On Wednesday, a day after the Central Bureau of Investigation cleared Shivraj Singh Chouhan in a Vyapam case, his Bharatiya Janata Party felicitated him in Bhopal. Speakers described the clean chit to the Madhya Pradesh chief minister as a “triumph of truth over malicious propaganda” of the Congress. Chouhan, seated with his wife Sadhna Singh, was visibly jubilant.

It was as if a court of law had pronounced Chouhan innocent in the massive job-cum-admission racket that thrived, surfaced and was investigated under his nose.

The Vyapam scam refers to the alleged irregularities in various admission and job recruitment examinations conducted by the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, also known as Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal, or Vyapam. The scam first came to light in July 2013.

The CBI has absolved Chouhan in just one case of commission of crime, claiming there was “no grain of truth in the allegation’’ made by senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh that a hard disk seized as evidence had been tampered with to remove a reference to the chief minister.

The CBI’s clean chit has to pass scrutiny in the special court in Bhopal hearing the Vyapam cases. Also, in other myriad cases related to the scam, the chief minister stands guilty of omission, if not commission. Chouhan is not out of the woods yet.

In fact, the clean chit is already under question. At a press conference on Wednesday, senior lawyers Kapil Sibal, KTS Tulsi and Vivek Tankha – who represent the complainants Digvijaya Singh and Prashant Pandey, the Vyapam whistleblower – alleged that the CBI itself had tampered with evidence to save the chief minister. Terming the CBI as the Compromise Bureau of Investigation, they even threatened to sue the agency.

The hard disk in question was seized from Vyapam’s former chief systems analyst Nitin Mahindra by the Indore police on July 18, 2013, and it was submitted to the Special Investigation Team chief Chandresh Bhushan by Digvijaya Singh in February 2015. Bhushan’s team investigated the scam until the Supreme Court transferred all Vyapam cases to the CBI in September 2015.

On the disk, which Digvijaya Singh had received from Pandey, were five excel sheets listing the candidates for admission and job recruitment against the names of powerful people who had recommended them.

Digvijaya Singh alleged the disk had been doctored while it was with the police – the word “CM”, which he claimed meant chief minister, had been replaced at 48 places. In April 2015, both Digvijaya Singh and Pandey moved the Supreme Court asking for the evidence to be examined afresh by an independent agency, even though the Madhya Pradesh High Court had dismissed the allegation of evidence tampering. It was in response to Digvijaya Singh’s petition that the apex court handed over the investigation to the CBI.

Setback for Congress

The CBI got the disk examined afresh by the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Hyderabad. According to the CBI, the lab found Mahindra’s computer was last turned off on July 15, 2013 and its records were not accessed thereafter. All five excel files with reference to “CM” were created or modified after July 18, 2013, the agency added, implying the disk produced by Digvijaya Singh and Pandey was in fact doctored by them.

Countering the CBI, Digvijaya Singh and Pandey’s lawyers said two pen drives submitted to the agency by the whistleblower – one purportedly containing the original files created by Mahindra and the other tampered files – supported their allegation. The CBI has sent the pen drives too for forensic examination and the verdict is awaited.

“We have a pen drive in our possession which implicates the CM and some Madhya Pradesh ministers,” the lawyers said at the press conference. “There is a sequence of events to reveal tampering of evidence in the case. The original pen drive, which we have verified from a top forensic lab, corroborates the names of CM and some other ministers mentioned in Vyapam diaries.”

Ironically, it was the Congress which had most vociferously demanded a CBI investigation into the Vyapam and now the party feels compelled to sue the same agency. Asked about this, Congress leaders claimed their demand for a CBI enquiry was framed in “a particular political context” – they had hoped Prime Minister Narendra Modi would use the agency to fix Chouhan, who was considered his rival in the BJP.

In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the media was full of reports about the uneasy relationship between Modi and Chouhan. Speculation was rife that if Modi became prime minister, Chouhan would be ousted as chief minister. This perception only deepened when Modi took complete control of the BJP by installing his confidante Amit Shah as the president. It was around this time that murky details of the Vyapam scam started tumbling out with breathtaking rapidity.

Chouhan apparently proved too shrewd for the Congress. He patched up with Modi, getting the prime minister to visit his state half a dozen times in just one year after the election. At each successive event with Modi, Chouhan seemed to outdo himself in praising the prime minister, using phrases such as “super human being”, “yug purush”, “god’s gift to India”.

Not surprisingly, the CBI’s clean chit is being seen as Chouhan’s reward from Modi.