The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has once again proven right the epithet given to it by a hallowed member of the judiciary: "caged parrot". An exact two weeks ago, the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) won a third thumping victory in the Bengal Assembly election. The state went into lockdown three days ago, with 20,000 infections and close to 200 daily deaths.
Despite this dire situation, the CBI, with platoons of central forces in tow, swooped in to arrest two cabinet ministers (Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee) and a sitting legislator (Madan Mitra), all belonging to the TMC. It also arrested Sobhan Chatterjee (a former TMC minister who joined the BJP and left it). The arrests follow allegations that they accepted bribes six years ago, as revealed in the Narada sting operation.
Let us take up the morality of the issue first. Corruption in public offices must be opposed tooth-and-nail. To ask for or accept bribes (the amount in question is around Rs.4-6 lakhs in cash per person) to help an entrepreneur start a business is also legally wrong. There is no way to condone such an act.
Yet, the pandemic is the worst India has seen in a century. Its more destructive attack has been on for 45 days. Bengal had 600 cases a day before the campaigns, which climbed to around 16,000 when elections ended on 29 April. Now, roughly two weeks later, it is at 20,000 cases a day. This unfortunate lockdown will have to last till at least the end of May. It means extreme hardships for almost half the state population: those employed in the unorganised sector or jobless.
Vaccination has not touched even one in 10 adults so far, so how is a six-year-old case the top priority of this central government?
Also, the FIR on this sting named the BJP Leader of Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, and the BJP national vice president and MLA Mukul Roy. Neither has been arrested yet. Even the man who conducted the sting operation, Mathew Samuel, has expressed surprise about the arrests, which come three election cycles after the FIR was registered, and about the two BJP leaders not being arrested.
Now let us look at the legal angles. In case of action against a sitting MLA, the Assembly Speaker must be kept informed. Speaker Biman Bandopadhyay has denied his approval was taken. Permission to prosecute ministers must come from the state governor, who takes the chief minister into confidence. Governor Jagdish Dhankad, widely known to have pro-BJP leanings and for misusing his constitutional position, had permitted this after the Assembly election results were out. (It explains why people see a clear political motive behind the arrests). Even the Chief Minister was in the dark until the arrests took place. Further, the sting videos did not show the arrested persons demanding bribes. They showed the sting operator handing over cash, apparently for political expenses. Put another way, the alleged crimes still need to be proven in a court of law.
A Special CBI Judge gave the arrestees interim bail on the date of their arrest. Yet, the CBI put up the case before the High Court within an hour. On 16 May, a bench of acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal and Justice Arijit Banerjee stayed their bail and sent them to Presidency Jail, fixing their next hearing for 18 May. The entire process lasted a few hours in a nation where lakhs of pending cases never get a hearing. This haste also makes this matter reek of bias and vendetta. In law, bail is the rule, jail the exception. The High Court also frowned upon the dharna staged by the Chief Minister and her ministers at the CBI office in Nizam Palace in Kolkata, where some 2,000 protesters created a ruckus.
Bengal went through a bitter election campaign that lasted over two months. Then came an eight-phase voting schedule, unprecedented for it lasted over a month. All this while, the second surge of Covid-19 cases began across most parts of the country. The election in Bengal ended with the defeat of the BJP and a better-than-past performance by the TMC. The latter won 213 of 294 seats (elections for two constituencies were countermanded due to the death of the candidates). The Prime Minister held 21 public meetings, and the Home Minister led 52, apart from BJP chief ministers and central ministers, who campaigned or were candidates.
All Opposition parties alleged widespread misuse of the central forces to influence the polls. They dubbed the Election Commission as a lackey of the ruling party too. After expending massive financial resources on the election, the BJP finds it hard to accept its defeat. Thus, the results have led to even more bitter political strife between the BJP and the TMC. Now, conflicts have become commonplace after every major election in Bengal. Around 17 people were killed, including ten allegedly from the BJP and seven (allegedly) from the TMC, according to the police. More than 50 offices and homes of those associated with both outfits were looted or burnt. This happened in the first few days after the results were out, during which Banerjee led a caretaker government in the state, and the central forces were still in Bengal.
The BJP tried desperately to paint the picture of a Hindu-Muslim conflict taking place in Bengal. Its IT troll machinery peddled fake videos of past events and even from other nations (Bangladesh) to send this message. Having failed in its mission to sow the seeds of discord, the Mamata government finally assumed office, and Governor Dhankad went for a trip to Coochbehar and Nandigram, where the recent violence had occurred. However, he visited only the homes of killed or looted BJP workers. There was a clear attempt to put the Mamata administrative on the spot, within two to five days of its assuming office. The Governor faced black flags from TMC workers everywhere he went.
Now comes the third tactic—the arrests of leaders named in the Narada case (barring the two who have joined the BJP). With the High Court stay on their bail, the issue has the potential to simmer on indefinitely. Bengal, where violent political expressions and conflicts are not unknown, may now see BJP-TMC conflicts erupt in several districts. There may be greater social chaos--and Covid-19 infections, already on the rise, may leap further.
Is it a coincidence that the BJP has been calling for President’s Rule in the state ever since its defeat? It certainly seems to be the goal of the rulers at the Centre to disrupt life and law and order in the state. However, if Article 356 gets imposed, it may galvanize the street-fighter in Banerjee. She may think it best to move fast and bring together the 12 Opposition parties she is closely in touch with. She had written to them against the Centre’s designs to scuttle democracy after the Delhi government’s wings were clipped last month, in the middle of the elections. Leaders of some parties had pledged support to her at the time. Note that some 36 state and district leaders of the Tripura BJP have already joined the TMC, and Mamata plans to visit Agartala early in June.
Hence, politically, the arrest of TMC leaders is an ill-advised step. The leaders can expect to get bail in the High Court at some point. Therefore, the BJP may not get the dividends it expects from the matter. It is on a rampage, for it refuses to accept a bitter defeat at the hands of the state’s voters, and is thrashing about for a way to energise its defeated cadres. Most importantly, it has to distract the nation from the corpses in the Ganga, failure to vaccinate the population and paralysis concerning anything related to managing the pandemic.
The writer is an academic and columnist. The views are personal.