In a major setback for the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal, Partha Chatterjee, Minister and general secretary of the West Bengal unit of the party, was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in the early hours of July 23 in connection with the West Bengal School Service Commission (SSC) teacher recruitment scam. The State Industries Minister, considered one of the tallest leaders in Trinamool, was arrested after 19 hours of interrogation on irregularities in the recruitment of teachers during the period he was the West Bengal Education Minister (2014-2021).
In simultaneous raids that took place across the State on July 22, a large amount of cash and jewellery was seized from the residence of the actress Arpita Mukherjee, known to be a close associate of Partha Chatterjee. The ED retrieved Rs.21.2 crore in cash, jewellery worth Rs.79 lakh, and Rs.54 lakh in foreign currency. The ED also arrested Arpita Mukherjee and WBCS officer Sukanta Acharjee, who was Partha Chatterjee’s personal secretary when he was the Education Minister.
The SSC scam has been a thorn in the side of the Trinamool, which has been constantly facing allegations of corruption from the opposition soon after it assumed power in the State in 2011. The SSC scam is a particularly sensitive issue as it directly impacts the youth of Bengal. For the past one and half years, students and young people who had appeared for the SSC exams have been staging a protest in different parts of Kolkata.
A young lady, protesting at the Dharmatala venue in central Kolkata said: “We have been wrongfully denied jobs because a Minister like Partha Chatterjee made crores illegally. For the past 496 days we have been here in this protest venue braving all kinds of weather. We are not begging Didimoni [Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee] for alms. We have rightfully cleared the exams and a job is our due. Those who have failed, or who have not even appeared for the exams, got jobs in exchange for money….”
Earlier in May, the Calcutta High Court ordered that Ankita Adhikari, daughter of Minister of state for Education Paresh Chandra Adhikari, be removed from her job at a government-aided school and told her to return the salary paid to her since November 2018. The case was filed by Babita Sarkar, another candidate who didn’t get the job although her marks were higher.
The ruling party has kept a distance from Partha Chatterjee’s case and the usually combative party supremo Mamata Banerjee, who is always ready to take on any issue head on, has maintained a measured silence. Chatterjee has long been considered one of the most loyal and dependable soldiers of Mamata Banerjee and has been with the Trinamool Congress right from its inception in 1998.
Addressing a press conference on the evening of July 23, Trinamool spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said: “Trinamool has no connection with the money that has been found; nor does it have any relation with the person in whose house the money has been found. Partha Chatterjee has been arrested in connection with this person. Trinamool Congress has full faith in the law and in the judiciary.... If, in the course of the case, it is proved that the allegations against Partha Chatterjee are true, the All India Trinamool Congress will take action accordingly.”
At the same press conference, Kolkata Mayor Firhad Hakim alleged that had Chatterjee gone into the “washing machine” (a euphemism for joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)) then there wouldn’t have been any case against him. “If one goes to the BJP, one is a saint, and if he stays in Trinamool, he is a thief,” said Hakim. The party also made it clear that it will not be staging any protests or agitations in support of Chatterjee.
Partha Chatterjee’s arrest gave the BJP and the Left a fresh handle to attack the ruling party with. The BJP claimed that once again the arrest had put the spotlight on corruption in the Trinamool. Dilip Ghosh, national vice president of the BJP and Lok Sabha MP, said: “Trinamool is saying there is no relation with the woman or with the money; next they will say Trinamool has no connection with Partha Chatterjee.
Today, West Bengal has become known for the corruption prevalent here.” Sujan Chakraborty, senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), appealed to intellectuals and eminent citizens to distance themselves from the ruling party. “The State government wishes to camouflage its own blemishes by using your names by giving you the Banga Bhushan awards. I implore you to not accept it,” he said.
Even as Trinamool dismissed the allegations of the opposition and chose to not to back Chatterjee, the arrest of one of her party’s oldest and high-profile leaders at a time when Mamata Banerjee is trying to establish herself at the national level as a strong opponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has struck a serious blow to Trinamool’s credibility and acceptability across the country.