The Trinamool Congress has taken to the streets, this time to protest the arrest of Madan Mitra, West Bengal transport minister, in the Rs 2,000-crore Saradha scam. Leading the Trinamool cadres and exhorting them to target the CBI, which made the arrest on Friday, was Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. With supporters of the ruling party nearly disrupting proceedings at the CBI court where Mitra was produced last week, prompting a former Supreme Court judge to seek the high court’s intervention, the question has reared its head once again: how appropriate is it for a chief minister, who, ironically, also holds the home portfolio, to launch street protests and accuse a Central agency of partisanship in an ongoing investigation?
The Saradha case features a Ponzi scheme in which an estimated 1.7 million people stand to lose money. If the CBI has evidence to link senior Trinamool leaders, including ministers and MPs, to the scam, it must be allowed to proceed against them. If the party is convinced of their innocence, it must defend its accused leaders in court and not on the streets. By all accounts, Banerjee doesn’t seem to realise that her commitment as a chief minister has to be primarily, and above all, to the people of West Bengal, among whom are those allegedly defrauded by the Saradha group. The sight of her defending accused colleagues in public and hurling unsubstantiated charges of political blackmail at the Centre and the CBI does her cultivated image of being the people’s politician no good. Bengal voted her to office because she promised “pariborton”, and that change included a shift from the politics of patronage and cronyism that the CPM had come to represent in West Bengal. But the TMC seems to have succumbed to the CPM way. Not only does Banerjee repeatedly appear to prioritise the concerns of her party over those of the people, she also resorts to street protests, inviting suspicions that they are an instrument to cover up failures on the governance front.
Of course, much of Banerjee’s anxiety about Trinamool leaders on the CBI radar stems from the rise of the BJP in West Bengal. The leap in the BJP vote share in the state and fears that it is weaning significant sections of Left and Trinamool supporters lie behind Banerjee’s haste in spotting a BJP-Modi conspiracy in the Saradha probe. But the political challenge posed by the BJP’s rise in Bengal must be fought politically. Being seen as a patron of politicians accused of corruption is unlikely to help Banerjee in the battle against the BJP.