Mamata Banerjee vs BJP: Return of the street fighter

first_imgA podium sporting the tricolours of the Indian flag and a blue Save India’ hoarding sprang up at the corner of a busy thoroughfare along Kolkata’s Esplanade. Sitting in the middle of a saffron-white-green shamiana was Mamata Banerjee in her trademark white and blue bordered saree. The colour coordination was,A podium sporting the tricolours of the Indian flag and a blue Save India’ hoarding sprang up at the corner of a busy thoroughfare along Kolkata’s Esplanade. Sitting in the middle of a saffron-white-green shamiana was Mamata Banerjee in her trademark white and blue bordered saree. The colour coordination was a conscious move, and on the lines of the Mahatma’s satyagraha, the West Bengal chief minister had donned the role of a crusader. On behalf of Ma, Maati and Manush (mother, motherland and people), she was protesting against the alleged assault on democracy, the Constitution, state institutions and the federal structure of India by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.With less than 100 or so days left for the Lok Sabha election, the battle lines have been drawn it will be Modi-led NDA versus a coalition of once unimaginable allies such as the SP and BSP. And with her 48-hour-long dharna, Mamata sent out a clear message she’s ready to lead the anti-Modi alliance.This grandstanding by the West Bengal CM was provoked by a team of CBI officials who arrived at the residence of the Kolkata Police Commissioner, Rajeev Kumar, on the night of February 3 to interrogate him in connection with the Rs 12,000 crore Saradha chit fund scam. The CBI alleged that Kumar had not been cooperating with it in the probe and had tampered with evidence. Mamata was not short of options to shield her police commissioner, but the shrewd politician in her sensed the bigger political opportunity that the crisis offered. She has remained silent earlier, in the face of the arrests of several top leaders of her party, the Trinamool Congress, but when the CBI targeted one of her most trusted police officers, she launched an unprecedented counter-attack with a political message.advertisementWho Won The Face-Off? Technically, it’s a victory for the CBI, backed by the Narendra Modi government. The central probe agency wanted to question Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar for his alleged role in the disappearance of certain papers and electronic evidence related to the Saradha scam.The CBI visited the residence of Kumar, Mamata’s most trusted officer, to interrogate him, but were stopped at the gate. The central government wanted to unnerve the West Bengal chief minister. Her unprecedented mode of counter-attack derailed the BJP’s plan.By sitting in a dharna against the Modi government and roping in support from fence-sitters opposition parties, including such as Naveen Patnaik, Mamata has positioned herself as the leading force among the rivals of the BJP, withthe ability to take Modi and Amit Shah head on.The BJP, however, feels that the latest fiasco has given the party an opportunity to spin the 2019 contest as honest Modi versus a corrupt coalition of opposition parties.With no strong leader in the state to take on Mamata, it will be challenging for the BJP to win 10 seats in West Bengal, as planned by Shah. In the 2016 assembly poll, the BJP’s vote share had dipped to 10 per cent from 17 per cent in 2014 Lok Sabha election.Following her street-fighting instincts, Mamata ignored protocol, drove to the commissioner’s home, got her police officials to detain the CBI officials who came knocking at Kumar’s door and that very day, with Kumar in tow, staged a dharna. Mamata effectively converted what had remained a protracted game of legal hide and seek between the CBI and the Kolkata police into a battle between an autocratic Centre and the victimised state of West Bengal.To target Modi, Mamata chose an issue that will find immediate support among all opposition parties. Even Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati, her close competitors and fellow aspirants for the prime minister’s chair, extended solidarity and promised to fight shoulder to shoulder with her. RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav and DMK’s Kanimozhi visited her at the dharna mancha. The Shiv Sena in its party mouthpiece Saamana too, said that the CBI raid was orchestrated by the BJP to win 10 to 15 seats and seemingly lauded Mamata for hitting back at the Centre with equal force.Even BJD chief and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, who had shown no interest in the opposition mahagathbandhan, seemed to voice his discomfort at the CBI’s action, remarking that the institutional integrity of the CBI has to be restored. However, a careful press statement from the BJD later said that grouping the BJD with some political parties because of this statement is incorrect. Mamata finally declared a moral victory’ and called off the dharna on February 5, after the Supreme Court directed that the CBI could not arrest Kumar, although the officer was instructed to present himself in neutral’ Shillong for questioning by the investigative agency. By then she had achieved her goal of showcasing herself as a leader who can take on the might of Modi-Shah and rally the support of political parties across the opposition spectrum.advertisementI will ask all political parties to work together to oust the BJP, she said, adding that Modi had planned a constitutional coup against her because she had organised the United India Rally on January 19, when several opposition parties shared the dais with her in Kolkata. On February 5, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu was standing next to her.Mamata Banerjee has deftly defined the CBI stand-off as a moment of crisis in Centre-state relations and used it to find common cause with other regional leaders, says Louise Tillin, a political scientist at the King’s India Institute, London. In declaring their support for Banerjee, this loose alliance has demonstrated that it can unite around flashpoints of Centre-state tension. Whether they can develop this defence of federalism into a coherent platform that could challenge the nationalising politics of the BJP will be tested during the coming elections.West Bengal is now the epicentre of the saffron party’s mission to establish itself in the east all the more urgently since its drubbing in the assembly polls in three Hindi heartland states in December. In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won 71 out of 80 seats in 2014, the party faces a stiff challenge from the SP-BSP combine. That’s why Bengal has become a crucial battleground for the BJP in the Lok Sabha election. It won 2 seats and 17 per cent vote share in the 2014 polls, but in 2016, its vote share went down to 10 per cent, primarily because the Left and the Congress fought together.While the BJP hopes to win at least 10 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, Mamata is not ready to cede an inch. Be it on the issue of demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax or the proposed Save Democracy Ratha Yatra, Mamata wouldn’t give the BJP a free run in the state. She’s been at her combative best, denying BJP leaders permission to land on government helipads and obstructing their political rallies. Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath was prevented from holding rallies in South Dinajpur, North Dinajpur and Bankura before he finally made it by landing in Jharkhand and travelling 28 km by road to Purulia. Mamata, however, insists she has done nothing out of the ordinary. Modi came here, Rajnath Singh did six rallies and even he (Shah) came here with swine flu, she declaimed. (Photo: Subir Halder)The BJP leadership, for its part, has not been unnerved by Mamata’s dharna dramatics. Rather, they sense an opportunity to project their 2019 campaign as a battle between an honest Modi’ and a corrupt coalition’. This even gives Modi an opportunity to play his well-rehearsed victim card by recounting the details of the alleged political witch-hunt he and Shah were subjected to by the then UPA government between 2008 and 2014 in various cases. We have always respected the Constitution and the system while being in power. Didi, what is there to be scared of if you did nothing wrong? Even I was interrogated by the CBI for nine hours as the Gujarat chief minister, but I underwent the ordeal. Why does didi think she is above the law? the PM asked with a rhetorical flourish.advertisementAccording to the BJP’s national media coordinator Amit Malaviya, Mamata has done more damage to the so-called opposition alliance than to the BJP. By supporting Mamata, the opposition has walked into a trap. The Congress has no face left as it had criticised Mamata in the same scam earlier. Clearly, it is a battle between a clean Modi and a coalition, he says.Mamata was looking for an opportunity to hit back at the BJP since Shah held a political rally in Malda on January 22 and Modi in Durgapur on February 2. The top two leaders of the BJP were scathing in their attack on Mamata and alleged her involvement in the two big chit fund scamsSaradha and Rose Valley. The two Ponzi companies collapsed in 2013 and are being probed by the CBI. The probe has netted several political leaders from across parties, but mostly from the TMC.Big names arrested for their involvement in the scam include former TMC MPs Sudip Bandyopadhyay, Srinjoy Bose and Kunal Ghosh; Madan Mitra, former ministerial colleagues of Mamata Banerjee; and Rajat Majumdar, former DGP of West Bengal. The CBI has filed a charge sheet against Nalini Chidambaram, wife of former Union minister P. Chidambaram. The probe agency also interrogated Mukul Roy, who switched from the TMC to the BJP in 2016 and Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who moved from the Congress to the BJP in 2015.On January 24, the CBI arrested film producer Shrikant Mohta, who is known for his proximity to Mamata, in connection with the Rose Valley scam. The probe agency alleged that Mohta had taken Rs 25 crore from Gautam Kundu, the head of Rose Valley, who is now in prison. Five of Mamata’s paintings were also found in his possession. Shah, in his rallies, suggested Mamata’s direct involvement in chit fund scams.There is a buzz that the final charge sheet of Saradha, likely to nail some prominent politicians, would be out before the Lok Sabha election. In the Narada scandal, a sting operation that caught several TMC leaders seeking cash in return for favours nine TMC MPs and five ministers are facing accusations of taking bribes.It is, therefore, not surprising that in November 2018, the West Bengal government withdrew general consent to the CBI to conduct raids and investigations, as the state lost faith in central agencies due to their misuse by the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. The agency officials claimed that it had sent multiple notices to Kumar, but he did not respond to these notices, forcing them to take the extreme step. In 2015 and 2017, the CBI had petitioned the Supreme Court, accusing the state police of not cooperating with the agency. The CBI also sought the state government’s permission on August 2018 to make three IPS officers, including Kumar, available in order to fast-track the probe. Two of these officers had a stay order till February 13 from the high court, but not Kumar.The CBI is a national agency with police powers. Its primary jurisdiction is confined to Delhi and the Union territories. The CBI draws its power from the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) Act. The home ministry, through a resolution, set up the agency in April 1963 to probe corruption cases. Under Section 5 of the Act, the Centre can extend its powers and jurisdiction to the states for investigation of specified offences. However, this power is restricted by Section 6, which says that the CBI’s powers and jurisdiction cannot be extended to any state without the consent of the government of that state. There are several instances of state governments withdrawing their consent. In Sikkim, for instance, the state withdrew its consent after the CBI registered a case against the then chief minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari. However, in 2010, the Supreme Court maintained that high courts could direct the CBI to probe cases without the consent of state governments. Interestingly, the root of this verdict can be traced back to Mamata’s TMC. The Supreme Court was responding to an appeal by the then CPI(M)-led West Bengal government, which had taken exception to a Calcutta High Court order for a CBI probe into firing incidents in Midnapore in 2001, when several TMC workers were killed.In May 2014, the SC handed over the multi-crore Saradha scam probe to the CBI, saying that the state police had not been able to make any headway on the conspiracy angle, money trail and the seizure of the properties related to the scam. According to the CBI, the evidence collected by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), which was formed by the state in April 2013 to probe the Saradha chit fund scam, and headed by Kumar, includes a laptop, five cellphones and documents, including a diary purportedly of Saradha Group promoter Sudipta Sen. Kumar, however, did not hand these over to the CBI.The TMC claimed that while the CBI has been selectively targeting its leaders, it went mum on Roy and Sarma after they joined the BJP. On February 5, Mamata even claimed that she had enough evidence against Sarma and dared Modi and Shah to get him arrested. Sarma refuted the allegation saying that he had joined the probe as a witness and the CBI had already examined him. I joined the investigation much before I joined the BJP, he says.While Mamata has gained what she wanted, Kumar now stares at more trouble. The home ministry has asked the state government to start disciplinary proceedings against the officer for indisciplined behaviour and violation of All India Services Conduct Rules. The ministry has clearly stated that Kumar sitting with some police officers at the chief minister’s dharna amounted to contravention of the AIS Rules, 1969. Is there a skeleton in the CP’s cupboard that the chief minister wants to hide? asks state BJP president Dilip Ghosh. For now, Kumar is said to have written to the CBI that he would depose before the agency. Mamata has also lightheartedly promised to treat the CBI officers well, feed them with Bengali delicacies, roshogolla and mishti doi, lest anybody think she had anything against the agency. The smart politician knows that every battle cannot be fought on the streets especially when the highest court of the country gets involved.last_img read more