Coverup is the cry, following the fourth mysterious death of a suspect in a billion dollar corruption scandal in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Sunil Verma, a 55-year-old engineer under investigation for his alleged role in the embezzlement of more than a billion dollars from the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), allegedly committed suicide by shooting himself Monday morning. Earlier, two chief medical officers (CMOs) were murdered and a deputy CMO was found dead inside a jail hospital.
By any standard, that's an epidemic of unnatural deaths. And even though police produced a suicide note and family members testified that Verma had been depressed since being interrogated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), allegations of a conspiracy to stymie the corruption probe quickly surfaced.
To be sure, if Verma was, indeed, so prostrated by shame over the accusations that he took his own life, he would be a rare, if not unique, soul among India's bureaucrats and politicians. The usual course is to deny, deny, deny, and, if all else fails, brazen out the scandal Bill Clinton style. Only those with tales to tell about more powerful people than themselves seem to be stricken with deadly remorse. And the list of prominent politicians who have gone on to illustrious careers in the wake of such accusations is a long one.
But the conspiracy allegations are convenient, too. Pivotal state elections are underway in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. The Congress Party is still fighting to shake off the mud sticking to it since Anna Hazare's hunger strike against corruption erupted this summer – and there's no better way to do that than to share the wealth with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, its main rival in Uttar Pradesh.
“We suspect Verma has been murdered just like the other three health department officials to save the bigwigs involved in the scam,” the Daily Mail quoted Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh as saying at a press conference in Lucknow. “The CBI, which is probing the scam, should also probe Verma's death.”
Similarly, the paper quoted Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi as saying, “It is extremely strange that in five years (of BSP) rule in UP, we have seen so many disappearances and deaths whenever any scam comes to fore.”
That line of argument could come back to bite the Congress, too, though. Hazare's anti-corruption movement continues to lobby for an all-powerful national ombudsman to check graft, his implicit logic being that the biggest scandals go all the way up to the highest echelons of government – so a supercop that's outside and above the system is needed. And the size of the NRHM scandal, as well as the air of conspiracy surrounding it, certainly seems to support that view.
According to the Comptroller and Auditor General, more than $1 billion out of some $1.7 billion allotted to Uttar Pradesh for the NRHM by the central government is missing. Meanwhile, officials violated guidelines in awarding jobs to construction firms. Supposed primary health centers were instead used to store potatoes, and eye care centres were used as grain warehouses. A car used to ferry around a district magistrate was listed on the books as a vehicle for distributing vaccines. And nearly 550 health centers – supposedly constructed with some $10 million – were never built.