Narada sting operation

Caught on camera

Print edition : April 15, 2016

One of the posters alluding to the Narada News sting operation that appeared in Kolkata. The revelations have become a terrible embarrassment to Mamata Banerjee. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The Narada News revelations come at the most inopportune time for the ruling party.

A sting operation carried out by the news portal Narada News, where top Trinamool Congress leaders were seen allegedly accepting cash, came as a rude shock to the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. The operation, which was carried out just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, was revealed on March 16, less than three weeks before the Assembly elections in the State.

It shows influential Cabinet Ministers Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee and Madan Mitra (no longer a Minister); MPs and party heavyweights Mukul Roy, Subhendu Adhikari, Sultan Ahmed, Saugata Roy, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Prasun Banerjee; the Mayor of Kolkata Municipal Corporation and Trinamool MLA Sovan Chatterjee; and Deputy Mayor and MLA Iqbal Ahmed, all receiving wads of notes from the representative of a fictitious company, Impex Infrastructure (set up for the sting operation), in exchange for promises of favours and “lobbyings”. Also featuring prominently in the video is the then Superintendent of Police of Bardhaman district, S.H. Mirza, known to be close to the ruling party, claiming to accept money on behalf of Mukul Roy. Though, as of March 22, the authenticity of the video was yet to be ascertained, the latest embarrassment for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee could not have come at a worse time.

The footage that has been released by Narada takes the viewers into the houses and offices of the leaders and reveals a side of their personality quite different from their public persona. Firhad Hakim, the dynamic and apparently upright Minister in charge of Urban Development and Municipal Affairs, a close aide of Mamata Banerjee, is seen at his residence wearing a sleeveless vest and smilingly saying, “If we deal in small matters, what will be left for kids to deal with?” He then instructs one of his men to take the sting operative downstairs and collect the money.

Another favourite of Mamata Banerjee, Madan Mitra, who was Cabinet Minister for Transport and Sports at the time of the sting operation, is seen reclining on his bed wearing a lungi and T-shirt, impassively watching the money being piled before him. He then orders one of his aides to keep the money away. Madan Mitra at present is in jail for his alleged involvement in the Saradha scam. His proximity to Mamata Banerjee allowed him to retain his status as a Minister for nearly a year while still in prison, before he resigned in November 2015. The fact that Mamata Banerjee has once again given him the ticket to contest in the Assembly elections is an indication of the favoured position he continues to enjoy in the party.

At the time of the sting, the full effect of the Saradha scam had not yet hit the ruling party, and Mukul Roy was then the undisputed number two in the Trinamool Congress after Mamata Banerjee. The former Union Railway Minister, long considered the right-hand man of Mamata Banerjee until his fall from grace, is seen to be unwilling to take the money in his house. “You go to my office. I am not taking it straight away. I will tell my men, you will give it to them.” The sting operative says, “I have Rs.20 lakh, I will give it to you”, to which Roy nods assent. The sting also reveals that Mirza, the then S.P. of Bardhaman, was collecting money on his behalf. “You talk to Mirza. Everything will be communicated to me through Mirza,” Roy tells the operative. Mirza is seen loudly counting the bundles of money handed over to him at his official residence in Bardhaman.

Sultan Ahmed, Lok Sabha member and one of the most respected leaders of the party, is seen at his office with a bundle of notes before him on the table. When asked by the sting agent if he wanted more, Ahmed answers, “If you have, yes.” He assures the operative, “Whatever you want, my assistance I will give you.”

Former Union Minister and one-time academic Saugata Roy, seen receiving allegedly Rs.5 lakh in cash with both hands, is heard saying, “This is a lot of money.” He appears not to have even the slightest knowledge of the organisation which is giving him the money. “You are from?” he asks the operative after receiving the payment.

The Mayor of Kolkata, Sovan Chatterjee, smoking a cigarette, is seen covering up the money (allegedly Rs.4 lakh) in a piece of cloth, and assuring the operative that he will introduce him to all the “power centres” in the State.

State Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee, party heavyweight and MP Subhendu Adhikari, influential MP and physician Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, and former football player and MP Prasun Banerjee, are all shown accepting wads of money from the representative of the fictitious company. Deputy Mayor of Kolkata Iqbal Ahmed, after receiving the money, even tells the operative that Subrata Mukherjee will need to be paid Rs.1 lakh as well.

If the alleged involvement of some high-profile Trinamool leaders in the multi-crore Saradha deposit collection scam, which ruined lakhs of poor investors in the State, came as a shocker, video images of party heavyweights with a reputation for probity and transparency accepting bribes nonchalantly and asking for more have rocked the collective Bengali sensibility which still places great value on the financial integrity of its political figures. The revelations just before the elections have given the opposition a fresh handle with which to attack the ruling party. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has demanded the resignation of the Chief Minister, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) wants the Election Commission to take up the matter and, if necessary, postpone the elections. “This is a devastating blow to the pride and prestige of West Bengal. The way the Centre has been dragging its feet on the expose is also a matter of concern,” said Congress leader Om Prakash Mishra.

TRINAMOOL’S REACTION

The Trinamool Congress’ reaction has been confusing and self-contradictory. Initially, it tried to trivialise the matter and dismiss it. “At best a minor distraction on a Monday morning”, was how party spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member Derek O’Brien described the development at first. But as matters began to heat up in political and social circles, the Trinamool quickly changed tack and labelled the whole operation as a “political conspiracy”. It claimed the video footage was “manufactured”. However, the party leadership’s reluctance to order a forensic test to establish that the video was indeed doctored or order an investigation into the issue further lowered the party’s credibility.

The Trinamool Congress also protested when the contents of the Narada sting were referred to the Ethics Committee of the Lok Sabha by Speaker Sumitra Mahajan. “These allegations are very serious in nature and seek to impact upon the very credibility of parliamentarians and Parliament as an institution,” said Sumitra Mahajan while referring the matter to the Ethics Committee, a 15-member panel headed by former Union Home Minister and veteran BJP leader L.K. Advani. Saugata Roy, who was seen allegedly accepting cash in the sting operation, called the decision “unilateral” and pointed out that the matter related to “something which is dated April 2014”, or in other words, questioning whether the present House, which had not been constituted at that time, could investigate a matter that occurred before it came into being.

The matter was also raised in the Rajya Sabha, where the Union government’s reluctance to order a probe into the sting operation drew severe criticism from the Left parties. CPI(M) general secretary and Rajya Sabha member Sitaram Yechury alleged that the inaction on the part of the Centre was a result of “match-fixing” between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress.

Rather than addressing the real issue of alleged corruption within the party, the Trinamool leadership tried to obfuscate the matter by drawing attention to the fact that the headquarters of Narada news was in Dubai and questioned the source and credibility of the organisation on the basis of that. However, the party seemed to be making no effort to prove their allegations. “Why should we want an investigation into something that we do not believe in,” said Trinamool secretary-general and Cabinet Minister Partha Chatterjee.

That the matter has been referred to the Ethics Committee, in fact, has saved the party from a situation of considerable discomfort. “What has not been proved yet is being made out to have been already proved, and we are being made to look as though we do not want an investigation. The matter is now with the Ethics Committee,” said Chatterjee the day after he had made his earlier statement. Matthew Samuel, the owner of Narada News, dismissed doubts regarding the authenticity of the video. “These people can give the footage to the forensic lab in Kolkata. It is a 100 per cent genuine footage,” he said. Denying that there was any “political conspiracy” behind the sting, Samuel, who was also a part of the Tehelka sting, said, “I decided to go for the sting operation because of the Saradha scam.”

He claimed that there was 52 hours of footage from the operation, and the project was “crowd-funded”, with friends chipping in. Even as the Trinamool leaders have been crying themselves hoarse, proclaiming their innocence, the Trinamool chief has maintained a studied silence on the issue. Not once in her election rallies so far (as of March 22) did she make a direct reference to the sting operation, though she accused the opposition of spreading “canards” and challenged them to fight her “politically”. Ironically, this is the same Mamata Banerjee who, in 2001, used the Tehelka sting (Operation West End), which exposed the corruption in the then BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, to walk out of the alliance at the Centre and forge a tie-up with the Congress to defeat the CPI(M)-led Left Front government of West Bengal.

The Narada sting has undoubtedly been a huge setback for the ruling party, which is finding it difficult to convince its own rank and file of the innocence of its leaders, let alone the election-bound people of the State. What has hurt Mamata Banerjee the most is that the sting has destroyed her party’s “honest” image, which had already taken a beating in the Saradha scam for which several influential party leaders were arrested. But the alleged deals in the Saradha scam took place behind closed doors. Even though the amount of money involved in the Narada sting is less than a fraction of the total amount in the Saradha scam, the video images of respectable leaders of the party seen to be taking bribes brazenly have made a greater political and social impact. Until it is proved that the visuals shown were indeed doctored as claimed by the Trinamool, the party will find it very difficult to live down this embarrassment.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism

Related Articles

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×