Make no mistake, Election Commission's decision to remove Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar just two and a half months into his job, is a huge loss of face for the Mamata Banerjee government.
While the focus is on the manner in which Kumar was unceremoniously removed in the middle of the ongoing six-phase Assembly election in the state, what's equally interesting is the manner in which his successor, Soumen Mitra, was appointed.
Article 324 of the Indian Constitution empowers the Election Commission of India with the "superintendence, direction and control" over the election process and the panel enjoys absolute right to appoint and transfer officers on poll duty, as it deems fit.
In the run up to the 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal — the first phase of which got over on Monday — the ECI has already shunted 38 officials including three IAS and five IPS officers. Even so, city Police Commissioner enjoys the highest profile; removing him and more importantly, appointing someone else in his place usually involves some amount of data transfer with the incumbent government.
However, far from choosing an officer from a panel of three names forwarded by the state government, or on basis of seniority, as has been past practice, the Election Commission on Tuesday sought no recommendations from the Trinamool Congress government. The poll panel kept Nabanna, the administrative headquarters, totally in the dark as it proceeded to appoint additional director-general Mitra as the commissioner by technically bypassing 11 IPS officers of ADG rank.
Quoting an officer who has handled electioneering in the past, The Telegraphreported that Mitra's choice was a novel exception. "It could be because of his image that he refuses to toe the line set by the ruling party," he said.
Interestingly, when Kolkata Police Commissioner's post fell vacant this year after incumbent Surajit Kar Purakayastha had to leave the chair ahead of the Assembly polls having served a three-year term as the top cop, the TMC government chose Kumar — a 1989-batch IPS officer — as his replacement on 29 January, superseding Mitra who was a year senior to him.
Taken together, the unceremonious sacking of an officer deemed too close to the establishment and appointment of another who is not known to kowtow before powers-that-be reflect Election Commission's stunning and complete lack of trust in the Mamata Banerjee government ahead of the crucial fourth and fifth phases on 25 and 30 April when will queue up to exercise their democratic rights.
The moves are also an indication that Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi has taken cognisance of the mountain of charges that had piled up against Kumar, who now holds the record for Kolkata's shortest-serving Police Commissioner.
"Better late than never," CPM MP and politburo member Mohammad Salim told Firstpost on Wednesday morning.
"We had long demanded the removal of officers like Kumar who take their orders from Kalighat (Mamata Banerjee's residence) instead of following the rulebook or EC. The move is of course a loss of face for the TMC government," he said.
"This shows the devaluation of the Police Commissioner's role under the TMC government and proves the Election Commission does not believe that the officer will remain neutral. It says enough about what the people have to deal with at the lower levels of administration" he added.
The CPM leader, however, isn't satisfied with just Kumar's removal.
"With Birbhum going to polls on Sunday we also demand that the EC remove the superintendent of police who has been doing nothing as TMC district president Anubrata Mondal goes about openly threatening our party workers," he said.
Though the Election Commission didn't spell out the reasons behind its move, Kumar's removal had long been a subject of intense speculation in local media. A thoroughly competent officer, who showed his investigative acumen as DIG-CID during the Ranaghat nun-rape investigation, Kumar simultaneously entered the good books of the administration and invited the wrath of the Opposition during his tenure as Bidhannagar Police Commissioner. It was during this period when it was alleged that under Kumar's leadership, police were deliberately going slow in the multi-crore Saradha chit fund scam in which several top Trinamool Congress leaders were arrested or interrogated by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate.
Saradha chit fund office was in Bidhannagar, an area which fell under Kumar's jurisdiction. Among the many allegations leveled against Kumar, the Opposition charged the former Bidhannagar CP of destroying facts and making it difficult for CBI to handle the investigation and piece together the case in court. It was also alleged that Kumar had wiped out crucial evidence that could nail a few TMC leaders and removed important documents from Saradha chief Sudipto Sen’s bank locker.
But the most explosive charge against Kumar came on 29 March when the Kolkata Police Commissioner's name got tangled in a 'reverse sting' operation.
Close on the heels of the now-infamous Narada videos that embroiled several TMC leaders, the failed sting — which involved two Kolkata Police Special Branch officers approach Rahul Sinha, BJP's former state unit chief, in the party's city office and allegedly offer money for smuggling cattle across Bangladesh — landed as the proverbial egg on the face of the administration and as the top cop, Kumar took the most heat.
BJP charged the government of sponsoring a sting to counter the Narada damage. The Left front and Congress also joined the outrage.
In the memorandum against Rajeev Kumar, the BJP alleged, "This clearly appears to be a government-sponsored conspiracy towards a failed sting operation to discredit BJP. Apparently this heinous and reckless conspiracy was attempted by the ruling party to divert attention from Narada scam." An FIR was lodged against the two policemen, ASI Subasis Roy Chowdhury and constable Aminul Rahman, who were released later. The two men were identified as officers of the SB.
The sword of Damocles was hanging over Kumar ever since but the collapse of the Vivekananda Road flyover on 31 March and the T20 World Cup final at Eden Gardens only delayed the inevitable. In the game of one-upmanship, however, the last word on this pantomime over the Kolkata CP's chair hasn't been heard yet.
There is every chance that if the TMC returns to power on 19 May, Mamata Banerjee may yet bring Kumar back as the top cop just to prove a point to the Election Commission. If that happens, another inglorious chapter will be added in the annals of Bengal politics.