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Kolkata: On Friday (January 28), West Bengal assembly speaker Biman Banerjee concluded the hearing on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) complaint seeking disqualification of the legislature of Mukul Roy, the party’s former national vice-president, who won the 2021 assembly election on a BJP ticket but switched over to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) soon after.
Once known as TMC chairperson Mamata Banerjee’s right-hand man, Roy, switched over to the BJP in 2017 and took a leading role in the party’s campaign against the TMC.
Whether Roy can continue as the chairman of the public accounts committee (PAC) will be largely determined by the speaker’s decision. If disqualified, Roy will be the first legislator in the state to be disqualified for defection since Banerjee came to power in 2011, even though more than three dozen MLAs have switched camps between 2012 and 2020. But if the speaker decides against disqualifying him, he may well continue to hold the position of PAC. The BJP has strongly protested this very appointment.
The PAC is considered the most important among the parliamentary or legislative committees and is entrusted with auditing the revenue and the expenditure of the governments concerned.
There is no written rule but it has been a norm to offer the position of PAC chairman to the main opposition party, be it in the parliament or state assemblies. For example, Congress’s Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury holds the position of PAC chairman in the parliament. However, the Bengal assembly Speaker rejected the BJP’s nomination, economist-turned-BJP MLA Ashok Lahiri, and appointed the Banerjee government’s choice, Mukul Roy, arguing that Roy belonged to the BJP because he won on a BJP ticket.
Roy was appointed the PAC chairman on July 9, about a month after he joined the TMC in the presence of Banerjee at the TMC’s state unit headquarters.
It is in protest of the speaker’s controversial decision to choose Roy as the chairman of the PAC that the BJP gave up chairmanship of all committees of the state assembly.
The hearing into the case over his disqualification has not been without controversy either. Last week, the speaker hinted that he might take a call by the first week of February, but the state’s BJP leadership alleged that Biman Banerjee would not have brought the hearing to a conclusion had there not been judicial interventions.
The BJP had lodged a formal complaint with the speaker on June 17, seeking his disqualification for switching parties. As Biman Banerjee did not take a call by September, the BJP moved Calcutta high court, which asked the speaker to decide by October 7. The speaker soon moved the Supreme Court against the high court order.
Notably, the rules do not bind the speaker by any time limit to decide on a complaint seeking disqualification. “Taking advantage of this gap in the law, the speaker never disqualified a single Left or Congress MLA who switched over to the TMC between 2011-21 despite written complaints and follow-ups,” veteran Bengal Congress leader Abdul Mannan, who served as the Leader of the Opposition in the last assembly, had earlier told The Wire.
Since the speaker’s time limit could not be challenged but a decision could be challenged in court, Speaker Banerjee never arrived at a decision, Mannan had argued.
However, in January 2020, a Supreme Court bench had strongly criticised this power given to the speaker, called for its amendment and said that “disqualification petitions under the Tenth Schedule should be decided by Speakers within three months”. The BJP’s lawyer cited this order in the court against the speaker’s appeal.
In November, a Supreme Court division bench comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Hima Kohli directed the speaker to “decide the petition… expeditiously”. Finally, on January 17, the Supreme Court told the speaker’s lawyer that the matter is being listed for next hearing in the second week of February and that it expected a decision to have been taken by then.
Biman Banerjee later told the media in Kolkata that he expects to come to a decision by early February.
Whose Mukul Roy is he after all?
Meanwhile, Roy’s role has created a great deal of curiosity among the general public. He has never publicly called for TMC’s electoral victory, while his lawyers kept telling the speaker that he did not switch camp at all.
In fact, the case around Roy’s defection has been unprecedented in Bengal politics. In the public he made a series of comments that can be construed as political bloopers, unexpected from a man once described as the Chanakya of Bengal politics. While his family and TMC leaders argued he was suffering from certain mental health issues since the death of his wife in July, others suspected he was pretending to be mentally unstable to avoid disqualification.
Here are some examples:
On August 6, while addressing the media in Krishnanagar Uttar, his assembly constituency, Roy said, “I can say on behalf of the BJP that the TMC will be trounced (if bypolls are held) and the BJP will reestablish itself in Krishnanagar. The TMC will lose.”
The moment he said he was speaking on behalf of the BJP, someone standing right behind him tried to tell him that he was making a mistake but Roy went ahead with his statement anyway. Later, as a journalist asked him to explain what he meant by ‘TMC will lose,’ Roy said, “TMC will lose means TMC will reestablish itself.” Yet another journalist asked him to clarify if he meant the BJP will lose. Then Roy said, “Surely, the BJP will be wiped out.”
Then, a week later, on August 13, after he attended the meeting of the PAC at the state assembly, journalists asked him if he would win again if he contested from Krishnanagar Uttar in a bypoll. Roy, sporting a smile, answered, “Yes.” Journalists asked for clarification if he would win contesting on a TMC ticket. Roy said, “No. I will win again if I contest on a BJP ticket.” When journalists asked what would happen if he contested on a TMC ticket, he said, “That I cannot tell. It is for the people to decide. I will first have to contest on a TMC ticket. Only then we can know what will happen.”
He also clarified that he attended the PAC meeting as a BJP MLA. “BJP nominated me,” he said. During the same interaction, responding to another question, he said he was with the TMC.
Following these back to back controversies, Roy was not seen in the public for some months, as the Bengali media went abuzz speculating whether Roy’s self-contradictory statements were a result of mental health issues or his strategy to foil the BJP’s attempt to get him disqualified from the assembly.
TMC leaders did not make any comment publicly but journalists in private that Roy was suffering from some health issues. Bengal BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said, “Some would say he is suffering from illness, others would say he is under mental pressure. I can only say that we pray for everyone’s good health.”
Meanwhile, he appeared in public at an event in Birbhum district on December 25. There, too, standing next to the TMC’s Birbhum unit president Anubrata Mandal, he said the BJP will script a landslide victory in the impending municipal elections across the state. When TMC leaders surrounding him reminded that he should have said TMC would win, Roy, again sporting a smile, said, “Of course, TMC. The BJP and the TMC are the same.”
This time, the TMC’s secretary general Patha Chatterjee told the media that Roy was unwell and the party could even consider relieving him from the responsibility of PAC chairman if his health problems persisted. In Birbhum, Anubrata Mandal held a press conference the next day to explain Roy’s situation. “Mukul Roy is no longer the same. He is suffering from frequent sodium potassium imbalance. He has lost (mental) stability. He doesn’t know what he is saying.”
Later, his son, Subrangshu, who too returned to the TMC along with his father in June, said that his father was unwell. “He is ill. We took him to Birbhum because doctors were insisting that he take him out to mix with people. But he is not well at all.”
The BJP’s Leader of the Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, initially refused to comment on Roy’s self-contradictory statements. “I can only laugh at it. Whatever we have to say, we’ll say in the Supreme Court,” he said following Roy’s comments in Birbhum.
However, later in January Adhikari referred to Roy as ‘madman’. “The madman Mukul Roy has been kept as PAC chairman. The speaker should give the post to the BJP,” he said at the assembly compound.
Speaking to The Wire, BJP’s Kalyani MLA Ambika Roy said that Roy may be suffering from health-related issues but they could not sympathise with it because his lawyer was using it as an excuse to save his legislature.
“During the hearing before the speaker, his lawyer repeatedly claimed that Roy had not left the BJP. When we cited evidence of his joining event, his lawyer argued that he was unwell and went there for a courtesy meeting with old acquaintances. They argued that Roy’s wife was unwell at that time, which is why Roy, too, was mentally disturbed and did not understand everything that happened there. Even if he is ill, it is being used to tell a lie on record,” said the BJP MLA.
Ambika Roy is also a lawyer by profession, and represented the BJP in the hearing before the speaker and later moved Calcutta high court seeking judicial intervention against Speaker Banerjee’s alleged inaction. He said that Mukul Roy’s lawyer had also cited Roy’s recent statements predicting BJP’s victories in elections as proof of his being a bonafide BJP MLA.
“It is happening so blatantly and brazenly that we can’t even call it a ploy of fooling the people. There is no ethics or morality in it. If Roy is ill indeed, he should be relieved of the post of PAC chairman. Otherwise, the TMC should own up to his remark that the TMC and the BJP are the same,” said leftist cultural activist and theatre actor Joyraj Bhattacharjee.
Columnist Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata, said that the TMC’s move of denying the BJP the post of PAC chairman was ‘unwise’.
“Such moves only dent a party’s public image. The TMC wouldn’t gain anything from it. Even though there is no written rule, there is a widely followed convention. The TMC should have followed the convention and accepted the BJP’s nomination of Ashok Lahiri. And if Mukul Roy is unwell, the party should relieve him of such responsibilities and allow him required rest and peace of mind,” Bandyopadhyay told The Wire.
Notably, after the assembly election, it was Roy who proposed the name of Adhikari as the leader of the opposition during the BJP legislative team’s meeting.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and author based in Kolkata.