since 2007, there were about 1000 illegal appointments out of 147,000 – what has grabbed media attention in the recent weeks is the rising number of deaths linked to the scam.

While official estimates claim 35 deaths, unofficial estimates put the number between 50 and 156. The scandal has also implicated leaders in politics and business, with more than 2000 people, including politicians such as the MP education minister, mining barons, and bureaucrats, serving jail terms. Even the state governor was forced to resign after allegations against him, though he was not arrested due to ‘constitutional immunity’.

Besides the deaths of investigative journalists, police officers, and key witnesses, as well as the accused, this year alone, the high-profile scam claimed the lives of the governor’s son, Shailesh Yadav, and the dean of a medical college involved in the investigation.

With the trail of deaths being revealed in the course of the investigation, the scam has now snowballed into the biggest political controversy for the ruling BJP-led government at the centre, as well in the state of MP.

Political implications of Vyapam

The ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)-led government at the centre and in MP is under fire, as the Prime Minister refuses to comment.

BJP Chief Minister of MP, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, as well as the Home Minister at the centre, have shown reluctance to allow the transfer of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), despite allegations by the opposition that the STF was shielding the chief minister. The only saving grace for the government is that the hold-up was due to the refusal of a CBI probe by the MP high court.

From the nationwide outrage Vyapam has generated, the BJP’s shoddy political response and the loopholes in the case leading directly to the BJP’s MP members are likely to have far-reaching political implications for the central government.

However, interestingly, these implications are more likely to be economic rather than political. On the immediate political front, the ruling BJP is relatively insulated from the scam.

Speculations that it will spell a disaster for the ruling party in the states have been quelled with the recent conclusion of Legislative Council elections in the state of Bihar, in which BJP had a clear lead over the coalition of opposition parties. These elections are a prelude to upcoming high-stakes Bihar by-polls.

Even in the state of MP, despite being exploited to the hilt by the opposition Congress party, in the 2013 and 2014 elections, Vyapam did not lead to a downgrading of the chief minister’s position, who has been in power for a decade. Chouhan also braved the ‘dumper scam’ in 2007 and managed to retain power.

However, with the involvement of the Supreme Court and the handing over of the probe to the CBI, the shoddy investigation process of the STF will no longer direct the case, increasing the likelihood of a political disaster if the BJP is implicated in the probe.

Derailing reforms

The biggest risk from the Vyapam scam is likely to be to the central government’s reformist credentials, which have been used to attract widespread investment in the recent months. The government came to power by promising to reduce corruption and the institutionalization of a rules-based system, which were violated by the Congress government due to massive scams like the 2G and the CWG scams. This scam threatens to outsize that one.

If Vyapam ultimately forces Chouhan to step down, it might impact the state’s investment climate. Known to be a pro-industry chief minister under Chouhan’s leadership, MP – originally a stagnant BIMARU state – outpaced the national growth rate last year and even won an award for record food grain production.

At the national level, a serious threat is likely to be in the upcoming monsoon session of the Parliament, where the opposition has threatened to hold up crucial reformist bills like the Goods and Services Tax and the land acquisition bill in protest against the Vyapam scam.

Therefore, the government now faces the dual risk of declining political credibility and lack of ability to institutionalize economic reforms in the face of unyielding political opposition.

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