Notions of probity in public life are relative. It is a dangerously unstable position, because it depends on the mood of a public that could swing any time from tolerance of corruption to disapproval. It could make all the difference between sitting on top of the heap and being in danger of plunging into unpopularity.
The airing of the sting tapes by Mathew Samuel of Narada.com in March 2016 was just one such moment for Mamata Banerjee, when footage revealed top Trinamool Congress leaders — Saugata Roy, Suvendu Adhikari, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, Sultan Ahmed, Aparupa Poddar, Prasun Banerjee, Sovan Chatterjee, Iqbal Ahmed and Madan Mitra, who was sent to jail custody for months as CBI investigated the Rs 2,500 crore Saradha scam — handling cash, in an allegedly money-for-future favours deal.
She weathered it and won 211 on the 294 seats in the West Bengal state assembly. More to the point, Iqbal Ahmed and Sovan Chatterjee — captured on camera taking money — were elected. When the give-and-take of cash is captured on video, which is then authenticated by a Forensic Science Laboratory, there is always the possibility that the otherwise pointedly non-judgmental public may take affront and demand that like Caesar’s wife, the elected must be above suspicion.
The voter clearly decided to pointedly ignore the scam and give the Trinamool Congress the benefit of the doubt. And, the political competition – the Communist Party of India Marxist led Left Front, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – had to eat crow.
A year later, events have taken a new turn. Having fiercely defended her colleagues, hastily ordered an enquiry by the Criminal Investigation Department of the West Bengal police, encouraged the police to go after Mathew Samuel on the basis of a complaint filed by Sovan Chatterjee’s wife, Mamata Banerjee is now up against the judiciary.
The Supreme Court has confirmed the Calcutta High Court’s instructions to the Central Bureau of Investigations that a probe has to be made into the Narada scam, rejecting the appeal by Roy and Adhikari for a stay. It also extracted an apology from the Trinamool Congress for complaining that the “Findings of the high court are perverse, done with a pre-conditioned mind. High court has developed a bias. High court has transgressed all constitutional norms and made unwarranted comments.”
Calling it the “rarest of rare case” in which “very powerful politicians are allegedly involved” in “serious and cognisable offence,” the Supreme Court gave CBI a month to investigate the case and report back or file FIRs if the evidence added up.
The highly visible attempt to get a stay on the CBI investigation in the Narada sting case was a drama of sorts. The Trinamool Congress knew that by retaining Kapil Sibal and the West Bengal government appointing Harish Salve, it would grab public attention which would serve to demonstrate just how determined the party was to defend its position, and how confident it was that it had indulged in no wrong doing.
It was also a signal open to other interpretations. It was a rear guard action that used the CBI as a weapon against the Centre and the BJP, by complaining that the agency was biased. The case against the CBI has been steadily built around the theme that it worked under pressure from the PMO. The Trinamool Congress has repeated these complaints in the Saradha scam and more recently in the Rose Valley scam in which two of its MPs have been sent to jail custody, one of whom, Sudip Bandopadhyay said “BJP is trying to completely wipe out Mamata Banerjee and TMC.”
It was also a way of positioning Mamata Banerjee as above the mire and a protective leader. Guarding the enormous political capital earned by her battles against the CPI M led Left Front and the Congress since the 1980s is, understandably, Mamata Banerjee’s priority. Every revelation of a connection between the party and “cognisable crime” has Mamata Banerjee aggressively championing the implicated. It has been a clever political manoeuvre in which the West Bengal police has been used as a prop to hold off the CBI, as an investigator.
In the hard-bitten 21st century, mere suspicions, however widely shared, that some politicians are open to bribery or corrupt in other ways, flaunt assets or life styles vastly disproportionate to their known or disclosed sources of income, does not stop them from being elected or holding office. The political opposition’s campaigns against the scam connected Trinamool Congress are as much to do with the nature of the crime as with the opportunity these offer to attack the ruling party.
There is a difference in the confrontation between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress, and the rest of the competition. The decimated CPI M and the Congress are not as great a political threat to Mamata Banerjee today as is the BJP, which is backed by being in power in New Delhi, led by a charismatic leader and a successful party chief.
After the CBI arrested Lok Sabha Trinamool Congress leader Sudip Bandopadhyay, Mamata Banerjee condemned the “politically vindictive attitude of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.” She also demanded their arrest for their involvement in various cognisable crimes in Gujarat. The identification of the BJP as the principal threat to her popularity and image is very clear.
Complaints against the CBI as an agency that works on political directions like the complaints against CIDs at the state level as working on political instruction are part of the usual rhetoric. It is only now that the connection between Mamata Banerjee and the crime have been more directly established because the Supreme Court and the High Court have drawn attention to the role of S M H Mirza, a police officer. Someone like him is seen on tape accepting cash and talking about his political connections. Since the police is directly under the chief minister, the link between cognisable crime and Mamata Banerjee has become more visible.
Crude as these efforts by the state BJP are at trashing Mamata Banerjee’s image as an alternative leader who promised a clean government, it can begin to erode her credibility if the Narada investigations find that the Trinamool Congress leaders are indeed connected to cash-for-political-favours case. Already there is a buzz that the Narada sting revealed just how reckless the party has grown, because the persons shown on the tapes succumbed to the lure so quickly.
What is new in West Bengal is that the BJP is aggressively chasing the Trinamool Congress. Its state president, Dilip Ghosh, has been instrumental in upping the ante. Before the Uttar Pradesh elections, he declared that the CBI would probe the Narada sting case. Now that it has come to pass, the nexus between the BJP and the CBI, with the PMO directing the moves, is part of the established narrative of the Trinamool Congress.
Breaking the grip that Mamata Banerjee has over the population imagination in West Bengal is not politically easy as the Congress and the CPI M have discovered in 2016. Even though there is dissatisfaction with her government, anger, frustration and fear against her party, the voter clearly finds her an acceptable leader. Her personal image is the most valuable capital the party possesses. Since the party is the leader, the BJP seems to be working on a plan to connect her to the scams and trash her image.
The strategy is similar to the one used in Uttar Pradesh against Akhilesh Yadav and against Mayawati. The failure story line connects the leader to corruption, local crimes, lack of development, appeasement of minorities and the lack of opportunities for the majority. Mamata Banerjee’s politics fits this template. The only difference is that till now she has maintained her personal connect to leaders in the BJP which have been used successfully on occasion. She has also played ball with the BJP on its ambitious GST roll out. But if the BJP pushes harder to make room for itself in a West Bengal that is dominated by Mamata Banerjee by trashing her image, the goodwill of the past may vaporise, making it a direct no-holds-barred fight to the finish. Mamata Banerjee may be many things, but she is not complacent that her dominance over West Bengal cannot be challenged.