The Trinamool Congress, ordering a belated probe almost a month after the controversial Narada sting videos were made public after continuously and vehemently dismissing them as "doctored", is the clearest indication yet that the 2016 West Bengal Assembly polls will be as thrilling as the recently concluded T20 World Cup.
That after much hand-wringing and playing the victim card, the ruling TMC has finally ordered an "internal investigation" into the videos which show 12 senior leaders of the party accepting wads of cash as bribe is a huge climbdown from TMC's earlier stance and is being interpreted as a tacit admission of the sting's authenticity.
The "probe", announced by the party's general secretary Partha Chatterjee on Saturday, also reflects the ruling party's confidence level which has taken a Ben Stokes-like thrashing, the poor England bowler who was ruthlessly dispatched for four straight sixes in the final of T20 World Cup by Carlos Brathwaite of the West Indies.
When the sting operation conducted by Mathew Samuel and Angel Abraham of Narada News erupted on 14 March, the Left and Congress were yet to formalise their alliance, the Vivekananda Road flyover in Kolkata was still in place and TMC was riding high on confidence like Bangladesh before their stunning brain implosion against India.
Seemingly burning with indignation, national spokesperson Derek O'Brien appeared in a Facebook video that very Monday and blasted his political opponents, proclaiming TMC as a lily white party untouched by corruption. He also said the video was laughably inaccurate and a rather poor attempt at smear campaign.
"I've had a look of the video, the so-called sting operation. Where these videos came from, who doctored these videos, who will now put a defamation case, we are not bothered. We're all busy with elections now, so whoever has tried to concoct this smear campaign, well please go ahead and concoct your doctored videos. The TMC's credentials are absolutely unquestionable and impeccable. People in West Bengal know better," he said.
"To all our political opponents, you know you can't defeat us politically so you try and create a cheap tricks department… and try and do all this. This is at best a minor distraction on Monday morning," added O'Brien.
TMC's initial, knee-jerk reaction was to brazen it out. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during an interview to a TV channel on 22 March reiterated the charge, threatening even to resign if anyone can level corruption charges against her.
"These are doctored videos. I won't say anything about the (parliamentary) ethics committee. Our MP Kalyan Banerjee will speak about it. I will only say these videos were made before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Now it is 2016. These videos were made for political purpose. It is a political vendetta. It will not have any impact…"
"If any businessman from Bengal or all over the world can say that we have taken money in lieu of the work done, I will resign tomorrow," she was quoted as saying in a Firstpost report.
This line was assiduously maintained at several public rallies but it was becoming increasingly clear that the 'sting' was still stinging. What's more, the collapse of the flyover on 31 March when 28 people were killed and several others injured brought to the fore the ruling party's nexus with the "syndicate" and suddenly, corruption became a poll plank. Needless to say, the TMC found it decidedly uncomfortable. The "minor distraction" as O'Brien put it, was becoming a major headache.
Visuals are more powerful than words. Specially in a poll season. With local TV channels showing the sting videos in loop and clarifications of "doctored" falling short, the party changed tack. Senior TMC leaders such as Kalyan Banerjee and Chandrima Bhattacharya, state minister of law, judicial affairs and health, argued that money changing hands doesn't necessarily mean it is bribery.
“Even if I agree to the fact of agreement that money was taken, yet does not mean that the objective was bribe. There is a lot of difference between taking bribe and receiving donation”, said Bhattacharya.
The ruling party toyed with the donation idea but it is hard to explain technicalities to people when videos show under-the-table transactions. Besides, the Opposition parties asked, if indeed these were donations, where are the receipts?
The shots were fired in rapid succession by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi who landed in the state and raked up the Sarada, Narada and syndicate angle. TMC was rapidly being painted by the rivals as a "corrupted party" and Mamata Banerjee was hurting. Her public rally in Durgapur on 6 April made it clear.
“You tell me, when people are shown in video footage taking Rs one lakh, Rs two lakh, Rs 50, that is wrong. And what about those who have looted thousands of crores and are now indulging in blackmail?", The Financial Express quoted her, as saying.
Predictably, this was interpreted as a tacit admission of the scandal leading the Chief Minister to fire the final salvo. In a rally the day after, she put her entire political capital on line, announcing herself as a candidate in all 294 seats and asking people to judge her, chastise her, admonish her but not to turn against her party.
There is little in the TMC besides Mamata and she sought to drive the point home, trying to bring the focus back on herself.
"I am at fault. I am taking responsibility for all the errors. You can be angry with me but do not deprive Trinamool Congress of your blessings. Otherwise it will be difficult for me to move ahead," Mamata said in Asansol.
The tide was turning.
The announcement of the probe, therefore, is a belated but last-ditch attempt at silencing the rivals and taking the sting off the stings (another installment appeared on Saturday). But no one is convinced, least of all the opposition.
"First she remained quiet and tried to wish it away. Then she realised this isn't working. Then she accused everyone else. Now the party which is under scanner for graft will itself carry out a probe. This is laughable," CPM MP Mohammad Salim told Firstpost on Sunday.
BJP's national secretary and the party's minder in West Bengal, Siddharth Nath Singh, told Firstpost on Sunday that "the internal probe is a complete eyewash. It is an obvious attempt at cover-up and nothing will come off it."
The TMC's reaction to the stings so far reflects a confused approach. The latest announcement will do very little to dissipate the notion that the party is woefully short of answers to the questions that are being posed against them.