West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee suffered a huge setback on Friday as the Calcutta high court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into bribery allegations against top Trinamool Congress parliamentarians and ministers.
Acting chief justice Nishita Mhatre and justice T Chakraborty asked the CBI to complete a preliminary inquiry in 72 hours and file an FIR, if necessary. The allegations were first unearthed in a purported sting operation by web portal naradanews.com last year.
“The respondents hold high position. State police are mere puppets. I direct the CBI to conduct inquiry without delay,” the bench said. “This is a case where the jurisdiction of high court must be exercised.”
The probe sets the stage for fresh confrontation between Banerjee – who emerged as the fulcrum of anti-BJP protests over demonetisation – and the Centre. This is the third big scam – after the Saradha and Rose Valley scandals – that involves top Trinamool leaders.
The probe comes two years before the general elections and gives ample time for opposition parties in the state – the BJP, Congress or Left -- to gear up its machinery and leverage this issue against the Trinamool.
Banerjee, for her part, went on the offensive and called the entire episode a conspiracy hatched by the BJP. At a press conference in Kolkata hours later, she said her party would approach the Supreme Court against the order. “The entire matter is a grand conspiracy. The footage was also released from the BJP?office,” she said.
But despite her belligerent tone, the probe might also alter equations in Parliament where the Trinamool is likely to be more supportive of the government’s legislative agenda.
The Narada sting operation was aired just a fortnight before the 2016 West Bengal assembly elections and featured a dozen Trinamool leaders purportedly accepting cash from the representative of a fictitious company. Seven Lok Sabha MPs of the party, three top state ministers and the mayor of Kolkata were seen as taking money on behalf of the party.
The timing of the ‘expose’ triggered a torrent of allegations from Mamata Banerjee who described it as a conspiracy. The Central Forensic Science Laboratory has ruled that the videos were genuine.
But despite the criticism, Mamata won a sweeping victory in the assembly elections that followed. The Trinamool Congress is the fourth-largest party in the Lok Sabha and has a sizeable presence in the Rajya Sabha.
The Trinamool is already facing embarrassment over the imprisonment of two Lok Sabha MPs, Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Tapas Paul in connection with the Rose Valley scam that involves about Rs 15,000 crore -- six times larger than the Saradha scandal of 2013.
The Narada scam may see the CBI taking a few more MPs in custody, thereby depleting the Trinamool’s strength in Lok Sabha. The development also comes amid renewed Opposition efforts to stitch a pact against the BJP. Although Banerjee is personally not involved in any of the scam allegations, her image may also be affected as her close lieutenants have come under the CBI scanner.
The Mamata Banerjee government struck back at the CEO of naradanews.com, Mathew Samuel. Kolkata Police slapped criminal charges against him and summoned him for interrogation. But the court ruled that the police could not take steps against him as the matter was being heard.
The extent of the Narada sting allegations is far lower than Rose Valley or Saradha scandals, running into just a few lakhs in bribe offered. Banerjee also scoffed at this on Friday, saying “Such meagre amounts as Rs 1 lakh or 2 lakh do not matter at all. Look at UP and find out how much was spent there,” she said.
But unlike previous allegations, the sting purportedly captured top leaders and ministers accepting bribe on video, charges that might prove more difficult for the Trinamool Congress to fight off.