Barely three weeks before West Bengal begins to vote, what impact can the sting video aired by Narada News, purportedly showing nearly a dozen key Trinamool politicians taking bribes, have? While the party has questioned the authenticity and veracity of the video, calling it “doctored”, three different PILs were filed in Calcutta High Court on Wednesday, seeking an investigation by the CBI and Enforcement Directorate (ED). The BJP and Congress have been protesting in the streets, while TMC MPs have been facing off with belligerent CPM parliamentarians in the national capital. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has continued with her poll campaign, apparently unfazed by the ceaseless running of the tape on local TV, and the endless fodder for discussion that it is generating.
So, a sting video allegedly featuring TMC bigwigs is out. What happens next?
The key question is whether the tape is authentic. The Trinamool says it is “fake and manufactured”, and aimed at maligning the party and jeopardising its election prospects. The video was reportedly shot in 2014, and released at this specific time allegedly to damage the Trinamool Congress in the state Assembly polls. The opposition political parties, on the hand, have got an unexpected stick to beat the TMC with. The BJP state unit has been on the streets for the past two days, clashing with police, breaking laws, and courting arrest. It is playing the video on a large screen at its party office, and providing the feed to TV channels by special arrangement. For both the accusers and the deniers, Narada is the top election theme right now.
Is there a similarity between Narada and Saradha — the TMC’s other, rhyming, source of embarrassment?
Narada has the visual punch that Saradha never did — the pictures, even if, as Mukul Roy has claimed, were “manufactured”, have had a stunning effect. They have the potential to change the public’s impression about many who have been held in high esteem, including leaders like Prof Saugata Roy. Purely as a matter of strategy, the opposition will drag this as far as it can, holding rallies, protests, demonstrations, and ensuring that the video continues to be in circulation. The Saradha investigation is under way, and at least one character is common to both cases: the jailed minister Madan Mitra. But it is widely expected that for the government, battling Narada will be tougher than tackling Saradha.
How has Mamata Banerjee reacted to the video?
The Chief Minister was in North Bengal the day the video was released. At the first public meeting afterward, she made a mild reference to the video: “You cannot simply turn us into thieves and dacoits just on the eve of the polls. You will have to face the test of the ballot.” On Tuesday, she laid down the line the party should take in Parliament, public rallies, and elsewhere: “This is a blueprint (for targeting the TMC). Foreign money is involved in this. There are credibility issues with the man who is behind this operation. But we will not let it pass. We will demand a probe into the origin of the sting operation. We will get to the bottom of it. We will fight this lie politically,” she said. She is also insisting that the source of funding of the venture be probed.
What have the opposition parties achieved through their protests so far?
The only substantial gain that the opposition political parties have made since the release of the sting video is to obtain an assurance from the Election Commission of India on Tuesday that it would “examine” the video. The full bench of the Election Commission was in Kolkata the day after the video was released, and both the CPM and the BJP lodged their complaints with it, demanding a probe and suspension of the electoral process pending a full inquiry. The EC has not given a timeframe for examination of the videos.
What are the other options before the opposition?
Three PILs were filed in Calcutta High Court on Wednesday — one each by a state BJP functionary, a state Congress general secretary, and an RSS activist — seeking directions for a probe into the alleged scandal. All three cases are likely to be examined by a bench led by the Chief Justice on Friday. Interestingly, the Congress PIL was moved by Bikash Bhattacharya, the CPM lawyer. The Congress-CPM alliance in the polls seemed to be at work here as well. High Court sources said Mukul Roy had taken steps to seek an immediate stop to the telecast of the video, but withdrew the move later, indicating the party was gearing up for a political and electoral, rather than a court, battle.
Is there any scope for the CBI or other central investigative agencies to step in as in the case of Saradha?
The CBI moves most often in cases where government officials are involved. The Narada video features only one police officer who has purportedly been shown taking money on behalf of a politician. But he is in the state cadre, and it is only when the state government recommends a probe against him that the CBI can move in. The CBI can also move in if it is directed by the judiciary, as it happened in the case of Saradha.
Is there a parallel between this sting and the one over which Mamata Banerjee quit the NDA government?
Yes, that was in 2001, after an expose called Operation West End showed leaders accepting bribes from journalists posing as shady defence dealers. Mamata Banerjee walked out of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government and struck an alliance with the Congress ahead of the 2001 state Assembly polls. Incidentally, that sting operation, which felled the then BJP president Bangaru Laxman, too was carried out by Mathew Samuel, the man behind Narada. He was with Tehelka then.
CPM MPs have made a forceful case for a full fledged probe on the grounds that the sanctity and prestige of the House was involved. The Speaker has referred the matter to the Ethics Committee of Parliament.