Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee greets the crowds (File) Image Credit: AP

Politics at times throws up such extremes of situations and circumstances, and within such short spans of time, that it’s like watching a celluloid rendition of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’!

On July 21, 2022, the heart of the city of Kolkata saw a political rally by West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party that exceeded the expectations of even the most die-hard TMC supporters in terms of the size of the turnout. Every nook and corner, every lane and alley, leave alone the major thoroughfares, and even the rooftops that hemmed the central podium of TMC’s ‘Martyrs’ Day’ observance that afternoon, was just a sea of humanity — literally!

With Mamata Banerjee’s rise as Bengal Chief Minister (CM), July 21 has metamorphosed from merely being a day of sombre remembrance to a measure of the TMC supremo’s stranglehold on the mood of the people in her state. And make no mistake — if turnouts at political rallies are anything to go by, if enthusiasm of supporters and party workers is any yard stick, then this July 21 was yet again a validation of ‘Brand’ Mamata’s unwavering appeal among her target audience.

But remember what was said at the start of this article: Politics at times throws up such extremes of situations and circumstances, and within such short spans of time, that it’s like watching a celluloid rendition of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’!

Horrifying cash seizures

Barely a few hours after the TMC supporters reached home from that massive show of support on July 21, early on July 22, live video footage on local and national television channels started beaming horrifying, yes ‘horrifying’ is the term, images of heaps of ill-gotten cash recovered during a raid conducted by Enforcement Directorate on the city apartment of Arpita Mukherjee, said to be a close acquaintance of Partha Chatterjee — TMC secretary-general and the de facto No 2 in Mamata’s Cabinet.

Chatterjee himself was also being quizzed by ED officials as simultaneous raids were conducted by the federal agency at 14 locations across Bengal to get to the root of the Staff Selection Commission (SSC) scam over recruitment of school teachers in the state, which reportedly dates back to the time when Chatterjee was the state’s higher education minister.

Partha Chatterjee
India's Directorate of Enforcement claims that Bengal minister Partha Chatterjee was actively involved in recruitment corruption Image Credit: ANI

According to an ED statement in court — following the seizure of nearly Rs220 million (Dh10.12 million) in cash, apart from foreign currency and gold jewellery, from Arpita Mukherjee’s apartment in southern Kolkata — the quantum of corruption in the teacher recruitment scam is to the tune of Rs2 billion! As if that was not enough, on July 27, an additional Rs280 million in cash and 6kg of gold was confiscated by ED during a raid on a second apartment belonging to Arpita Mukherjee in the northern fringes of Kolkata! These figures are not just shocking, but they strike at the very core of trust and confidence that the man on the street confers on a public servant and the administration.    

How the tables turned! Worse 

From late afternoon of July 21 to the early-morning hours of July 22, in barely 12 hours, Bengal’s political narrative had turned on its head and how! So much so, that Mamata — who was conspicuous in her silence on the issue even 48 hours after Partha Chatterjee was formally arrested by ED — had to finally ‘disengage’ the mute mode at a state government-sponsored awards function and launch a counter-attack.

She was scathing in her tirade against her political opponents, she was even emotional at times in raising the pitch against what she termed as a “political vendetta”. And in her inimitable style, she even threatened to strike back at her detractors.

Tactical lacunae

The anguish in her voice and the apparent earnestness with which she vowed not to ever compromise on issues of honesty and ethics were understandable and even appreciable from her personal perspective. But the tactical lacunae, notwithstanding her zealous reaffirmation not to have ever sided with the corrupt, was also all too palpable and there lies the crux of the matter.

The Bengal government and TMC have made their stand on the issue of Partha Chatterjee’s arrest quite clear: That no action will be taken against him unless evidence on his involvement in the scam is accepted by the court.

Now, while this stance certainly does pay more than a lip service to the ‘innocent-until-proven-guilty’ adage, what it also tantamounts to is a gross trust deficit on two counts: Firstly, the spirit of ‘collective responsibility’ — to which the Council of Ministers is committed, in keeping with constitutional propriety in a parliamentary democracy, whereby, any transgression on the part of any one minister is seen as a blot on the entire Council of Ministers and the group is required to act (adopt remedial measures) on it collectively — has been betrayed by allowing Chatterjee to continue as a minister, that too with multiple portfolios. By allowing a senior Cabinet minister, who has been arrested by a federal agency over suspicions of gross financial irregularities, to retain all his ministerial portfolios, the credibility of the entire Council of Ministers has been put at stake. And that's a risk that's just not worth taking.

Time to walk the talk

Secondly, there is an even bigger matrix on which this entire episode is now being played out. And that is — staying committed to the trust of the people and being answerable to them, come what may.

This very same Mamata had once quit as the Railways minister from former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinet, citing the then Defence minister George Fernandez’s alleged role in the ‘Coffin Scam’. Mamata storming out of the Vajpayee ministry was one of the surest signs of her integrity and a fearless commitment to politics that was not merely agenda-driven, but built on the bedrock of trust and honesty.

Politics, not just in India but for that matter anywhere in the world, is a lot about public perception and a lion’s share of that perception is based on a leader’s ability to walk the talk. Mamata had done that on the George Fernandez issue, but with her own party colleague she has faltered miserably. For her, stripping Partha Chatterjee of all his ministerial berths and his party position, until absolved of all charges in court, would have only helped boost public perception and consolidated her stature as a ‘take-no-prisoner’ commander for whom compromise has never been an option. Instead, she has tried to turn this battle over her beleaguered Cabinet colleague into a personal one. She ought to have realised that every ‘battle’ cannot and should not be her personal ‘war’ — notwithstanding the attacks on her by her political opponents.

She also must remember that by claiming to have “no knowledge” in the massive black-money trail in the SSC scam, she has actually opened the door and made herself susceptible to further damage in public domain. If the highest public servant in a state says that she had no clue about financial irregularities of such gargantuan proportion in a section of her ministry, then it is a sad commentary on the overall state of affairs and reeks of a systemic failure.

Time to act

Even now, the vast majority of the electorate in Bengal reposes its trust and faith in her and that is all the more reason for Mamata to rise above and beyond the ruse of ‘vendetta’ politics and playing the ‘victimhood’ card. She has been a true fighter all her life, a fighter who has scaled many a seemingly insurmountable wall without ever balking at its height. That is why she is loved and respected so much.

If the money trail in Bengal’s teacher recruitment scam indeed stops at Partha Chatterjee’s door and no other, then the onus should be on him to explain that. But until he comes out clean or otherwise, let the Bengal CM shut the Cabinet and TMC door on him. Let Mamata sort the ‘perception’ angle out by being exemplary with her actions — NOW — because that is what will actually blunt her opponents’ weapons — before it’s too late.

Twitter: @moumiayush