From the bench to the BJP: The Kolkata judge who has joined politics

Popular for anti-Trinamool verdicts while in office, Abhijit Gangopadhyay’s embrace of BJP after quitting puts a question mark on some of his rulings.

Published : Mar 11, 2024 18:09 IST - 8 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being greeted by ex-judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay, who has joined BJP, during a public meeting at Kawakhali ground, in Siliguri, on March 9, 2024.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being greeted by ex-judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay, who has joined BJP, during a public meeting at Kawakhali ground, in Siliguri, on March 9, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

While in office, High Court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay practically became a household name in West Bengal because of a series of rulings in high-profile cases that rocked the State government. These included the scam in the recruitment process of the School Service Commission and the alleged irregularities in various municipality office recruitments. This gained him a reputation as the only man who had succeeded in pinning the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government into an uncomfortable corner. Last week, however, just five months short of retirement, Gangopadhyay resigned from office and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This unorthodox move attracted criticism and resulted in allegations of bias in all his court orders against the TMC.

On March 5, after his public announcement about joining the BJP, the former judge said he believed it was “the only national party that can fight against the Trinamool” in West Bengal. Labelling Trinamool a party of corrupt people, he went on to say that the party would not even last until 2026 when the next Assembly election will be held. “Just a few arrests are required and the whole party will crumble,” said the ex-judge, whose rulings resulted in the arrest of a senior TMC Cabinet Minister and three MLAs. Then on March 7, when he formally joined the BJP, Gangopadhyay said his primary aim was “to usher in the end of a corrupt government and a corrupt party.” His strong political statements, both while in office and now outside, have added to the unease surrounding his verdicts while on the bench, when he and the ruling party were in bitter disagreement, and he had often verbally attacked the party.

While claiming his main aim in joining politics was to fight corruption, Gangopadhyay evaded questions regarding allegations of corruption within the BJP. “It is not for me to know whether the BJP is a corruption-free party or not. If I get any responsibility, it will be to get rid of corruption,” he said in a press conference.

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Known at one time to be close to the Left (before he became a judge), Gangopadhyay’s decision to join the saffron party appears to be a calculated move to serve a quietly nurtured political ambition. The reasons he put forward for not joining any other political party active in West Bengal, whether the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Congress, did not appear convincing. “I could have joined the CPI(M), but I believe in God and religion; I practice religion, which the CPI(M) does not... The Congress is a party that, for a long time, has been the zamindari of a single family… People like Jairam Ramesh who has far better qualifications than Rahul Gandhi are just roaming about… There is no reason to join such a party...” he said. The Trinamool Lok Sabha whip and lawyer, Kalyan Banerjee, said, “He has harboured political ambitions for a long time and decided cases with a political outlook... He is a blight on the face of the judicial system. He has ruined the dignity of the Calcutta High Court.”

While as a judge, Gangopadhyay’s orders are seen as having delivered justice to those unfairly denied jobs through mark sheet manipulations and other means, his overtly political statements outside the courtroom left little doubt that he harboured no love for the TMC. Time and again he targeted Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, on his alleged personal wealth. “There is a political leader, Abhijit Bandopadhyay. How did he get so much property? Will he be able to upload on social media an affidavit declaring all the assets he has?” he had told the media.

Following his high-profile resignation as a High Court judge, Abhijit Gangopadhyay speaks to Frontline in an exclusive interview. | Video Credit: Camera by Jayanta Shaw; Interview by Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay; editing by Samson Ronald K.

On another occasion in 2023, while presiding over a case, he had observed, “There is this bhaipo (nephew). He has a four-storey house… where does so much money come from?” These comments were seen as unsuitable for someone holding his high office. In fact, during his tenure, the TMC repeatedly said the judge should quit his job and enter the political arena. This is what he has now done. In fact, when he took the plunge, he said the Trinamool was responsible for his entering politics. “In some ways, the attacks of the ruling party inspired me to join politics. They challenged me to enter into the political field and fight them politically, so I did that,” he said.

The TMC rebuttal

On the day he officially joined the BJP, Mamata Banerjee said at a party meeting, “Sitting in a judge’s chair, BJP babu announced he would be joining the party. Can people expect justice from their kind?... I cannot say anything about the judge, but I can talk about judgement. I was also a practising lawyer earlier. We know what is right and wrong legally... I am glad their mask has come off... He had become a leader. Every day he would hold meetings; give interviews on television; abuse Abhishek by name...”

Referring to a May 2023 order, in which Gangopadhyay cancelled the appointment of around 32,000 candidates in government-aided primary schools, recruited as teachers in 2016 based on a 2014 Teacher Eligibility Test (an order subsequently stayed by a division bench of the Calcutta High Court), Mamata said, “You took away the jobs of thousands of students. Now be ready, your verdict will be given by the people. Wherever you stand (for election) I will take students there.”

Trinamool also questioned the timing of his move, alleging that he had been in talks with the BJP while still in office. Gangopadhyay himself admitted that he had approached the BJP. “I also approached the BJP, and the BJP also approached me,” he said but claimed the move was made seven days before his public announcement on March 5, and that during that period he was on leave. “I took leave, so there is no scope for the accusation that I was sitting in court and adjudicating while having talks with a political party,” he said.

Pouncing upon his statement of having approached the BJP, Abhishek Banerjee said, “I thank him for telling the truth.... You have to read between the lines. He clearly stated that while he was still in the chair of a judge and giving his verdict on various cases, the BJP was in touch with him, and he was in touch with the BJP. The rest, I leave to the common people.”

Jayanta Narayan Chattopadhyay, an eminent lawyer of the Calcutta High Court, said the question of Gangopadhyay joining the BJP may be a moral one, but not illegal in any way. “IPS officer Prashun Banerjee resigned to join the Trinamool and was given a ticket from Malda Uttar. When working a week ago, did he work only for the Trinamool or for everyone? So is the case with Abhijit Gangopadhyay. There is no rule saying he cannot resign from the judiciary and join a political party. The debate can be on whether it is a moral decision,” Chattopadhyay told Frontline.

Abhijit Gangopadhyay addressing media persons at his residence.

Abhijit Gangopadhyay addressing media persons at his residence. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

No stranger to controversy

Gangopadhyay, who was elevated as a Permanent Judge of the Calcutta High Court in 2020, has neither been a stranger to controversy nor one to shy away from the media limelight. Following an interview he gave to a private television channel last year the Supreme Court had ordered the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court to reassign the teacher recruitment case pending before Gangopadhyay to another judge. In December last year, the Calcutta High Court Bar Association announced that it would boycott Gangopadhyay after he ordered the arrest of a lawyer from his courtroom. In January this year, he accused a fellow judge, Soumen Sen, of “acting for some political party in this State,” after a division bench comprising Sen stayed an order he had passed earlier. The Supreme Court had to intervene and take up the matter.

Controversy has followed him after his departure from the judiciary as well. Asked by a television news anchor, in rapid-fire format, whether he preferred Mahatma Gandhi or his assassin Nathuram Godse, the former judge said, “I will not answer this question now, as I have to think about it.”

Also Read | Mamata Banerjee’s INDIA split may be aimed at securing Trinamool’s future in West Bengal

Interestingly, the former judge, until recently lauded for his orders by the non-BJP opposition parties in West Bengal, seems to have fallen somewhat in their esteem. Veteran Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, “He has entered politics, let some time pass. He will understand the nitty gritty. Is he not aware of the different kinds of “washing machines” the BJP keeps?” (washing machine is a term used by the Opposition to highlight the Centre’s repeatedly demonstrated tendency to turn a blind eye to the charges levelled against anybody once they join the BJP). CPI(M) leader and lawyer, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, expressed astonishment at Gangopadhyay’s decision. “He has joined the party that is supporting corruption all over the country! I told him he would get a lot of support if he stood as an independent candidate. His decision will hurt him.”

A section of West Bengal’s electorate has welcomed the judge in his new robes. “There is a woeful dearth of educated, plain-speaking, honest people in politics today. Abhijit Gangopadhyay is a pleasant change. Let us see how long he survives,” said a Professor in a government college. Whether Gangopadhyay and the image he projects of himself, will help in electoral politics and win him a Lok Sabha seat remains to be seen. For the time being, the BJP sees him as an asset and hopes to cash in on his popularity.

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