“You have to arrest me if you have arrested them.” When the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) last year arrested two West Bengal government ministers, a Trinamool Congress (TMC) MLA, and a leader once associated with the party, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee rushed to the central agency’s office in Kolkata and began a sit-in that lasted six hours. According to TMC leaders who were present there with her, Banerjee demanded the unconditional release of the four, held in connection with the Narada bribery case, and asked the central agency to arrest her too if it could not let them go.
But, no such protest or show of solidarity has been forthcoming for Partha Chatterjee. That the ruling party had decided to wait and watch the turns in the Enforcement Directorate (ED) investigation into the alleged school recruitment scam was apparent when the state Industries minister, while leaving the ESI Hospital in Joka on Saturday after a medical examination, was asked if he had tried to contact Banerjee. “I tried but could not get through,” he responded as the ED whisked him away.
The lack of any street protests by the TMC or statements from the CM is more striking considering that in 2019 Banerjee sat on a dharna (sit-in) for two days in the city’s Esplanade area to protest against the CBI’s attempts to arrest then Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar in connection with the Saradha chit fund scam. She had hit out at the BJP-led Central government in 2017 when TMC MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay was arrested in the Rose Valley chit fund case. TMC MPs and other leaders had also protested three years earlier when Madan Mitra, among the four leaders the CBI arrested last year, was taken into custody by the central agency in connection with the Saradha case.
A senior TMC leader said the optics of the ED investigation into the alleged school recruitment scam was worse as the agency claimed to have recovered Rs 21.2 crore unaccounted cash in bundles, foreign currency, ornaments and property papers from the apartment of Chatterjee’s close associate Arpita Mukherjee in the city’s Tollygunge area. Mukherjee, who is a model and an actor, has also been arrested. Following the raid at Mukherjee’s home, the ED tweeted a photo of heaps of cash.
“It is a great embarrassment for the party,” said the senior TMC functionary. “Previously, when party leaders were arrested by the ED or the CBI, our leadership always stood beside them. But, this time the recovery of huge sum of money has put the party on the back foot. Just the day before (the raids), at the mega Shaheed Diwas rally, Abhishek Banerjee told party workers that there was no space for corrupt leaders in the TMC. Within 48 hours, how could the party have stood beside a leader who was arrested after the recovery of more than Rs 20 crore from his close aide’s flat?”
The TMC’s response, though subdued, has not involved adopting a strategy of leaving Chatterjee to completely fend for himself. Party spokesperson Kunal Ghosh on Sunday demanded a time-bound probe into the ED’s case against the senior minister and claimed that Arpita Mukherjee had nothing to do with the ruling party.
“The party demands time-bound investigation in the case,” Ghosh told reporters, maintaining that central agencies’ probes in some cases had been going on for several years. He pointed out that the CBI had been investigating the Saradha case since 2014 while the Narada case, which unfolded ahead of the 2016 elections, had yet to reach any conclusion.
Such delays were not acceptable, the spokesperson said, adding that the TMC’s rivals would “use it as a tool to cast aspersions” on the party. “If the ED produces any proof of its allegations and the court accepts it, the TMC and the government will initiate steps against any leader, however big he may be.”
Asked about Mukherjee, the TMC leader said, “We have got the ED version … money has been recovered. We are clearly saying the TMC has no relation with this money. The person from whose residence this has been recovered is not from the TMC.”
Opposition parties lashed out at the TMC over Chatterjee’s arrest and dismissed its claims that it would take action against anyone found guilty. “This is all a drama by the TMC. People know what links Partha Chatterjee has with Mamata Banerjee,” said CPI(M) MP Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya.
BJP Information Technology Cell chief and the party’s Bengal co-in-charge Amit Malviya said, “Nothing else explains Mamata Banerjee’s silence on Partha Chatterjee, her close confidant, now in jail, except an admission of the crime. She had hit the road to defend a police officer. Mamata may be trying to distance herself from Partha but their association is well known.”
Partha Chatterjee was the state education minister when the alleged scam occurred. He is considered one of Mamata Banerjee’s trusted lieutenants and the TMC’s chief crisis manager. When Banerjee formed the TMC in 1998, he left his corporate job to join her and became one of her top three advisors along with Mukul Roy and Subrata Bakshi. This is not the first time, the CM has seemingly shut him out. In 2013, Chatterjee lost the industries portfolio after it became apparent that the state administration would not be able to divest its 40 per cent stake in Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd because of a spat between the co-promoters of the polymer manufacturer. But he was back in Banerjee’s good books three years later.