For the state’s palace politics, disposing of Partha Chattopadhyay on the issue of SSC scam is eminently suitable.
The question in the West Bengal School Service Commission’s recruitment scandal is not whether but when the guilty will be punished. The follow-up issue is how far the scam will reach—will it stop with the then state Education Minister Partha Chattopadhyay? First take a look at the political pros and cons linked to the scandal.
Partha Chattopadhyay is an old associate of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. He was elected a member of the state Legislative Assembly from 2001. He also holds the post of General Secretary of the party and was the deputy leader in the Assembly in 2011. He is a weighty (even figuratively) leader shadowing Mamata Banerjee, a lone figure sitting with her always when she was the lone opposition MP from West Bengal post the 2004 elections. Will the scandal stop at his door or move further up?
Given the passive support that the state government received from influential sections of society, it seems an effort is on to control the potential damage. It may not end up as West Bengal’s “chara ghotala” if the ball stops with Partha Chattopadhyay. The four-week respite given by the division bench of Justice Subrata Talukdar, who will retire in another year after reaching the superannuation age of 62, should be seen in this context. The order came at a time when a court appointed committee headed by the retired Justice Ranjit Kumar Bag submitted its report before the very bench of Justice Talukdar and additional judge Ananda Kumar Mukherjee. Justice Bag found prima facie cases of cheating, forgery and criminal act and recommended filing of FIRs. The Honourable Justices in turn stayed all investigations by CBI for four weeks. Perhaps the bench needs time to comprehend the report of Justice Bag. Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee could call certain legal brains for a tête-à-tête with her and decide perhaps on effective chara for the ghotala.
The case is well documented. The notification for appointment of teachers in state-run schools in West Bengal was published in 2014 and the recruitment process started in 2016. In another case, the West Bengal government had, in 2016, issued a notification to the School Service Commission (SSC) to recruit 13,000 Group-D employees for state-run/aided schools. In 2019, the panel making the appointments had expired, but at least 25 persons were allegedly appointed by the WBBSE. When aggrieved petitioners approached the court, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay, who as a lawyer had handled cases of West Bengal Education department during the Left Front rule, was aghast at the irregularities. But his order was stayed by the division bench headed by Justice Tandon.
Justice Tandon will retire in 2026. His bench acted carefully and appointed a retired judge, Justice Bag, to investigate the case. Meanwhile, orders of Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay were repeatedly stayed. This made Justice Gangopadhyay furious, and he wrote a letter to both the Chief Justice of the High Court as well as the Supreme Court. Four of his orders in teaching and non-teaching staff recruitment scam were stayed by the division bench headed by Justice Tandon.
Justice Gangopadhyay sought the CJI’s intervention and also issued an administrative order questioning the division bench stay of the CBI probe order in the four cases. The fact that even the Justice Bag report, appointed by Justice Tandon, endorsed observations of Justice Gangopadhyay, illustrates that the judge was justifed in his judgment. As for a stay, it is not an acquittal but a temporary reprieve
While this may eventually be an issue for the Chief Justice of India to tackle, the burning issue for the West Bengal Chief Minister is to locate a scapegoat. A cursory reading of the Justice Bag report as also various orders of Justice Gangopadhyay indicate that Partha Chattopadhyay may have been caught with his defenses down. If it stops there, it will suit Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, the heir apparent. Abhishek himself is accused in many other scams but an easing out of one old guard will certainly be welcome. This will also help the Kolkata mayor and Mamata’s minority face Firhad Hakim. This might bring Firhad and Abhishek face to face in future, but today it is an issue which can be addressed once the present ghotala has its effective chara. Partha Chattopadhyay may need to shed some political weight as things stand now.
Will Partha Chattopadhyay accept being “bali ka bakra”?
Does he have any option? If he tries to pass on the blame to his leader it will not help. The evidence all point to him as education minister. For the state’s palace politics also, disposing of Partha on the issue of SSC scam is eminently suitable. This keeps the “Teflon” quoted image of the TMC supremo and her Spartan chappal wearing lifestyle untainted. Her new education minister then may dramatically release a new recruitment advertisement for SSC posts, offer olive branch to the petitioners and provide each one of striking candidates with most inconvenient posting and move over till a new issue takes the centre stage.
That something is in the offing was evident when Mamata Banerjee had a meeting with law minister Moloy Ghatak, lawyer and MP Kalyan Banerjee but not Partha Chattopadhyay. The four weeks grace will prove effective to set up an escape route.
A Partha here or there will not affect the popularity of the West Bengal Chief Minister. A bigger problem for her would be the investigation that has reached the “patient” lying at the Woodburn ward of Kolkata’s PG Hospital. It is doubtful if that person can be dispensed with a la Partha Chattopadhyay.
Author Sugato Hazra’s latest book is “Losing the Plot: The Political Isolation of Bengal”.