West Bengal

On the back foot

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Chief Mamata Banerjee leading a rally in Kolkata on November 24 alleging political vendetta in the CBI action against her party colleagues. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Kunal Ghosh, suspended Rajya Sabha member of the Trinamool Congress. An accused in the Saradha scam, he attempted suicide in jail. Photo: PTI

Srinjoy Bose, another Trinamool Congress member of the Rajya Sabha and a close aide of the Chief Minister. He was also arrested in connection with the scam. Photo: PTI

A forensic expert at the blast site at Khagragarh in Bardhaman district on October 28. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Mamata Banerjee and her party seem to be hemmed in by problems of their own creation.

MAMATA BANERJEE’S government in West Bengal is facing its worst crisis since assuming power in 2011. Reeling from widespread criticism from all quarters on practically all fronts, the State government and the ruling Trinamool Congress have been struggling to cope with one development after another that batters their image and chips away at their credibility.

The two major problems they face are revelations of the Trinamool’s links with the Saradha group, whose multi-crore deposit-collection scheme has been one of the biggest financial scandals to hit West Bengal in recent years, and widespread condemnation for the government’s perceived apathy in dealing with the spread of Islamist terror networks in the State.

The existence of the terror network came to light after an accidental blast in a secret bomb-making factory run by the banned Jamait-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in Bardhaman. Opposition parties have even accused the Trinamool of having ties with the extremist organisation and trying to shield its activists working in the State. On top of all this, turf wars between the Trinamool and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the one side and between the Trinamool’s own factions on the other have become rampant and widespread. But what appears to be affecting the State government the most is the Chief Minister’s belligerent, and often irrational, reactions to the developments.

Saradha arrests

When the Saradha scam hit the State around mid-2013, putting the Trinamool Congress in a fix because of its proximity and dealings with the tainted company and its chairman, Sudipta Sen, a defiant Mamata Banerjee said at a party meeting: “Kunal chor? Madan chor? Tumpai chor? Mukul chor? Aami chor? Sabai chor? Baki ra shob sadhu?” (So Kunal is a thief? Madan is a thief? Tumpai is a thief? Mukul is a thief? I am a thief? We are all thieves? And the rest are all saints, are they?)

These words are now coming back to haunt her as Trinamool leaders are being arrested one by one in connection with the scam. Kunal Ghosh, Trinamool Rajya Sabha member, was the first to be put behind bars, in November 2013. This one-time close aide of Mamata Banerjee was the head of the Saradha group’s media wing. He recently demanded that she, too, should be arrested. Mamata Banerjee cannot escape the glaring facts that keep pointing at her party’s close ties with the company in the past.

As an opposition leader, she had persistently demanded Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probes into allegations against the Left Front government. As Chief Minister, she resisted the CBI’s taking over the Saradha case tooth and nail. A Supreme Court direction in May finally forced the issue. She suffered another setback in September when the CBI arrested Rajat Majumdar, Trinamool leader and former Director General of West Bengal Police, in connection with the Saradha scam.

The arrest of Srinjoy Bose, another Rajya Sabha member from the Trinamool, by the CBI on November 21 has come as a particularly bad jolt. Srinjoy, or Tumpai as he is affectionately referred to by Mamata Banerjee, is the editor and proprietor of Sangbad Pratidin, a reputed Bengali daily. He is also the editor of Jaago Bangla, a mouthpiece of the ruling party. Both Srinjoy and Kunal were specifically mentioned by Sudipta Sen in a letter he wrote to the CBI, dated April 6, 2013, weeks before his arrest. The letter stated that the understanding was that in exchange for a hefty consideration, Kunal and Srinjoy “will protect my [Sen’s] business from the government… and I will get smooth passage and they assured me that they have very close connection with present CM, i.e., Mamata Banerjee.”

Mamata Banerjee’s immediate reaction to Srinjoy’s arrest was that it was an act of political vendetta by the BJP because she had accepted Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s invitation to attend Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary function in New Delhi. “They took revenge by arresting Tumpai because I attended a forum of secular federal parties,” she said.

According to Trinamool sources, the arrests of top leaders and repeated summons to senior party functionaries by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate have created a fear psychosis in the rank and file of party workers. “There is a constant apprehension regarding who will be called next. This is very damaging for the morale of the workers,” a Trinamool source told Frontline.

This fear is not restricted to workers alone. Party heavyweight and State Sports and Transport Minister Madan Mitra, who was once visibly close to Sudipta Sen and on more than one occasion openly endorsed Saradha’s business, has also been on the CBI’s radar. Mitra admitted himself in a hospital days before an appointment with the CBI on November 21. According to media reports, “panic and anxiety disorder” were among the complaints for which he was in hospital and missed the first summons by the CBI. It was largely perceived to be a ploy to buy some time.

old tactic

Mamata Banerjee, finding herself cornered and unable to come up with any convincing answers to the ever-increasing questions, resorted to the political tactic that served her well in her days in the opposition. She took to the streets. However, the tactic is now backfiring. Her protest march against the CBI’s functioning did little to sway people. The question that most people asked was: “What is she protesting against, the arrest of criminals?” Her behaviour is in sharp contrast to that of other Chief Ministers such as Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, whose party colleagues have been arrested in connection with different Ponzi scams, including the Saradha scam. The more Mamata Banerjee protests, the more suspicious her intentions appear.

Bardhaman blast

To add to the State government’s troubles came the accidental blast on October 2 at Khagragarh in Bardhaman district in a house that was being used as a bomb-making factory by JMB activists. Though the house was also known to function as a Trinamool office, and belonged to Nurul Hasan Chowdhury, a well-known Trinamool supporter in the region, the investigating agencies of India and Bangladesh have not yet found evidence of a direct connection between the Trinamool and the JMB. However, the State government’s initial resistance to Central agencies taking over the case and major lapses in the early stages of the investigation drew sharp criticism.

The recent arrests of key suspects, including Sheikh Rahmatullah alias Sajid, the chief of the JMB’s terror module in Bardhaman (arrested by the West Bengal Police on November 8), and Amjad Sheikh, one of the main conspirators behind the blast (caught by the National Investigation Agency), have come as a major breakthrough in the investigations. The Chief Minister’s allegation that the bombs discovered in a house by Central investigating agencies in connection with the blast were “planted” at the behest of the Centre raised eyebrows in political and social circles. Sections of the opposition, including the BJP, accused the State government of trying to shield the conspirators.

Surjya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly and Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline: “The Saradha scam and the Bardhaman blasts have destroyed the credibility of the State government. We have given a call to oust this government. Even though our bigger fight is with the BJP, we feel we need to get rid of this government first.”

Rise in political violence

The BJP’s apparent rise has also been a source of concern for the ruling party. West Bengal has turned into a veritable battleground, with rising political violence between the Trinamool and other parties and also between the warring factions of the Trinamool Congress.

The Trinamool’s clashes with the BJP have been a regular feature since the latter began to assert itself politically in the State after its best ever electoral performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections (it increased its vote share to 17.6 per cent from a past average of around 6 per cent). With the CPI(M) and the Congress showing little signs of recovery from their electoral losses, an upbeat BJP is perhaps perceived by the Trinamool as a more immediate threat. Ironically, even the BJP acknowledges that one of the main reasons for its rise in West Bengal has been the Trinamool’s brand of communal politics, which ranges from extending honorariums to imams and muezzins to sharing the dais with Muslim clerics. The latter have been perceived as trying to pressure the government on various political issues from time to time. The infighting within the Trinamool has also been vicious. In fact, five people were killed in separate incidents of political violence within just three days in October. Two of them were victims of inner-party conflict.

In spite of a resounding victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which the Trinamool won 34 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the State, Mamata Banerjee and her party seem to be hemmed in by problems of their own creation, and contradictions in their own statements. They are desperately seeking a way out of the present imbroglio. As veteran West Bengal Congress leader Om Prakash Mishra put it, “The Trinamool has become a victim of its own rhetoric. It is now cornered and has begun its downhill journey.”