It all began with headlines that were shameful yet somewhat amusing: a Class 12 arts topper from Bihar thought political science was about cooking and her classmate, a science topper, couldn’t explain the connection between H2O and water.

These top scorers in the Bihar state board intermediate exams were exposed in media interviews soon after their Class 12 results were announced last month. The embarrassed state government ordered an investigation and a special re-exam for 14 toppers, but it may not have anticipated the degree to which the controversy would blow up.

Two weeks since the students unwittingly exposed a nexus of corruption in Bihar’s education system, the “toppers scam” or “toppergate” has led to at least eight arrests and implicated several political leaders in the state.

How the debacle unravelled

Bihar earned notoriety last year when photographic evidence of mass cheating in board exams – showing adults scaling walls to pass written answers to students through windows – made national news. This year, when more than 25 lakh students sat for the Class 10 and 12 board exams in March and April, the Nitish Kumar-led government might have hoped for a scandal-free result, but that was not to be.

On May 31, India Today posted a video of an interview with Class 12 arts topper Ruby Rai, who scored 90% but claimed that political science is a subject about the “preparation of food”. Similarly, student Saurabh Shreshtha couldn’t answer basic questions about the science subjects he topped in. As the news got picked up by the national media, the Bihar government was forced to acknowledge that these were obvious signs of cheating – the students might have either made proxies sit for the exam or colleges might have been complicit in organised cheating.

The state ordered a re-exam for 14 toppers on June 3, but Ruby Rai failed to show up. On June 4, the Bihar State Examination Board decided to give Rai one more chance to do a re-test, but Saurabh Shreshtha and another science topper, Rahul Kumar, ended up failing the re-exam.

Bachcha Rai, the kingpin

All three students at the centre of the controversy happened to be from Vishun Rai College in Vaishali district, an institution headed by Amit Kumar, aka Bachcha Rai, the alleged kingpin of the scandal.

On June 7, an official from the state education department lodged a police complaint against Ruby Rai, Shreshtha, Kumar and Bachcha Rai, charging them with forgery and cheating.

Vishun Rai college was founded by Bachcha Rai’s father and in 1999, Rai was allegedly made the principal when he was just 19. According to allegations by a former staff member of the college, Rai had failed his Class 12 exam twice, passed it in 1998 and then promptly got a dubious postgraduate degree in just 13 months. His daughter, Shalini Rai, had also appeared for the Class 12 exams this year and actually scored more marks than the science topper Shreshtha. Her result, however, was concealed and she was not among the toppers asked to take the re-exam.

On June 8, a day after Bachcha Rai was named in the First Information Report as an accused in the toppers scam, a state-appointed Special Investigation Team went to inspect Vishun Rai College. Even though Rai was present, he was not arrested. He then absconded for three days before finally surrendering to the police on June 11. By then, the scam had already taken a political turn as Rai’s links with high-ranking politicians began to emerge.

Political connections

Bachcha Rai’s inter-party political connections have blown up as a “photo war” on social media between the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United).

Last year, during Bihar’s assembly election campaign, Rai had shared a stage with RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and his son Tej Pratap, and BJP leaders alleged that Rai had worked hard to ensure the victory of Yadav’s other son Tejashwi Yadav.

While Lalu Yadav has dissociated himself from Rai, Tejashwi Yadav escalated the fight on Sunday by posting on Twitter photos of Rai with BJP leader and controversial union minister Giriraj Singh. He alleged that Singh often visited Rai’s college as a special guest and had even presented Rai with an award on one occasion.

On Monday, Giriraj Singh added a fresh twist to the saga by posting a photo of Rai with chief minister Nitish Kumar on Twitter. While Kumar’s party, JDU, claims it is an inconsequential photo from a wedding in 2013, the photographs have led to much verbal sparring between the three parties on social media.

More dramatis personae

Besides Bachcha Rai, the toppers scam has also put Lalkeshwar Prasad Singh – the former chairman of the Bihar School Examination Board – in the dock. Singh resigned from his post as the Board’s chairman a day after the FIR was registered against the students, but became a suspect in the scam himself because of the ease with which Shalini Rai, Bachcha Rai’s daughter, was removed from the list of toppers.

On June 13, the police arrested two college lecturers allegedly “working” for Singh to fix board examinations and evaluations. Based on their interrorations, the Special Investigation Team also named Singh’s wife, Usha Sinha, as a co-accused in the scam.

Sinha is a former legislator from Hilsa constituency with educational qualifications even more dubious than Bachcha Rai’s. According to her own affidavit filed with the Election Commission in 2010, Sinha completed her Class 10 exams at the age of 8 and at 15, completed a two-year master’s degree course from a university that was only a year old at the time.

Both Singh and Sinha are absconding.