Corruption has been a thorn in the side of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress. The arrests of Cabinet Minister Partha Chatterjee and the influential leader from Birbhum, Anubrata Mandal, within three weeks of each other in connection with the School Service Commission (SSC) recruitment scam and the cross-border cattle smuggling racket, respectively, has got the Trinamool on the ropes. The almost back-to-back arrests of two heavyweight leaders by Central agencies has battered the image of the party at a time when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been trying to establish herself as a viable opponent of Narendra Modi at the national level.
Chatterjee’s arrest in the early hours of July 23 by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with the SSC scam comes barely a year after Mamata returned to power for the third consecutive term. He was not only a Minister in charge of four key departments, including Industry and Parliamentary Affairs, but also one of the most visible faces of the party, its secretary general, National Working Committee member, and national vice president. He was the editor of the party mouthpiece Jago Bangla, and a member of the Disciplinary Committee of the Trinamool.
The alleged irregularities in SSC recruitment took place when he was the Education Minister between 2014 and 2021. In successive raids, the ED recovered around Rs.50 crore in cash, more than Rs.4 crore in jewellery, and Rs.74 lakh in foreign currency from the residence of Arpita Mukherjee, a close associate of Chatterjee.
Trinamool distances itself
Chatterjee was removed from his ministerial position and all party posts five days after his arrest. The Trinamool leadership, including Mamata Banerjee, lost no time in distancing itself from one of its oldest and most loyal party members. While being led away by the police, Chatterjee admitted that he had tried in vain to contact his “leader”.
Later, the Chief Minister warned the opposition parties and the media not to drag her name into the matter. “If someone is a thief, then Trinamool Congress does not care about that person.... But if you try to besmirch my name, then remember I too carry coal tar,” she said. Though the party leadership insisted that it had nothing to do with Arpita Mukherjee, videos of cultural programmes showed the latter often sharing the dais with top party leaders, including the Chief Minister.
The incident exposed the fissures within the ruling party. Referring to the party’s decision to remove him from his posts, Chatterjee said he was a “victim of a conspiracy”. He said the timing of his removal was not right, as it might “influence impartial investigation”.
Reacting to it, party spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said, “In the past, Partha da had announced the party’s decision regarding many people. Now that he has some time on his hands, let him check out the dates and time [of all his announcements] and find out what was right and what was wrong. In his travel through time he will find many answers.”
Ghosh’s own arrest by the State police in the multi-crore Saradha scam in 2013 still seemed to sting despite his eventual reinstatement in the Trinamool. Moreover, with both Partha Chatterjee and Arpita Mukherjee denying that the money retrieved by the ED belonged to them, the Trinamool had to face uncomfortable questions from the opposition parties.
Though the SSC scam is smaller than the Saradha deposit collection scam, it has hit the party hard. If Saradha cheated the poor and the middle class of their money, the SSC scam robbed the educated youth of the State of their aspirations and livelihood prospects. “The sentiments of the youth are involved here,” a Trinamool source told Frontline.
In the first week of August, during a four-day visit to Delhi for a NITI Aayog meeting, Mamata met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Unlike previous occasions, she did not address the media after her one-on-one meeting with Modi, prompting the opposition to allege a compromise with the Centre. Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty said, “The visit had nothing to do with ‘Niti’, but it was on ‘durniti ‘ [corruption]. With her party leaders getting arrested by Central agencies, she had gone for a setting with the Centre.”
Anubrata Mandal’s arrest
On August 11, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Anubrata Mandal for his alleged involvement in the cross-border cattle smuggling racket in the State. Despite not being a Minister or an MP, Mandal was an invaluable asset to his party for his organisational abilities. He is known as the Trinamool’s strongman of Birbhum district, but his political influence extends to Murshidabad and Purba Bardhaman districts as well, and he has been a key factor behind the Trinamool’s electoral triumphs in the region.
Anubrata’s strong-arm tactics combined with the strategy of creating beneficiaries has paid rich political dividends for the Trinamool. In June, Anubrata’s security guard, Saigal Hossain, was arrested in connection with cattle smuggling. Saigal, who has allegedly amassed wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income, was reportedly the middleman between Anubrata and the cattle-smugglers.
Mamata supports Anubrata
While Chatterjee’s arrest was a blow to the party’s image, Anubrata’s arrest has hit the party at the organisational level. Mamata, who washed her hands off Chatterjee’s case, came out in support of Anubrata and declared a “new political war” across the State. Accusing the BJP of using Central agencies to subjugate its political opponent, Mamata said, “If you arrest one Kesto [nickname of Anubrata], many more leaders like him will come up.”
According to the well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, Anubrata personifies the political system that Trinamool has put in place across the State. “With his arrest this system itself is being challenged. So we see Mamata Banerjee coming forward to defend him and not maintaining a distance as she did with Partha Chatterjee,” Chakraborty said.
Trinamool’s history of arrests
This is not the first time that top Trinamool leaders have had to go behind bars on corruption charges. Within just two years of the Trinamool coming to power in 2011, the multi-crore Saradha scam hit the State. Lakhs of investors, a large section of them from the urban and rural poor, were ruined in what is considered one of the biggest financial scandals in Bengal. There was clear evidence of the party’s close association with the ponzi company, whose business surged after the Trinamool came to power. According to some estimates, the Saradha Group headed by Sudipta Sen had collected deposits of at least Rs.20,000 crore through its various schemes run by 160 companies in West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha.
Trinamool Rajya Sabha member Kunal Ghosh was the CEO of the Saradha Group’s media unit, which practically served as the Trinamool mouthpiece. Under the patronage of an influential section of the ruling party, the Saradha Group became a household name in Bengal. In November 2013, the West Bengal Police arrested Ghosh.
The following year, the CBI arrested two more leaders—party vice president and former IPS officer Rajat Majumdar and Rajya Sabha member Srinjoy Bose. In December 2015, the CBI made its biggest arrest thus far in the Saradha case: Madan Mitra, a senior Cabinet Minister and one of the most high-profile leaders of the Trinamool. Mitra languished in jail for 22 months.
Before the dust settled on the Saradha scam, in 2016, just ahead of the Assembly election, the State was rocked by a sting operation carried out by the news portal Narada News, where top Trinamool leaders were seen accepting cash on camera. These included Cabinet Ministers Firhad Hakim (now Mayor of Kolkata), Subrata Mukherjee (he died in November 2021) and Madan Mitra (no longer a Minister); MPs and party heavyweights Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari (now in the BJP), Sultan Ahmed (he died in September 2017), Saugata Roy, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Prasun Banerjee; the then Mayor of Kolkata Municipal Corporation and MLA Sovan Chatterjee, and Deputy Mayor and MLA Iqbal Ahmed.
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In May 2021, the CBI arrested Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, Madan Mitra, and Sovan Chatterjee (who had by then left the Trinamool) in connection with the sting. Significantly, the arrests came on the heels of Mamata’s victory in the Assembly election. Suvendu Adhikari, who had by then joined the BJP, was inexplicably left out, even though he was seen in the video footage accepting wads of notes from the sting operative.
In December 2016 and January 2017, the CBI arrested Lok Sabha members Tapas Paul and Sudip Bandopadhyay in connection with the Rose Valley Group’s Rs.17,000 core ponzi scam. The late Tapas Paul was one of the biggest stars of Bengali cinema, and Sudip Bandopadhyay, a four-time MP, was considered one of Mamata Banerjee’s most trusted aides. While Paul had to spend 13 months behind bars, Bandopadhyay was granted bail after four months on health grounds.
With Central agencies seeming to close in, and the opposition parties hitting the streets with a vengeance against the alleged corruption in the ruling party, the Trinamool is facing one of its toughest times in recent years. The desperation in the party’s rank and file was manifested in the party supremo’s own words, when on August 14, at a public meeting Mamata asked of the crowd, “What will you do if they [Central agencies] reach my home tomorrow? Will you hit the streets?”