By N Ram
Basing ourselves on newspaper reports, we can reasonably hypothesize that there are distinctive corruption systems in several Indian states, with well-established patterns,
expertly formulated and enforced rules of the game, identifiable actors, and regional and local specificities.
One of the most notorious and deadly corruption systems of long standing in a major state is BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh’s ‘Vyapam’, named after the Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal or the Professional Examination Board (PEB), a self-financing and autonomous state body that conducts standardized tests for admission to various professional courses and for thousands of government jobs. PEB claims on its website that as the only set-up of its kind in India, it conducts sensitive examinations ‘with complete impartiality and transparency, maintaining a very high standard of confidentiality’. Even if we assume that it has cleaned up its act, more or less, its track record reveals that the claim is perverse.
Vyapam, which went on for many years but came to light only in 2013, is much more than a scam or even a mega-scam. It is grand corruption in the full-blown sense: a politically sanctioned and policy-enabled system of racketeering that has extracted bribes and kickbacks running into hundreds of crores of rupees in exchange for fixing the results of supposedly competitive tests for admission to state-run medical colleges and for thousands of government jobs. Vyapam involves a set of ingeniously devised criminal services provided, on a rate-card basis, by the racketeers to students and job-seekers to cheat their way into state-run medical colleges and government jobs. Vyapam is a deadly criminal enterprise, involving blackmail, intimidation, and violence, and resulting in the ‘unnatural deaths’ of several suspects, accused persons, and victims2. Vyapam is an example of the systematic subversion of a state’s administration and, even more damagingly, its system of medical education and medical practice. Vyapam is the cynical exploitation of a situation of high unemployment and the desperate search for jobs. It has brought suffering, hardship, anxiety, and demoralization to large numbers of young men and women seeking educational opportunity and advancement, and ensnared into crooked ways by the racketeers.
When you look deeper, Vyapam turns out to be more than large-scale racketeering and grand corruption. It is, as Aman Sethi, a discerning journalist, puts it, ‘a vast societal swindle—one that reveals the hollowness at the heart of practically every Indian state institution: inadequate schools, a crushing shortage of meaningful jobs, a corrupt government, a cynical middle class happy to cheat the system to aid their own children, a compromised and inept police force and a judiciary incapable of enforcing its laws’.
But this is not all. Vyapam is also contagion. The modus developed and perfected over the years in this sordid and deadly racket has spawned another admission racket, the Dental and Medical Test (DMAT) conducted by the Association of Private Dental and Medical Colleges of Madhya Pradesh for admission to the private medical and dental colleges in the state. Described by the news media as a ‘high-end scam’, as worse than Vyapam by the Supreme Court of India, and as many times bigger than the PEB scam by the CBI, which however pleaded that it did not have the manpower to take this on, the DMAT racket has from its inception in 2006 boasted a star cast of beneficiaries. They include BJP and Congress political leaders, bureaucrats and police officials, and judges. The DMAT scandal has been estimated by Anand Rai, an RTI activist and whistle-blower, to have netted the scamsters anything between`8,000 crore and `10,000 crore.
Politically, Vyapam implicates or features senior BJP and RSS leaders, including ministers, in addition to a vast array of bureaucrats, intermediaries, fixers, and the participant victims, many hundreds of students and job-seekers ensnared in the racket. What is more, allegations have been made by the Congress against Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a three-term BJP chief minister, of involvement in the scandal and, at the very least, in its attempted cover-up. The political fight-back by the opposition, extensive recent coverage in the news media, and public-spirited litigation in the higher courts have obliged the BJP government to agree to bring in the CBI, resulting in a Supreme Court order transferring the investigation of Vyapam as well as the deaths allegedly related to it to the premier criminal investigating agency. While there is no certainty about how long the CBI’s investigation will take and where it will lead, it is politically significant that Vyapam has unravelled at a time when the party ruling at the centre has attempted to seize the moral high ground, painting its political opponents as incorrigibly corrupt and making out that its own ideology and programme of ‘Hindutva’ are the very antithesis of corruption in an all-embracing sense.
One of the unexplained things about Vyapam is how it could have been covered up for so long, considering that it reached deep into society and involved the lives and livelihood of many thousands of people. The news media, especially the thriving Hindi language press, must accept their share of the responsibility for not bringing this vast societal swindle, which had calamitous consequences, to light earlier.
What this also suggests is that while there has been useful empirical research on different forms of corruption prevailing across the land, inadequate attention has been paid by scholars to state- or region-specific systems of political corruption that have been developed over time by national as well as regional parties, and in some notable cases by strong and charismatic political leaders. This academic deficit can be observed in the empirical as well as theoretical literature. There is a need to fill this knowledge gap by undertaking focused research, empirical as well as theoretical, into these systems so that a composite picture of the unevenness and diversity as well as the maturation of corruption arrangements across politically federal India can be built up, with implications for how to combat them.
Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book Why Scams Are Here To Stay by N Ram.
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