Shimla: The emergency medical supplies scam in Himachal Pradesh has exposed the power tussle in the ruling BJP, with Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur gaining the upper hand in this round.
The scam involves bribes being allegedly sought for release of payments for PPE kits worth Rs 1 crore, bought during the Covid-19 crisis in March and April.
It has so far led to the resignation of state BJP president Rajeev Bindal, a five-time MLA and a former health minister who was seen as a potential challenger to the chief minister. Bindal, handpicked by national BJP president J.P. Nadda who is from Himachal, resigned on moral grounds Tuesday.
He was dragged into the scam due to his alleged proximity to Dr. Ajay Kumar Gupta — the director of health services who was arrested by the state Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau on 20 May after an audio-clip went viral in the state — and businessman Prithvi Singh.
In the 43-second audio-clip, Dr. Gupta is allegedly heard seeking a bribe of Rs 5 lakh to clear pending payments to Singh, who was handling the PPE and other medical equipment supply to the health department.
Top vigilance officials are tight-tipped about the investigation, more so about Bindal’s role.
“At this stage, I can only say it’s a case of bribery. The accused, Dr. Gupta, is in our custody. We have seized all records relating to supplies (PPE kits) worth Rs 1 crore that the firm had made to the health department during the Covid-19 crisis,” Additional DGP (Vigilance) Anurag Garg said. “The conversation in the audio-clip, which is part of the investigations, revolves around release of payments. That is our only focus area.”
But Bindal was made to resign at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office even though it is the chief minister who now heads the health department that was making the purchases.
Sources said with pressure building from the opposition and the public, the chief minister was compelled to take up the matter with the party high command, eventually getting them to put pressure on Bindal to resign.
The potential challenger falls
Insiders admit there is no love lost between Bindal and Thakur.
Until he took over as BJP president in January this year, Bindal was the assembly Speaker but it was well known that he harboured ambitions of a cabinet berth, particularly the health and family welfare portfolio. The BJP leader is a medical doctor by profession.
He had served as the health minister during the BJP’s previous term in 2007 but had to resign following allegations of dubious land deals. A one-time Prem Kumar Dhumal loyalist, Bindal switched allegiance to J.P. Nadda — who was seen as the next chief ministerial contender during the 2017 polls.
When Food and Supplies Minister Krishan Kapoor resigned last year, after being elected to the Lok Sabha from Kangra, Bindal hoped to get the berth but the chief minister refused to fill the vacancy.
He was eventually chosen to head the party in Himachal by Nadda in January this year — the state unit president post is seen as the stepping stone to the chief minister’s chair in the hill state.
Thakur himself had headed the Himachal BJP between 2006 and 2009.
The audio-clip controversy has now come in handy for the chief minister to assert his position and gain an upper hand in the state’s affairs. “It shows the chief minister, not anyone else, is in a commanding position,” a cabinet minister said.
Sources said the chief minister also got leverage from reports that Dr. Gupta attempted to meet Bindal on the day the audio clip surfaced. Gupta, who incidentally is to retire on 31 May, is from Bindal’s home district Nahan.
On the face of it, however, the chief minister has been defending Bindal.
“Dr. Bindal had resigned on the moral grounds. His resignation has been accepted by the national BJP chief J.P. Nadda,” he said. “The matter is under investigation. It’s unfair on the part of the opposition to level vague and baseless charges.”
“The government has acted very promptly,” he added. “It is a first as the arrest of such a high official was made within hours, and on the basis of an audio-clip.”
He, however, said there will be zero tolerance for corruption in the state. “People resorting to corruption in such a situation when the country, and even the world, is facing the worst-ever humanitarian crisis is unacceptable,” the chief minister said. “I have told the vigilance department to get to the bottom of the matter and take the guilty to task.”
On his part, Bindal has maintained his innocence. In a video message released to the media, he reiterated his resolve to “protect” the party’s image. “I hope to emerge out of the current crisis soon. It is a test I will certainly pass,” he said. “I have done no wrong.”
BJP govt under fire from opposition, public
Bindal’s resignation, however, has put the state BJP government in a tight spot with the opposition and public opinion.
While the opposition Congress had been careful not to directly name the former health minister — its leaders kept referring to the “role of a top BJP leader in the PPE scam” — all that changed when Bindal resigned Tuesday.
“What creates doubts of Bindal’s involvement in the emergency medical purchases is that after going on record to say he is innocent, Bindal resigned on moral grounds. Is he then suggesting that the state BJP president is responsible for all the purchases being done during the Covid-19 crisis?” asked leader of opposition Mukesh Agnihotri. “We want a sitting high court judge to probe all purchases done during the coronavirus period.”
Agnihotri, a senior Congress leader, said he raised the issue of medical purchases including sanitisers, PPE kits, gloves and face masks with the chief minister.
“Until now, the chief minister has not provided answers on the medical purchases. There are also questions why Dr. Rajeev Bindal quit the post of Speaker to become state party president,” Agnihotri said. “We have doubts about Bindal’s dealing with the person in the audio-clip and his business interests in the health department.”
The scam is also causing turmoil in the state BJP.
Veteran party leader and former chief minister Shanta Kumar shot off a letter to the party high command, a few days ago, on the scam.
“It is not only a crime and shameful act but a maha paap (bigger sin),” his letter reads. “Imagine a MNREGA worker donating Rs 5,000 of her savings to the Covid fund in Himachal Pradesh and these people are trying to pocket the money. Highly shameful.”
Former BJP minister Mohinder Sofat also sent a complaint to the PMO seeking a high-level probe as the “name of a top BJP leader was being repeatedly mentioned”. When Bindal first entered the state assembly after a byelection in 2002, his BJP ticket came at the expense of Sofat, considered a Shanta Kumar loyalist.
Former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal has termed the scam, which has come amid a pandemic, as “sedition” and asked for a fair probe.