Explainer: What the Standoff Between Mamata Banerjee and the Modi Govt Means

The CBI made an unsuccessful attempt to question – allegedly without a warrant – the Kolkata police commissioner on Sunday, giving rise to a new political crisis.

New Delhi: The Central Bureau of Investigation’s decision to question none other than the Kolkata police commissioner has led to yet another national political crisis. The CBI made its move two days after back-to-back meetings of various opposition political parties on common platforms.

Although the CBI’s attempt was unsuccessful, as many as 40 CBI officials reached the city police commissioner Rajeev Kumar’s office late on February 3 evening – allegedly without giving him any prior notice – to question him on his alleged role in suppressing evidence in the chit fund scams probe.

Kumar headed the special investigation team on the Sarada and Rose Valley chit fund scam probes, and the CBI has alleged that he may have buried crucial evidence.

A day earlier, agency officials had said that the top cop had gone “missing”, a charge that the Kolkata police strongly refuted. It said that he has been regularly attending office and was on casual leave only on January 31.

The CBI’s move led to a virtual showdown between the state police and the central agency when a Kolkata police team whisked away at least five CBI officials from the agency’s regional offices in police vehicles. As chaos and drama ensued, the state police later said that it had detained the officials only for a few hours to enquire whether they had all the required permissions and approvals to question the police commissioner.

Legal position

On Monday morning, the CBI raised the issue in the Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear its plaint on Tuesday. But as Indira Jaising has pointed out, the CBI’s ability to summon the West Bengal police chief has been constrained by the Calcutta high court, which is already seized of the matter:

“It is true that the Supreme Court can, when satisfied that there is good reason to do so, direct the CBI to investigate a crime  in any state. However, in the Sharada case , although there was an order directing the CBI to investigate the case, the court was not monitoring the case and had directed that all further applications should be made to the high court.

“The Supreme Court, while doing so had directed the states to “cooperate” with the investigation, an expression which must be understood in its ordinary meaning, which is that the state should facilitate the investigation.

‘The West Bengal state police wrote to the CBI offering cooperation.  However, the CBI issued summons under Section 160 CrPC. The state moved the Calcutta high court against the summons against its officers. The high court kept the summons in abeyance.”

Mamata Banerjee rallies opposition support

The developments kicked off a series of accusations and counter-accusations between the CBI and the West Bengal government. Trinamool Congress chief and state chief minister Mamata Banerjee rallied support and accused the Centre of political vendetta.

Banerjee and her party members termed the CBI action as an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to organise a coup in the state.

Opposition leaders like Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, former prime minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader H.D. Deve Gowda, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav and AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi extended their support to Banerjee, likening the situation to the Emergency.

A host of leaders addressed the rally in Kolkata on January 19. Credit: PTI

Banerjee is currently sitting on a dharna against the CBI’s move and is planning to organise protests across the state on Monday. Police commissioner Kumar, the state police chief and Kolkata mayor Firhad Hakim are accompanying her during the sit-in. She will proceed to the assembly later today for the state budget.

Calling it a “total constitutional breakdown”, the chief minister said in a hurriedly-convened press conference, “How dare you come to a police commissioner’s home without a warrant? Mr (Ajit) Doval is doing whatever PM wants him to do, he is the one giving all the instructions to CBI.”

“We have full confidence in the judiciary, media and the people… If they want to impose President’s Rule, we are ready for it,” she added.

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She said that it was her government that initiated proceedings in the chit fund scam by constituting a SIT. She claimed that Kumar’s “integrity, bravery and honesty” are “unquestioned” and that the CBI’s action was politically motivated.

“We returned money to those [who lost it during the] chit fund scam. After five years, now the CBI is acting right before the polls. BJP is torturing Bengal. They are forcibly trying to destroy Bengal just because I did the Brigade rally [an opposition unity rally in Kolkata on January 19],” Banerjee said.

“PM Modi is destroying institutions…This is an attack on the constitution of the country. This is an attack on the federal structure. We will organise another rally. Threatening us will not work,” she declared.

CBI’s response

Meanwhile, CBI’s interim chief M. Nageswara Rao accused the state police of intimidating the agency’s officials, and ordered CRPF personnel guard its offices in Kolkata. He said he feared that important documents related to the case may be destroyed amid the Centre-state stand-off.

Rao said that the agency will move the Supreme Court against the state government on Monday, adding that the apex court had ordered an inquiry into the scam. He said that CBI officials had gone to record Kumar’s statement as the agency had evidence of irregularities in the probe conducted by the state SIT.

The agency also sought time from governor Keshari Nath Tripathi to discuss the matter.

In the meantime, BJP leaders went hammer and tongs against Banerjee. Commenting on the situation, BJP leader G.V.L. Narasimha Rao said that Banerjee wanted to “protect the corrupt in her state”. “The development in Kolkata and the resistance to the CBI investigation is bizarre, unprecedented and reflects Mamata Banerjee’s dictatorial attitude,” he added.

Other BJP leaders like Nalin Kohli, Rakesh Sinha and Babul Supriyo demanded that President’s Rule be imposed in the state.

Political impact

The West Bengal government and the Centre have been locked in a bitter battle over the last few months. Recently, when Banerjee pulled out of the Centre’s Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme, it created a political controversy. Banerjee has emerged as one of the most vociferously anti-BJP chief ministers.

Banerjee and BJP chief Amit Shah have verbally attacked each other on numerous occasions. The West Bengal chief minister denied permission to Shah’s proposed Rath Yatra. This may have ticked off Shah and Modi the most. Banerjee has also emerged as the most vocal campaigner against the Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, sought to be introduced in Assam.

Earlier, the TMC government, just like the Telugu Desam Party-led Andhra Pradesh government, had withdrawn its “general consent” to the CBI to conduct its operations, curtailing the agency’s powers in the state.

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Both Shah and Modi addressed big rallies in West Bengal last month, attacking the state government and the chief minister. Shah’s speech in was widely seen as a rabble-rousing attempt to polarise Bengal’s electorate before the upcoming general elections.

Not surprisingly, therefore, most opposition leaders questioned the timing of the CBI’s action and felt that going after a top cop may as well be politically motivated. On January 20, Mamata Banerjee organised one of the most successful opposition rallies at the Brigade Parade grounds in Kolkata. So much was the hype around it that the rally now represents one of the strongest shows of opposition unity.

Then, on February 1, almost all the opposition leaders met in Delhi. Although they ostensibly met to discuss EVM malfunctioning and decided to approach the Election Commission of India, the meeting itself became a show of strength of a united opposition.

Amit Shah (left) and Narendra Modi (right). Credit: PTI

The CBI action in Bengal also came on the day when the opposition alliance in Bihar got a rousing reception at a rally in Patna.

Against this backdrop, Banerjee alleging that the BJP is trying to engineer a coup in Bengal, with the opposition leaders supporting her, is likely to receive a lot of traction.

Never in the recent political history of India, have a political party – in this case the BJP – and the Union government become so synonymous with each other that it has become difficult to separate the two.

The Centre’s premier investigation agency, the CBI, is itself emerging from a labyrinth of controversies that has put a question mark on its institutional autonomy. The accusation that the CBI has been actively pursuing politically-motivated cases against opposition leaders ahead of the general elections has hurt the agency’s reputation.

While all would agree that the chit fund scams need to be investigated, such aggressive action by the CBI in Kolkata does not do much good to its current public perception.

The way both the Centre and the state have conducted themselves will surely have some sort of political fall-out. While Banerjee is known to be a leader who does not care much for caution, political observers will ponder over the Modi government’s action in this case, especially since the BJP has earned a reputation of being tactical at all political junctures.

Is the BJP rattled? This is a question many are likely to ask. People may also wonder if the Modi government was so serious about probing the chit fund scams, why did the BJP happily accept scam-tainted Mukul Roy, former TMC leader and Union minister, into its fold?

In the case of West Bengal, aggressive political posturing by both parties on almost all political issues has led to further polarisation. With the latest stand-off between the BJP and the Banerjee’s government, the polarisation is likely to aggravate and may precipitate yet another crisis in Centre-state relations.

In this battle, however, the BJP this time has risked hurting the so-called Bengali pride, and may have damaged the party’s prospects in the state. West Bengal, with its 42 Lok Sabha seats, remains one of the most integral part of the BJP’s ‘Look East’ electoral policy.