Mamata Banerjee dharna

Sounding the bugle

Print edition : March 01, 2019

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during the dharna, on February 5. Photo: AFP

Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar. Photo: AP

Mamata Banerjee’s dharna to “save the Constitution”, which drew widespread opposition support, has set the stage for the Lok Sabha electoral battle.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has placed Kolkata at the centre of political action in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election. Just two weeks after organising a mammoth anti-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) rally in which leaders from across the country participated, she took on the Centre by staging a sit-in in the first week of February to “save India” from BJP rule. 

Once again, several national-level leaders from across India shared the dais with her in solidarity even as West Bengal, during the three days she sat in protest, appeared to be on the brink of a major constitutional crisis.

The dramatic chain of events on February 3, precipitated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) knocking on the doors of Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar in connection with the multi-crore Saradha scam, resulted in a near-complete breakdown of relations between the Trinamool Congress government in the State and the BJP-led government at the Centre.

Around 7 p.m. on February 3, a Sunday, a group of CBI officers arrived unannounced at Rajeev Kumar’s residence. When refused entry, a serious face-off between the State police and the CBI officials ensued, and the latter were unceremoniously bundled into police cars and driven away from the Police Commissioner’s residence. 

Soon afterwards, the Chief Minister arrived at Rajeev Kumar’s residence. After spending around two hours in consultation with her party leaders and senior police officials, she announced her “indefinite dharna”.

Accusing the Centre of creating a “super emergency” situation in the country, Mamata Banerjee began the dharna outside the Metro Channel in Esplanade in central Kolkata, a place for political demonstrations, where more than 12 years ago as an opposition leader she sat on a historic 26-day fast in protest against the then Left Front government’s forcible land acquisition in Singur for Tata Motors’ small car project.

On February 5, after conducting the affairs of the State from a raised platform on the roadside, Mamata Banerjee called off her agitation after the Supreme Court barred the CBI from arresting the Police Commissioner. However, the court directed Kumar to cooperate with the CBI in its investigation.

Accusing the BJP government of using Central agencies as weapons against the opposition, Mamata Banerjee said: “Every time there is an election, they use the pretext of chit fund scams and just do whatever they want.” 

She alleged that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was behind these moves. “Whatever PM Narendra Modi wants, Mr Doval implements. He is the one who is giving instructions to the CBI,” she said. Allegations against top cop 

In April 2013, after the Saradha scam hit West Bengal, affecting the lives of lakhs of investors from the poorer sections of society, the State government formed a special investigation team (SIT) headed by Rajeev Kumar. The main allegation against him is that he suppressed and destroyed key evidence in the investigation while heading the SIT.

In its affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on February 4, the CBI said: “While the said investigation was being done by the SIT, crucial original, primary and fundamental evidence such as laptops, mobile phones, etc., were handed over to the main accused in the Saradha scam case by the I.O. [Investigating Officer] of West Bengal Police working under direct supervision ofRajeev Kumar. It is submitted that the return of crucial evidence to the main accused by the SIT, despite regular monitoring by the High Court, clearly show connivance of the SIT to a larger conspiracy wherein local authorities have obstructed investigation and made attempts to destroy the evidence prior to the transfer of the case to the CBI by this Court.”

The CBI took over the investigation in 2014 at the direction of the Supreme Court. The investigating agency had repeatedly sent notices to Rajeev Kumar and other members of the SIT team between September 2017 and December 2018, but it had apparently received no cooperation from them. The CBI also alleged that the SIT was “conniving with the accused/potential accused persons and was actively subverting the investigation process”.

The Chief Minister tried to explain why she rushed to the Police Commissioner’s residence after the police forcibly removed the CBI officials, saying that it was her constitutional duty to protect any officer in her administration. “I run an administration. To protect an officer, I am proud to say is my constitutional duty, my personal duty and my government’s duty. How can they have the audacity to come on a ‘secret operation’ to the residence of a police officer under whom there are thousands of policemen? There is total constitutional breakdown,” Mamata Banerjee said.

Calling her agitation a “satyagraha”, she said she was fighting to protect the institutions from the BJP government. “My dharna is to protect Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Constituion,” she added.

At the dharna site, Mamata Banerjee showed that the last eight years in power had not blunted her combative instincts as she relapsed into the role of a formidable opposition that had once single-handedly defeated the Left Front. As thousands of her supporters gathered, chanting slogans such as “Chowkidar Chor Hai”, “Mamata Banerjee Zindabad”, the Chief Minister of West Bengal and Modi’s most vocal opponent could be heard shouting: “Please save India! Please save our country. Modi has gone mad.”

Mamata Banerjee orchestrated her protest with speeches, songs and recitations, as eminent personalities from the world of politics, arts and literature joined her on stage in a show of support. Although she claimed that her dharna was not a political one, the site became a rallying ground for opposition parties to once again show they were united against the BJP.

Among those who visited Mamata Banerjee at the protest venue were Samajwadi Party leader Kiranmoy Nanda, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Kanimozhi, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu.

Supreme Court order

On February 4, the CBI moved the Supreme Court, and the following day a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi directed Rajeev Kumar to appear before the CBI and to “faithfully cooperate” with the investigating agency at all times.

The court also made it clear that “no coercive steps including arrest shall be taken against the commissioner of police”. As per the court’s directions, Rajeev Kumar will be appearing before the CBI in Shillong so as to “avoid all unnecessary controversy”. The Supreme Court also directed the Chief Secretary of the State, the Director General of Police (DGP) and the Police Commissioner to reply to the contempt petition filed by the CBI by February 18.

The Supreme Court’s order that Rajeev Kumar was not to be arrested was interpreted by Mamata Banerjee as a victory over the Central government. “It is a moral victory for the people of Bengal, a moral victory for the people of the country,” she said. Addressing the crowd, with Chandrababu Naidu by her side, Mamata Banerjee said: “This dharna was to save India, save the Constitution, save the federal set-up, and we held protest under the banner of Save India.” She claimed she was calling off the agitation at the request of the other opposition parties that had responded to her call for a mahagathbandhan (mega alliance) rally against the BJP on January 19. 

“On behalf of 23 political parties we urge her to withdraw her dharna. Everyone feels that madam [Mamata Banerjee] should end the dharna. We will take up the issue again in Delhi,” said Chandrababu Naidu. 

The BJP viewed the apex court order as a setback for the Trinamool. “I am thankful to the Supreme Court that now the Police Commissioner will have to face the CBI in Shillong. Now it will be revealed who all were involved in the Saradha [scam],” said Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath at a rally in Purulia district in West Bengal.

“The political histrionics of Mamata Banerjee was brought to a screeching halt by the honourable Supreme Court of India,” said Union Textiles Minister Smirti Irani.

While some political observers feel that Mamata Banerjee’s decision to stage a dharna over the CBI’s action was impetuous and desperate, leaving her vulnerable to allegations of trying to prevent certain uncomfortable truths from surfacing, there are those who also feel that it was a political master stroke, simultaneously targeting the Modi government at the Centre and projecting her as the most visible face of the opposition against the BJP in the upcoming election. “Mamata Banerjee was successful in turning an administrative move by the CBI into a national political movement, and ahead of the Lok Sabha election she has established herself as the most important opposition leader against the BJP,” the noted psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty told Frontline. “If Rahul Gandhi took centre stage with the Rafale issue, Mamata Banerjee has outdone him with the issue of the BJP using the CBI and other agencies as a political weapon. Other opposition leaders are also seeing her as the main opposition figure against Modi,” he added.

Chakraborty feels that this image of being the main political opponent of Modi will benefit her electorally in the coming Lok Sabha election, with greater polarisation of the minority votes working in her favour.

Even though the Trinamool Congress was part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance under Atal Behari Vajpayee, the relationship between the two parties had been deteriorating over the years, hitting an all-time low with the latest incident involving the CBI. After Mamata Banerjee organised the mega rally of opposition parties on January 19 to take on the BJP, the gloves are off in the State as the two parties have been tearing into each other even though election momentum has barely picked up in the rest of the country. Barbs and accusations are flying thick and fast as rallies and counter-rallies by the two set the tone for the Lok Sabha election. Violent clashes between the Trinamool and the BJP as well as between different factions of the Trinamool itself continue unabated. 

On one the hand, the BJP has been steadily strengthening its presence in West Bengal since the 2014 Lok Sabha election to emerge as the main opposition to the Trinamool. On the other, Mamata Banerjee has been consolidating her position as a key figure against the BJP at the national level. In this context, the CBI’s timing in knocking at the Police Commissioner’s doors has been questioned, and added credibility to the opposition parties’ allegation that Central agencies are being used by the Modi government to carry out political vendettas.

The Supreme Court had directed the CBI to probe the chit fund scams four years ago; the question being asked is why there is a sudden flurry of activities just before the election. One of the main targets of the BJP’s attacks is the issue of corruption in the Trinamool and the party’s close ties with ponzi companies. Mamata Banerjee herself has not been spared; top BJP leaders, including Modi, have time and again raised the issue of her paintings being bought by chit fund companies at exorbitant rates. 

However, Mamata Banerjee’s rather extreme reaction was also a little puzzling, particularly when compared with her comparatively less intense outrage during the arrests of some of her close aides, such as former Sports Minister Madan Mitra and senior party leader and Lok Sabha member Sudip Bandopadhyay. Mamata Banerjee’s justification has not convinced everyone either. She said: “I tolerated the arrest of those close to me. But I could not tolerate the insult to a chair. The office of the Police Commissioner is an important one.”

“Who is Mamata Banerjee trying to save? Her Police Commissioner or herself?” quipped Union Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javdekar. Even as Congress president Rahul Gandhi expressed solidarity with Mamata Banerjee at the time of her agitation, West Bengal Pradesh Congress leaders sang a different tune. “If he has not done anything, then why is the Police Commissioner avoiding the CBI?” asked State Congress president Somen Mitra.

Moreover, the presence of Rajeev Kumar, DGP Virendra, State Security Adviser and former DGP Surajit Kar Purkayastha, and Additional DGP (Law and Order) Anuj Sharma at the dharna site raised eyebrows. The Ministry of Home Affairs wrote to Chief Secretary Malay Kumar De to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Rajeev Kumar, which elicited an angry response from Mamata Banerjee, who said: “Rajeev Kumar never joined the dharna. He came to see while I was on satyagraha.” 

Although Mamata Banerjee ended the dharna, the Centre-State conflict is far from resolved. She has announced that she will be taking her “Save India, Save Constitution” protest to the national stage in Delhi. The battle for Lok Sabha could not have had a more dramatic opening.