New Delhi: In February 2019, just before the Lok Sabha elections, to stop the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from arresting IPS officer Rajeev Kumar for his alleged role in the Saradha chit fund scam, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sat on a 45-hour “Save the Constitution” dharna, which was joined by other All India Services officers and Opposition leaders. She ended the dharna after the Supreme Court gave relief to Kumar.
Similarly, in May last year, when the CBI arrested four of her party colleagues, including two cabinet colleagues—Subrata Mukherjee, Firhad Hakim—and party leaders Sovan Chatterjee and Madan Mitra, Mamata Banerjee, along with her TMC workers, went to the Nizam Palace, the CBI headquarters in Bengal, gheraoed it and sat on a dharna outside the office, demanding the release of her colleagues.
What Banerjee did in those two instances was to give a message to her party cadre and to officials and the leaders involved that she and her entire party were supporting the individuals who were being “harassed” and “targeted” by the Central agencies. Earlier this week, one of her most trusted colleagues and a sitting minister in the cabinet, Partha Chatterjee, was sacked from the party and the cabinet after one of the Central agencies, the Enforcement Directorate (ED)—which Banerjee had in the past accused of targeting TMC leaders—found more than Rs 50 crore in cash from Arpita Mukherjee, a former model and a close associate of Partha Chatterjee.
Chatterjee’s sacking from the TMC was announced by Banerjee’s nephew and number two in the party, Abhishek Banerjee, on Thursday evening after Partha Chatterjee was arrested on 23 June. What has come as a surprise is that this time, the West Bengal CM did not sit on a dharna or attacked the Central agencies for targeting her supporters, something which she has done in the past, despite Partha Chatterjee being regarded as among the closest political aides of the West Bengal CM. He was also a founding member of the TMC. As per the contention of the investigating agencies, the money recovered from Arpita was the bribe money that Chatterjee received in the school recruitment scam which began in 2016.
West Bengal-based political observers and TMC leaders with whom The Sunday Guardian spoke to said that the sacking of Partha Chatterjee should not be read as an action in isolation, but is an indication of how TMC politics will play out in the coming months and years and the assertion of Abhishek Banerjee in the party.
Chatterjee, for a long time now, was projecting himself as someone who was among the top party leaders taking a stand that was opposite to that of Abhishek Banerjee. The refusal of Mamata Banerjee to support Partha Chatterjee and his subsequent sacking which was announced by Abhishek himself have confirmed the buzz that Abhishek Banerjee is ready to take over as the de facto head of the TMC.
Abhishek Banerjee, while addressing the press in Kolkata during which he announced the suspension of Chatterjee from all his five party posts, said that the party had zero tolerance for corruption and that even if any TMC leader, irrespective of his senior position, was found to be indulging in the same, they would not be tolerated in the party.
The choice of words, with an emphasis on the “senior leaders” of the party, was not “incidental”, a source close to Abhishek Banerjee told The Sunday Guardian on Friday. Abhishek Banerjee further added that the party had nothing to do with the money that was recovered from Partha Chatterjee’s “aide”, Arpita Mukherjee’s house, and that the onus was on Partha Chatterjee to prove that he had no links with the money recovered from Mukherjee’s house.
It is pertinent to mention here that even as Abhishek Banerjee was addressing the press, two cabinet ministers—Firhad Hakim and Chandrima Bhattacharya and West Bengal TMC president Subrata Bakshi—all three of whom are seen as the “old guard” were sitting beside Abhishek Banerjee, but were not given the opportunity to address the media.
This press conference, according to multiple Kolkata-based political observers, is perhaps the “stamp” that will confirm Abhishek Banerjee’s position in the party and remove all doubts about Mamata Banerjee not trusting him. The sacking of Partha Chatterjee was preceded by a series of statements condemning him that came from Abhishek Banerjee’s close aides, including Kunal Ghosh and from those leaders who are seen as “youth leaders” of the TMC whose allegiance is with Abhishek Banerjee. These statements gave a message that Abhishek Banerjee was seized of the matter and would act soon on the matter.
This is exactly what happened and a disciplinary committee meeting of the party was convened under the leadership of Abhishek Banerjee and the decision to sack Partha Chatterjee was announced.
Sources within the TMC claimed that the silent approach of Mamata Banerjee on Partha Chatterjee was also on the advice of Abhishek Banerjee. According to these sources, he had recommended to Mamata Banerjee to sack Partha Chatterjee two months ago when the Calcutta High Court made scathing remarks against the latter in the teachers’ recruitment scam.
While ensuring that he appears as someone who took the call to remove Partha Chatterjee, Abhishek Banerjee has also given a political message to his own party leaders that other senior leaders, too, are not immune to such “disciplinary action”, especially those who find themselves on the wrong side of him.
Earlier this year, Partha Chatterjee, while addressing a press conference during the state municipal corporation elections, had termed the list of candidates released by Prashant Kishor’s political consultancy, I-PAC as fake and had said that the list of TMC candidates that was released by him was the official one and the one released by I-PAC did not have the approval of the TMC.
This was seen as a direct attack on Abhishek Banerjee as the names on the I-PAC list had the approval of Abhishek Banerjee. Similarly, Kalyan Bandopadhyay, TMC MP, one of the founding members of the party, had publicly spoken against Abhishek Banerjee several times and said that he would consider Abhishek as his leader only if he was able to prove his mettle in the Goa and Tripura local elections.
Though the TMC failed to make a mark in the Goa Assembly elections and had a poor show in Tripura municipal corporation elections, as Kalyan Bandopadhyay had indirectly predicted, it was he and not Abhishek Banerjee who paid a price. While Abhishek’s stature strengthened within the party, Bandopadhyay now finds himself sidelined, with his close associates stating that he is “paying a price” for speaking the truth.
Another senior leader and spokesperson of the TMC, Derek O’Brien, too, finds himself staying unused after he raised questions on the functioning of I-PAC. I-PAC was brought into Bengal by Abhishek Banerjee after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Even other senior and “influential” leaders like Sougato Roy and Madan Mitra have slowly been side-lined from the mainstream TMC.
Other TMC ministers and leaders who could face the brunt of the investigating agency and possibly see a similar reaction from the TMC and Mamata Banerjee, include TMC Cabinet Minister Moloy Ghatak, Birbhum district TMC president Anubrata Mandal, both of whom are accused in the coal scam, in which Abhishek Banerjee’s close aides and his wife, too, are allegedly involved.
With things moving in Kolkata, Firhad Hakim, who is allegedly involved in the Narada scam, could also face the same fate as that of Partha Chatterjee in the near future. It is also pertinent to mention that Hakim, earlier this year, had remarked that even he was a minister along with Partha Chatterjee in the cabinet and if there had been a mistake (while referring to the scam in teachers’ recruitment), it is was a collective failure of the Bengal cabinet and that Partha Chatterjee alone could not be blamed for it.