It’s widely known in Madhya Pradesh that Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan doesn’t take kindly to allegations against his wife Sadhna Singh. Whenever the opposition accused her of malfeasance in the past, Chouhan replied with appeals for observing the sanctity of the family, charges of “hitting below the belt”, and on occasions defamation suits. This time, none of those responses may work.

After taking over the probe into the Vyapam, or cash-for-jobs, scandal from the state’s Special Task Force, the Central Bureau of Investigation has reopened the case of Premlata Pandey’s death. The main opposition here, the Congress, claims there are strands connecting Pandey and Sadhna Singh.

Premlata Pandey, who hailed from the Beohari tehsil in Shahdol district, allegedly died of liver cancer in 2013 and the state-level probe saw nothing fishy in it. She and her sister-in-law Sandhya Pandey, both in their early thirties, had cleared the rigged contract teacher’s test in 2012, which was conducted by the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, popularly known by its Hindi acronym Vyapam. Their candidatures were cancelled later as allegations surfaced of gross malpractice in the 2012 examination.

In February this year, senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh released details of a text message he said was sent by Sadhna Singh recommending Premlata Pandey and Sandhya Pandey for selection as teachers. The Congress general secretary claimed that one Rakesh Pandey had forwarded the names of his sister-in-law (Premlata) and her sister (Sandhya) to Sadhna Singh on the phone number registered in the chief minister’s wife’s maiden name, Kokila Singh.

The SMS was sent on May 9, 2012, he claimed, and soon after the mobile connection was discontinued. The Congress leader maintained that Sadhna Singh forwarded the request to Sudhir Sharma, a powerful mining baron who is now in jail for his alleged role in the Vyapam scandal.

“My contention is that all the others mentioned in the link are in jail, while one particular person [Sadhna] was not even questioned. Why is that?” Digvijaya Singh was quoted as saying by the Hindustan Times.

State government spokesman and principal secretary to the chief minister SK Mishra denied the Congress allegation. Mishra claimed that Rakesh Pandey had sent the SMS to two persons – Recipient 1: Sadhna Singh and Recipient 2: Sudhir Sharma – and that it was not a chain SMS (Pandey to Singh to Sharma), according to the Hindustan Times report.

Still, there is a chance that the CBI may question Sadhna Singh in connection with Premlata Pandey’s death.

Her troubles could grow further if the Supreme Court orders a CBI probe into the Dental and Medical Admission Test scam, as sought in a joint petition by three whistleblowers of the Vyapam scam. The petitioners have alleged that Sadhna Singh’s niece (younger sister’s daughter) got admission in Chirayu Medical College in Bhopal in 2012 through the rigged DMAT. Other beneficiaries include sons and daughters of BJP and Congress politicians, bureaucrats, judges and businessmen.

The petitioners have contended that the test conducted by the association of owners of the state’s six private medical and 16 dental colleges is a sham. While hearing their petition on July 16, the Supreme Court remarked that the DMAT scam was worse than Vyapam. It will pronounce a verdict on the petition after hearing the replies of the state and union governments, which have been served notices.

Spotlight on older accusations

The allegations against the chief minister’s wife in the twin scams have brought into sharper focus the older charges against her. Before Chouhan became chief minister in 2005, not much was known about his wife of 13 years. Her public participation was limited to appearances at mass marriage functions that Shivraj Singh organised in Vidisha while he was Member of Parliament from the constituency from 1991 to 2005.

With Chouhan’s ascent to the chief minister’s post, Sadhna Singh’s profile also grew. She vigorously campaigned in the 2006 assembly by-election in Budni for her husband. Her deep interest in Chouhan’s poll campaign triggered speculation that she would be picked as the BJP candidate from the Vidisha Lok Sabha seat vacated by her husband. But the BJP high-command nixed the idea. Nevertheless, Sadhna Singh remained an active BJP worker in the party’s woman wing.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha election too, speculation was rife that Sadhna Singh might be the BJP candidate from the Hoshangabad seat. “Inner-party surveys” by BJP workers overwhelmingly favoured her over all other candidates, and neither Chouhan nor Sadhna denied prospects of the candidacy. Again, however, the BJP high-command denied Sadhna Singh a ticket.

All this while, there were whispers of her involvement in administrative matters in the chief minister’s secretariat. These whispers turned louder in 2007, when a former Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Prahlad Patel, alleged that Sadhna Singh purchased four dumpers worth Rs 2 crore and leased them to a Rewa-based cement factory. Since the factory owner was a friend of the chief minister, there were allegations of quid pro quo.

Chouhan confirmed his wife’s deal with the company but denied there was any dishonest dealing. Not convinced, the Congress moved court, which gave a clean chit to the Chouhan couple. The Lokayukta too dismissed the Congress’ complaint of corruption against the couple four years later.

The uproar over the dumper case was yet to die when the Congress accused Sadhna Singh of undervaluing a warehouse she owned. This allegation too was dismissed by Chouhan with the argument that the chief minister’s wife has as much a right as anyone else to do business to support her family. Chouhan pulled out the same card every time accusations were hurled at Sadhna Singh, whether of helping builder Dilip Suryavanshi get road contracts or of taking undue interest in mining contracts or of patronising select bureaucrats in transfer postings.

Not surprisingly, in the run-up to the 2013 assembly election, the Congress targeted Sadhna Singh as aggressively as Shivraj Chouhan. The then leader of opposition, Ajay Singh, alleged she had to buy a currency counting machine to count her ill-gotten money. An infuriated Shivraj responded by slapping a defamation notice on the Congress leader for Rs 1 crore. When an undeterred Congress showed the Chouhan couple with such a machine in an election poster, the chief minister slapped another defamation notice of Rs 10 crore, this time against Congress president Sonia Gandhi. These cases are pending in courts.

'Super chief minister'

The chief minister’s election affidavit submitted before the 2013 assembly polls shows Sadhna Singh’s income rose over five years by 140% and Chouhan’s by 64%. They jointly own immovable and movable properties worth Rs 6.26 crore, out of which Chouhan’s share is Rs 2.4 crore and his wife’s Rs 3.8 crore. Sadhna Singh owns a warehouse, three greenhouses and a poly house in Vidisha district.

Her bank balance was Rs 1.8 lakh in 2008 and Rs 8.6 lakh in 2013. On the other hand, Chouhan’s account held Rs 10.5 lakh at the time of the 2008 elections and just Rs 1 lakh more before the 2013 polls. As per the chief minister’s affidavit in 2013, the net worth of his immovable assets was Rs 44.32 lakh, while his wife’s net worth was Rs 24.71 lakh

In 2014, the Congress spokesman in Madhya Pradesh, KK Mishra, became the latest figure in the long tally of grand old party members slapped with defamation suits. Unlike others, he was sued by the state government, not the chief minister.

Mishra invited the defamation notice for alleging that 17 candidates got through the Vyapam-conducted transport constable recruitment test of 2012 by forging documents and that they were all from Sadhna Singh’s home district of Gondia in Maharashtra.

While the original notification was to recruit 198 candidates, Vyapam went ahead and recruited 332, he claimed. In the wake of the allegations, a police probe ensued, which resulted in the cancellation of the recruitment of 39 candidates, including 17 allegedly from Gondia.

Despite the defamation suit, KK Mishra is undaunted. “This is known to everyone in the BJP, the bureaucracy and everywhere, that Sadhna Singh has been acting like super chief minister in the state,” he alleged. “You can ask BJP leaders and they would give you better details of her influence on the working of the Chouhan cabinet.”