Amit Shah Mamata Banerjee
Amit Shah [L] and Mamata Banerjee [R] Image Credit: AP/PTI

In a stark and rather spine-chilling reminder of the dreaded Emergency-era early-morning ‘knock on the door’, three senior leaders of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal and a former TMC leader were picked up for questioning by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) early on Monday morning from their respective residences in Kolkata over the 2014 Narada sting operation, in which these leaders were seen accepting unaccounted-for cash from journalist Mathew Samuel, who ran the sting operation in the guise of a businessman.

These arrests on Monday were followed by high drama all through the day and night as the four leaders were initially granted bail by Bankshall Court in Kolkata, but all four were moved to Presidency Jail around 1.20am (IST) on Tuesday after the bail order was stayed by Calcutta High Court in a late-night hearing, following a plea from the CBI challenging the lower court’s verdict.

As the four arrested leaders — Subrata Mukherjee, Firhad Hakim, Madan Mitra and Sovan Chatterjee — were being moved out of Nizam Palace to Presidency Jail, one of them, Chatterjee, a former TMC minister and ex-mayor of Kolkata, was seen in his night suit as he was being whisked into a waiting police vehicle – thereby indicating how little time these leaders probably had as the CBI sleuths came knocking on their doors in the wee hours!

Two sides of the prism

Now, there are two aspects of this prism that deserve to be looked at in-depth. While the first pertains to the very obvious angle of overreach by a federal agency at the behest of what is being seen as “vendetta politics” on the part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the second is about Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee probably overplaying her hand in dealing with the crisis – her emotional outreach for her accused party comrades getting the better of her administrative jurisprudence.

But first things first, and there is no denying the fact that the manner in which the arrests were made by the CBI has left a lot of room to fan the flames of the “vendetta politics” argument. As a premier federal investigative agency, CBI directly comes under the authority of the federal Home Ministry and given the high-pitched and mutually vitriolic poll campaign run by both, Mamata and federal Home Minister and BJP stalwart Amit Shah in Bengal this time, there could be a lot of weight in the argument that the CBI’s actions were actually guided by some sort of “vendetta” agenda on the part of the ruling party at the Centre (BJP).

Some legal experts pointed out that since the CBI had already submitted the charge sheet against all the four accused at the Special CBI Court, there was no real need to have them arrested. Following the submission of the charge sheet, if the court had felt the need, it would or could have ordered the arrest or detention of the accused. So, by jumping the gun, CBI has actually brought its own action under the scanner of legality.

Moreover, constitutional propriety demands that in order to execute an arrest warrant against any sitting member of the assembly, a prior permission must be sought from the Speaker. In this case, CBI circumvented Speaker Biman Bandyopadhyay’s office and sought permission for the arrests directly from Governor Jagdeep Dhankar.

CBI on a sticky wicket

The second and more damning point of accusation against the CBI is its “partisan treatment” of the accused in the case. Along with the four arrested TMC leaders, the names of at least two other prominent former TMC leaders featured in the CBI’s net of investigation: Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy – both of whom are today part of the BJP. So the question that obviously arises here is that why wasn’t the same yardstick applied to Adhikari and Roy that saw the four other accused land behind bars?

The CBI’s counter-argument is that while the inquiry was being conducted, Adhikari was a member of the Lok Sabha and a permission was sought from the then Speaker of the Lower House of parliament for Adhikari’s arrest, which never came through even after three years of waiting. As for Roy, he was not seen directly accepting cash in the sting operation video and so the charge against him was not as serious as that on the other accused.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the CBI will have to work real hard to present a water-tight case in court as the trial proceeds or face the ignominy of having to counter charges of being a tool for “vendetta politics”.

Mamata’s miscalculation

Now, let us look at this prism from the other angle. And that brings us to the actions of Bengal CM and a section of her party supporters. In a rather dramatic show of solidarity for her arrested party leaders, Mamata landed at the CBI office in Nizam Palace at 10.47am on Monday and she held her ground there for six hours – daring the deputy inspector general of CBI to arrest her also.

She effectively stood as a barrier between her accused party leaders and the federal agency inside Nizam Palace, even as a section of her irate party workers and supporters attacked Central Reserve Police Force personnel outside with bricks and stones.

While there is no doubting Mamata’s sincerity to stand by her party leaders in their hour of crisis, she ought to have been a little more tactical in dealing with the situation. In her brazen approach in tackling the matter head-on — that was far more steeped in an emotional outreach and much less based on tact and prudence — she perhaps inadvertently strengthened the CBI’s hands when the federal agency contested the bail order in High Court, saying that all four arrested persons were political personalities and could influence the course of the inquiry and the witnesses if granted bail.

The violence resorted to by TMC supporters outside Nizam Place was also cited as detrimental to a free and fair investigation — an argument that probably not only resulted in the initial bail order being overturned by the High Court, but may even see the trial moved out of Bengal, as CBI has already placed a request with Calcutta High Court under Article 407, Code of Criminal Procedure.

The elections are over in Bengal, but ‘battlefield Bengal’ blazes on!

Twitter: @moumiayush