COME examination time, and leaked question papers, replaced answer sheets, touts and tutors become the norm in Maharashtra. But never before has there been such a furore. When over 20,000 students purchased or borrowed six leaked question papers of the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examination, there were widespread demonstrations, their grievances in print, and the political pressure had a red-faced Shiv Sena-BJP government fumbling for answers. The timing could not have been worse, with elections a month away.
In his press briefings, Chief Minister Manohar Joshi actually spent more time explaining the SSC exam tangle than his party's seat adjustment tussle with the BJP over Thane, a Lok Sabha constituency bordering Bombay. And though the initial furore gradually abated, the aftertaste lingered on in the media, police investigations and opinion polls even as politicians hoped that all this would not reach the ballot box. "My examination is not over yet," Transport and Culture Minister Pramod Navalkar, who also holds ailing colleague Sudhir Joshi's education portfolio, told journalists. His allusion was in part to the police investigations still under way. "There still are people at the top who haven't been taken in yet. We are getting there," says Police Commissioner R.D. Tyagi.
Over a dozen people have been arrested. They include the supervisor in the SSC Board's accounts department, Subhash Pardeshi, who leaked the papers to Ravish Sanil, owner of a private coaching class in Bombay, for a promised sum of Rs 50,000.
In an attempt to stem the outrage over the leaked papers, the government set dates between April 9 and 11 for a re-examination in three subjects: Science II, Algebra and Geometry. Though the move was welcomed by academics, it was condemned in all other quarters, which included sections within the BJP-Sena alliance, students, parents and opposition parties. Politicians foresaw an immediate impact on the polls and many within the alliance, including Sena the seat of government, demanding that the ruling party revoke its decision.
With the involvement of 2.70 lakh SSC students, appearing from over 10,000 examination centres, the government feared that if education did become a poll issue, it could not be ignored. And so on March 29, the government revoked the decision it had announced only three days earlier. "We felt that had we gone ahead with the exams, the situation would have become uncontrollable. After all, the majority—students and parents—did not want a re-exam. We had to consider their wishes," reasoned Navalkar.
"The reason for their volte face is clear enough, with the elections so near. But every action will be taken care of by the voter," says M.P. Vashi, lawyer and Janata Dal Lok Sabha candidate who was all set to handle a writ petition filed by some parents, challenging the government's decision to go in for a re-examination.
"My neighbour's son was offered the paper but it was too late. This has become so bad, we seem to be in Bihar," says the parent of a ninth grade student from Bandra. The discordant voices of parents and students have not quietened, and many still feel that they have been denied justice.
The issue is being kept alive by parents who either blame coaching classes for bending rules to attract students, or by parents who blame the government for creating such a mess. A national daily's opinion poll on "a corrupt and corrupting education system" found many willing respondents. V. Kumar, a parent from suburban Chembur, said his daughter did not want a re-exam. "After studying hard, my daughter is disappointed about the leak, but she is confident of getting over 90 per cent. This will not affect her, or which way I vote."
And the BJP-Sena alliance is banking on this kind of response. While it hopes the "school's out" mood between the exam and polling day will help the voter shelve the issue, harping on too local an issue in a general election may weaken the Opposition's stand. And then, maybe not.