A purported sting operation by a news website allegedly caught key Trinamool Congress leaders taking bribes, igniting a wave of condemnation by rival parties ahead of the West Bengal assembly polls that begin next month.
The media group says the footage released on Monday shows top leaders from the party such as Lok Sabha MPs Saugata Roy and Sultan Ahmed, West Bengal minister Subrata Mukherjee and Kolkata mayor Shovan Chatterjee accepting bundles of cash to lobby for a fictitious firm.
But the sting– conducted over two years by naradanews.com – doesn’t name or refer to party chairperson and chief minister Mamata Banerjee. HT could not independently verify the authenticity of the tape.
The video sparked verbal sniping between parties days ahead of the six-phase polls where the Trinamool Congress will fight a probable Left-Congress combine and a spirited BJP determined to improve on an impressive Lok Sabha performance. Opposition leaders demanded that the elections be postponed until the matter is investigated.
“Mamata Banerjee must step down immediately. She has no business to remain the chief minister even for the few days before the elections,” said BJP national secretary Sidharth Nath Singh, adding that his party has also written to the CBI director for an investigation.
Senior Congress leader Manas Bhunia said the party will approach the Election Commission to bar those allegedly shown in the video from the polls.
“It is shameful that this party is still in power,” said CPI(M) state secretary Suryakanta Mishra at a rally. “They have looted thousands of crores of people’s money. The ECI (poll panel) should look into the matter.”
But Trinamool spokesperson Derek O’Brien and Rajya Sabha MP Mukul Roy called the video doctored and part of a political conspiracy.
“We are a transparent party.... We will take legal action,” O’Brien said.
Speaking at a rally in north Bengal, Banerjee didn’t directly refer to the sting but said a “smear campaign” to paint Trinamool leaders as “thieves” will not work.
Mathew Samuel, the editor of naradanews.com, said in Delhi the operation began before the 2014 general elections and ended in January.
“We floated a fictitious firm called Impex consultancy and approached all these leaders asking for help in several fictitious projects,” he said.
The video purportedly shows 11 Trinamool leaders and a police officer accepting Rs 73 lakh.
Party vice-president and key strategist Mukul Roy is not seen taking any money.
Samuel said he spent close to Rs 85 lakh in bribing Trinamool leaders and the cash came from NRI businessmen from Kerala.
Asked why the tape was released right before the assembly polls, he said the operation concluded recently and denied any motive behind the expose.
Before founding the website last month, Samuel was the managing editor of Tehelka and was the man behind the magazine’s biggest investigation, Operation West End, that purportedly showed then BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting bribes. Laxman had to resign and spent four years in jail in the defence deal corruption case.