Arvind Kejriwal permanently infected Indian politics when he used dharnas as a form of communication between governing bodies. For the news media, this is the sort of wild circus they can report on the hour and every hour, the stuff that dreams are made of. One would have hoped that these puerile practices would be contained strictly within the world of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Alas, we have a seasoned and seemingly established politician such as Mamata Banerjee use the very pitiful ploy of a sit-in protest in objection to the CBI’s attempt to question—yes, merely question—the Kolkata police chief Rajeev Kumar in connection with the Saradha and Narada Ponzi scams. Upon instructions from the state government, the West Bengal police detained the CBI officers before they could question Kumar. We thus have the prime national investigative agency at loggerheads with the law enforcement machinery of a state, the person of interest being Kolkata’s senior-most police official.
Investigations of these Ponzi scams had been set up by the UPA government back in 2013. They even granted investigating bodies powers to search and seize without prior magisterial permission to investigate illegal money collection schemes. Rajeev Kumar had once headed an SIT that was set up by the West Bengal government to investigate the Ponzi scheme, but there were allegations of destruction of evidence. CBI sources have claimed this evidence “holds the key to connecting these scams to influential persons” in West Bengal and beyond. In May 2014, before Narendra Modi was even sworn in as PM, the Supreme Court ordered a CBI probe into the Ponzi scheme that defrauded millions of regular people in West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, and Orissa. Recently Rajeev Kumar was summoned by the CBI for questioning in the ongoing investigations, but he failed to respond to this summons also went “missing”.
But CM Banerjee proclaims that this was an example of democracy in deep peril, that this was a coup attempt and that the central government under PM Modi had ordered the inquiry. The protest continued all through the night, with the chief minister skipping her meals, remaining on her provisional dais along her party members. Members of the Mahagathbandhan—some of whom have been convicted and accused in scams themselves—began their collective wailing about the “death of democracy”.
This isn’t the first instance of acute paranoia and amateur theatrics on Mamata Banerjee’s part. Back in 2016, she had alleged that the Army was planning a coup in her state. It turned out to be a routine exercise which the West Bengal police was informed about.
In the past, law enforcement from the Centre has questioned individuals in another state. It has to be remembered that the then CM Modi was grilled by the SIT for about nine hours but we didn’t see any such attempt to bring the state to a standstill.
Even if one does accept Mamata’s premise that the Centre is misusing the CBI to target her state and eventually her, sitting on a dharna and bringing the capital of her state to a halt makes her look weak and irrational. She had a myriad of options before her to prevent injustice from occurring. West Bengal could have appealed to the courts to restrain and even block the CBI. There have been several instances of the courts decreeing judgments against the central governments. A formal protest could have been launched in Parliament which is currently in session.
Is Mamata Banerjee the paragon of democracy herself such that she can protest against others? During her tenure as CM, West Bengal witnessed a series of attacks, brutal murders and intimidation of RSS and BJP workers. Also on her watch, during the panchayat elections, non-TMC candidates were blocked from contesting elections using violence and intimidation, resulting in TMC candidates being elected unopposed in 34 per cent seats. The same panchayat elections had 13 people dead, around 50 injured and instances of bomb attacks, booth capturing, ballot boxes set on fire, and attacks on journalists.
There have been several instances of threats and violence against journalists in the state. She had prevented CM Yogi Adityanath from entering West Bengal and the same treatment was meted out to BJP chief Amit Shah. She had also prevented the BJP from carrying out rath yatras in her kingdom. She also prevented Durga Visarjan when it coincided with Muharram, despite this happening for years and peacefully. In a gesture that can only be termed as petty, the West Bengal CM pulled out of Ayushman Bharat which would only have benefited the underprivileged in her state.
But beyond Banerjee’s blatant hypocrisy and the unintended irony, what could she possibly desire to achieve by this outrageous display? The recent campaign rallies of PM Modi and Amit Shah drew huge crowds. There are also reports of former TMC and current BJP leader Mukul Roy making inroads into TMC bastions. It is possible Mamata may have been sensing fractures in her once impregnable fortress.
The drum-beating about the end of democracy pits the Centre against her in a David versus Goliath sort of struggle. Setting yourself as an underdog against a seemingly sinister and powerful single enemy has always been a reliable way to rile up and unify your base. This display has successfully dislodged Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka from the national headlines. If this continues, she may manage to push the narrative of Mamata Vs Modi rather than the current Rahul/Priyanka Vs Modi. In her mind, this brings her closer to her ambition of becoming prime minister. It has to be remembered that West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha seats.
By sitting in protest and projecting chaos, the CM may be setting a trap for the central government to compel them to declare President’s rule and dissolve her government. She can then undo any gains made by the BJP and claim victimhood with real proof. She could perhaps hope that the Lok Sabha and State elections are held simultaneously and then position herself as the last hope for Bengali pride against the “sinister forces of fascism” at the Centre.
For the BJP to sustain in this contest, it is essential that the central government and the various agencies act with the utmost restraint and conduct their investigations with discipline and strictly by the law. They have nothing to lose in their contest in West Bengal. Even a small gain will help them in this very crucial contest of 2019 and if things go really well, they may just win the big prize.
In all this political skulduggery, the hapless citizen has been relegated to the background. This citizen who hopes to be served and protected is now compelled to witness petulant behaviour and petty squabbles between governing bodies. But the parties involved must not forget that the citizen is keenly monitoring their every move with a magnifying lens, and in just a few months, this very citizen will decide their future.