Scandal

Sting in the tail

Print edition : April 14, 2017

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. She reacted to the court order with her customary aggressiveness and defiance. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra /PTI

Left Front chairman Biman Bose, CPI(M) State secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra and other Left leaders in a rally demanding the arrest of the Narada sting case accused, in Kolkata on March 17. Photo: PTI

The police arresting Youth Congress activists during a demonstration against the government in Kolkata on March 18. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

Mamata Banerjee suffers a setback as the Calcutta High Court orders a CBI probe into the Narada sting which showed top Trinamool leaders accepting cash on camera.

IN a major development that is likely to have far-reaching consequences in the political arena of West Bengal, the Calcutta High Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct a preliminary investigation into the sting operation carried out by Narada News in 2014, which showed 11 top Trinamool Congress leaders, including Ministers, Members of Parliament, and the Mayor of Kolkata, and a senior police officer accepting cash on camera.

The video footage of the sting operation, which was aired on March 16, 2016—just three weeks before the Assembly elections in the State— show Cabinet Ministers Subrata Mukherjee, Firhad Hakim and Madan Mitra (no longer a Minister); MPs Mukul Roy, Saugata Roy, Subhendu Adhikari, Sultan Ahmed, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Prasun Banerjee; Minister Sovan Chatterjee, who is also the Mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation; and Deputy Mayor and MLA Iqbal Ahmed taking wads of notes from a representative of Impex Infrastructure (a fictitious company set up for the sting operation) and in return promising favours and “lobbying” for the organisation. The videos also show the then Superintendent of Police of Bardhaman district, S.H. Mirza, accepting money on behalf of Mukul Roy.

On March 17, a Division Bench of Acting Chief Justice Nishita Mhatre and Justice Tapabrata Chakraborty pronounced that a preliminary inquiry should be conducted by the CBI to ascertain whether those shown to be taking money in the videos “have been involved in corrupt practices and have used the high public offices that they occupied and continue to hold today to promise favours to the persons from whom they had accepted money”. The bench also dismissed the Trinamool Congress’ allegation that the video footage was doctored as baseless. “Considering the CSFL [Central Forensic Science Laboratory] reports from Hyderabad as well as Chandigarh, it is apparent that the video footage is not tampered [with] and is genuine,” said the court. As regards Mirza, and Indian Police Service officer, the court directed the state to “initiate disciplinary proceedings… and to consider suspending him, in consonance with the service rules governing his employment as a Superintendent of Police”.

Scathing indictment

Pointing out that the conduct of persons holding high public offices must be beyond reproach, Justice Mhatre ruled: “I cannot ignore the fact that the respondents are all holding high public offices and are able to wield power, influence and political clout in the State of West Bengal.”

In a most scathing indictment of the State police and the government, the Acting Chief Justice said: “The State police are at best, unfortunately, puppets on a string, the end of which is with the respondents. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that the preliminary inquiry should be conducted by a neutral and independent investigating agency. There is no other agency besides the CBI which is independent…. It surprises me that the State in this case, rather than acting independently, has supported the respondents with all the vehemence at its command.” The court ordered the CBI to act promptly “since persons with doubtful integrity and who commit crimes affecting the society at large, must be brought to book swiftly”.

Trinamool Congress supremo and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s first reaction to the Narada revelations was to dismiss it as a conspiracy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to overthrow her government. She initially challenged the authenticity of the tapes and stood firmly by the party leaders, five of whom were contesting the elections. She neither sought a forensic test of the footage nor did she change her candidates. In fact, when four of the five leaders caught in the sting emerged victorious—the only exception being Madan Mitra, who contested the elections from behind bars for his alleged involvement in the Saradha scam—she reinstated all of them in key Cabinet posts.

One setback after another

The High Court decision could not have come at a worse time for the Trinamool Congress, whose reputation and credibility stands battered for its alleged involvement in one scam after another. First it was the multi-crore Saradha scam, which came to the fore in 2013. Several top party leaders were put behind bars in connection with it. Hardly had the party recovered from the blow when the Narada sting videos were made public. Even as Mamata Banerjee, on the strength of her massive electoral victory last year, tried to ride out the storm, on January 3 this year, one of her most trusted aides, party heavyweight and Leader of the Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party in the Lok Sabha Sudip Bandopadhyay, and MP Tapas Paul were arrested for their alleged roles in the Rs.17,000-crore Rose Valley deposit collection scam.

According to political observers, the Narada sting is perhaps the biggest blow to the party’s image to date. The video images of party stalwarts unabashedly accepting cash have shaken the belief of the people in the State more than allegations of complicity in the Saradha and Rose Valley scams. “The consequence is more serious now. First of all it is a big blow to Mamata Banerjee’s aspirations to be a key player at the national level. The same thing happened with Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav [in Uttar Pradesh]; however strong they may be in the State, once the CBI got behind them, they found it very difficult to come out of its encirclement and become a factor at national politics,” the well-known social scientist and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty told Frontline.

According to Chakraborty, the High Court order has hit Mamata Banerjee where it hurts her the most—her reputation for honesty and integrity. “For so long her USP was her intolerance for dishonesty. Now even her individual honesty will come under question. The very fact that she has retained in her Cabinet all those who were in the sting has shown that she can live with corruption, and thus she herself is an integral part of the corrupt system. This is bound to affect the public perception of her image,” said Chakraborty.

Mamata Banerjee’s reaction

Mamata Banerjee reacted to the court order with her customary aggressiveness and defiance. Although she had questioned the authenticity of the sting videos during last year’s Assembly elections, she now tried to defend the image of her leaders. “The sting was made just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and our leaders took the money as donations… what is the harm in that? The Election Commission allows political parties and leaders to accept donations up to a certain limit,” she said. Calling the High Court’s decision unfortunate, she said: “Both my government and the party will go to the higher court for justice.”

However, on March 21 the Supreme Court refused the State government’s plea to set aside the Calcutta High Court order and extended the time given to the CBI to complete its preliminary investigation from 72 hours to one month.

Hinting at a political conspiracy, Mamata Banerjee pointed out that it was at the BJP office that the Narada videos were shown before the 2016 elections. “See what State BJP president Dilip Ghosh said before the Uttar Pradesh elections. He said exactly what the court ordered today. How could he know beforehand is what I want to know,” she said. Ghosh had said that there was a “possibility” of the Calcutta High Court ordering a CBI probe on the Narada case after the Uttar Pradesh elections.

A defensive Mamata Banerjee tried to pit the popular mandate received by her party in the 2016 elections against the court verdict. “The Narada video tapes were shown days before the elections, yet some of our key leaders shown in the videos won with huge margins. The people reposed faith in them,” she said. However, it may be recalled that during the middle of campaigning in the Assembly elections, at one point Mamata Banerjee had actually come close to admitting to the guilt of her leaders caught in the sting. “Nothing can be done now. I cannot change candidates after announcing their names. Had it been earlier, I would have thought about it,” she said in a public rally.

She exhorted her supporters to believe when exercising their franchise that they were not voting for any other candidate but herself in all the 294 seats. Victory, however, seemed to have changed everything, and the same Mamata Banerjee who had walked out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance after the Tehelka expose in 2001 spit fire against allegations of corruption within her party and her government.

The latest development has given the opposition, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the West Bengal Pradesh Congress, scope to assert themselves politically after their humiliating defeat in the elections in which they had joined forces to take on the Trinamool Congress. “We welcome the Calcutta High Court’s order directing the CBI to investigate the Narada sting case, and hope that the unholy nexus between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP will not prove to be a hindrance to the investigation,” said Surjya Kanta Mishra, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and West Bengal State secretary of the party.

Both the Congress and the BJP demanded the immediate removal of those Trinamool leaders who were seen in the Narada videos. All the opposition parties have hit the streets hoping to capitalise on the issue, clearly with an eye to the 2018 panchayat elections.

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