On November 16, 2003, the banner headline on the front page of The Sunday Express read: “Caught on tape: Union Minister taking cash, saying money is no less than God”.
A minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and Bharatiya Janata Party’s de facto Chief Ministerial candidate for Chhattisgarh, Dilip Singh Judev, was caught on camera accepting wads of cash in return for prospective mining leases. He was caught blurting out: “Paisa khuda to nahi par khuda ki kasam khuda se kam bhi nahi (Money isn’t God, but upon his name, it isn’t less than him.”)
That was the beginning of Chhattisgarh’s enduring saga of political sting operations. Although the stinging of Judev failed to ensure the defeat of the BJP in 2003, it resulted in Raman Singh’s rise to prominence following Judev’s resignation from the Vajpayee Cabinet. Soon after results were declared in 2003, BJP’s Virendra Pandey approached Ajit Jogi offering the support of rebel BJP MLAs for a price. It was the senior Jogi’s turn to fall for the sting. Arun Jaitley, then minister in the Vajpayee government, played the tape at a press conference he addressed, in Raipur, leaving Jogi to scamper for an anticipatory bail.
Amit Jogi, son of Ajit Jogi, was eventually charge-sheeted in Judev’s case—only to get acquitted at a later stage. As for Ajit Jogi, the tag of a ‘fixer’ would follow him thereafter. A lot more sting operations were to follow.
Curiously, these sting operations ended up ruining the careers of the perpetrators as much as the politicians, who were being sought to be ‘fixed’. Most of the people undertaking this activity had the patronage of politicians belonging to rival parties, and such tapes continued to pop up periodically in the political landscape of Chhattisgarh.
The Antagarh by-election in September 2014 proved to be a major turning point in Chhattisgarh politics. The Congress party had put up Manturam Pawar, whose withdrawal at a late stage gave a walkover to his BJP opponent. Pawar was known to be close to Ajit Jogi, and the mystery of his sudden withdrawal was finally revealed when Indian Express published a report in December 2015—based on the tapes in its possession—indicting the Jogis for the withdrawal of Pawar. A certain Firoz Siddiqui, formerly a Jogi loyalist, confessed his role in recording the conversations.
Chhattisgarh Congress President Bhupesh Baghel promptly expelled Amit Jogi from the party and demanded action to be taken against the senior Jogi. Barely a fortnight later, another audio tape recording was leaked in which Baghel was heard telling Siddiqui to handover the tapes he had on Antagarh by-elections to The Indian Express office in Raipur. “Reach The Indian Express office day after tomorrow afternoon, second half. Wahan denge na, to safer side wala ho gaya samjho (It will be safer if we give it there),” Baghel was heard saying on the tape. More importantly, both Baghel and Siddiqui confirmed to The Indian Express that the voices on the tape were theirs.
The senior Jogi quit Congress to form Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) in 2016, but that didn’t put an end to the saga of stings and counter stings. In late 2017, Chhattisgarh-based ex-BBC journalist Vinod Verma was arrested from his Ghaziabad residence with some 500 copies of a “sex CD” involving Minister Rajesh Munat in the Raman Singh government. Vinod Verma turned out to be a relative of Bhupesh Baghel, and the case was subsequently handed over to the CBI. The central agency charged Baghel, Verma and others for circulating the “fake sex CD” on the eve of the elections in September and Baghel even spent a couple of days in jail before applying for bail in the case.
In the first week of October, English and Hindi channels aired audio and videotapes of Bhupesh Baghel purportedly in conversation with Firoz Siddiqui and Pappu Farishta—a Congress member close to Jogi and Baghel—trying to fix Congress state in-charge PL Punia. Baghel was also heard offering two assembly seats in Chhattisgarh in return for a CD of Punia in a compromising position. There was also some conversation about CDs involving other Congress leaders of Chhattisgarh in the tape that was aired.
The airing of the tape by channels set the cat among the pigeons. Fellow Congress leaders rushed to Delhi charging Baghel with sabotaging Congress’ prospects. With the Election Commission announcing the schedule of elections on October 6, it was probably too late for Congress to effect any change of leadership in Chhattisgarh—yet, ticket distribution was subsequently taken away from Baghel. On October 11, a seven-member ‘core committee’ including Baghel and Punia was constituted for finalising tickets. It was subsequently reported that many candidates suggested by Baghel didn’t find a place in the allocation. Rahul Gandhi also got Durg MP Tanradhwaj Sahu to contest the elections, possibly as an afterthought.
It is rather curious that Baghel never cleared the air on these tapes or bothered to deny that it was his voice on them. Neither did PL Punia. Firoz Siddiqui took ownership of the sting operation and claimed it was done in “public interest” to shed light on “political corruption”. It is also curious that Pappu Farishta continues to be a member of the Congress despite partnering with Siddiqui to record this conversation with Baghel. Even Siddiqui didn’t hide his affiliation with Congress although he made it clear that he wasn’t officially attached to the party in any capacity.
Speaking to Newslaundry from Raipur, Siddiqui said he was aware of differences between Baghel and Punia and merely took advantage of the situation. Asked why chose to target Baghel and not others, he insisted the duo tried to sting other leaders without success. Siddiqui denied the Jogis’ hand behind the operation and claimed to be driven merely by passion and public interest.
Did Baghel contact him after the tapes were telecast by channels? “No, Baghel never contacted me after the tapes came into public domain. Some people tell me that I will be targeted. But I can’t do anything about it,” said Siddiqui reiterating he only had noble intentions behind undertaking this sting. Siddiqui also evaded questions on the existence of the alleged CD featuring Punia.
Newslaundry contacted Punia, but he refused to answer these questions. Chief Minister Baghel was also unavailable for comment. Shailesh Nitin Trivedi, the spokesperson of Chhattisgarh Congress, speaking on the Chief Minister’s behalf merely repeated this line twice: “The matter is no more than two months old. It is not relevant anymore.”
When Congress won Chhattisgarh by a huge margin, it was assumed that the central leadership might sideline Baghel in the light of these controversies. Instead, he emerged as the Chief Ministerial candidate in dramatic circumstances. The Indian Express reported that Tamradhwaj Sahu was declared the Chief Minister only for Baghel and TS Singh Deo to gang up against the choice of Rahul Gandhi.
It seems Baghel’s apparent eagerness to fix his own partymen and general secretary in-charge of the party did not come in the way of his being named the Chief Minister. And to be fair to Baghel, he did lead the Congress aggressively, taking the fight to the BJP in the past five years before this sting operation took the sheen off his efforts. But the Congress party seems to have preferred to play safe with the crucial general elections to follow.
A political commentator hailing from Chhattisgarh opined, “Baghel would have become a bigger headache for the Congress had he been sidelined in favour of either Sahu or Deo. Although Baghel would inevitably cause some embarrassments to the party, it might be prudent for the Congress to go with him for now.” Soon after taking charge as Chief Minister, Baghel named Vinod Verma as his political adviser. Verma had served 60 days in prison after his arrest in 2017 and was later charge-sheeted by the CBI with Baghel among the co-accused.
In yet another shocker, on January 3, the controversial former Bastar Inspector General (IG) SRP Kalluri has been named as the head of the Economic Offenses Wing and the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Kalluri has had a colourful career and was often in the news for alleged fake encounters, staged Maoist surrenders and persecution of human rights activists and journalists during his term as the Bastar top cop. Baghel had demanded Kalluri’s ouster during his stint in opposition and has now U-turned to give him a plum posting.
All of this points to the fact that the more things change in Chhattisgarh, the more they remain the same. And Baghel’s politics looks to be very much in the mould of the discarded Ajit Jogi.