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Mamata vs CBI: Is Bengal chief minister really 'saving democracy' or undermining it to save her political career?

Let's cut through the clutter of debates and noise. Mamata Banerjee has accused the Centre of attempting a "constitutional coup" against the West Bengal government and has sat on an "indefinite dharna" ostensibly against the "Gabbar-style" attitude of the CBI and the Narendra Modi government. This reference to "Gabbar" — the reel bandit from the iconic film Sholay — tells us a lot about Mamata's style of politics and her calculation behind the dharna, which she has meaningfully termed a "Satyagraha". More on that later.

What we should concentrate on is the use of terms such as "constitutional crisis", "attempt at coup", "democracy in danger", "worse than the Emergency" and "Super Emergency". These are some of the words used by a furious West Bengal chief minister who took umbrage at the CBI officers landing up at the home of Kolkata's top cop. One of the more serious charges Mamata levelled against the Centre was that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was "giving instructions" to the CBI and the prime minister "to take action against Trinamool Congress leaders and policemen", and that a "secret meeting" took place at Modi's home recently where the prime minister apparently urged the officers to "do something!"

According to the Bengal chief minister, the CBI is working at the behest of Doval and Modi, and the agency's attempt to question Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar at his house on Sunday in connection with chit fund scams is part of the Centre's larger plan to "forcibly destroy Bengal". The prime minister, she claimed, was restoring to these desperate measures because he had understood that his time is up and he was now trying to intimidate her and the people of the state by misusing the CBI.

 Mamata vs CBI: Is Bengal chief minister really saving democracy or undermining it to save her political career?

Mamata Banerjee at the United India Rally in Kolkata. Twitter/TMC

As CBI officers had turned up at the doorstep of the "world's best cop" "unannounced" and "without any search warrant", Mamata was forced to step in to protect "her forces" and "save democracy" through a "Satyagraha dharna".

Incidentally, the Election Commission had removed Kumar from the post on 12 April, 2016, ahead of the West Bengal Assembly polls under pressure from Opposition parties who had accused him of being partial and a "TMC stooge".

The allegations against Kumar — who had led the West Bengal Police investigation into the Saradha chit fund scam as the chief of the Bidhan Nagar Police in 2014 — include that he had destroyed crucial evidence and made it difficult for the CBI to nail the culprits in the case. It was alleged that there was enough evidence to nab a few top TMC leaders.

The Election Commission removed Kumar, but Mamata reinstated her trusted cop immediately after being voted back to power. Kumar, a 1989-batch IPS officer of West Bengal and the current Commissioner of Police, was seen sharing the dais with Mamata on Sunday when she started the dharna.

It is not clear where Mamata learned that Doval and Modi were orchestrating the CBI operation. She didn't provide any proof beyond claiming that she is "in possession of such information".

M Nageshwar Rao, the interim CBI chief, told the media on Sunday that the CBI investigation against Kumar in connection with the Saradha scam was being carried out on the Supreme Court's order, and the agency does not need any permission (under Section 156 (1) of Code of Criminal Procedure that empowers central investigative agencies to act without a warrant from the magistrate) from the state government to carry out its job. Rao said Kolkata's top cop was a suspect in the case and has been refusing to cooperate with the CBI and impeding investigation into the chit fund scams.

As the chief of the state's Special Investigation Team (SIT) that looked into the Saradha, Rose Valley and other chit fund scams, Kumar's position was sensitive. Rao said the Kolkata police commissioner had not been cooperating with the investigation for the "past 2-3 years", and his policemen had been harassing CBI officers in various ways during this period.

"Kumar is a suspect as there were irregularities in the investigation conducted by the West Bengal SIT. Our team had gone to his house on Sunday to record his statement, but they were taken away by the police. In fact, I have been told that civilians have surrounded the Salt Lake and Nizam Palace offices of the CBI, as well as the residence of Joint Director Pankaj Srivastava. They are banging his doors," the interim CBI chief, according to reports.

Rao is apprehensive that crucial evidence in the case may be, or have been, destroyed.

On the Bengal chief minister's allegation that the CBI had turned up at Kumar's doorstep unannounced, Rao claimed the CBI had "informed the West Bengal Police on Sunday before going to Rajeev Kumar's house" and had also written to the Chief Minister's Office seeking permission. The CBI officers, who were detained briefly by the Kolkata Police and taken to the Shakespeare Sarani Police Station, were seen brandishing documents before the camera to support their claim. A report in The Indian Express, quoting a CBI source, claimed that the CBI had summoned Kumar "earlier to talk to him regarding chit fund investigation. He, however, failed to turn up. That is why our team went to his residence to talk to him and record his statement." When the CBI team reached Kumar's house, the officers were surrounded by the police, dragged into a police jeep and taken to the police station. The Kolkata Police claimed that the CBI had come with no documents or warrants. Media reports say otherwise.

The basis of Mamata's charge is not clear. The CBI was acting under instructions from the Supreme Court. By obstructing the CBI officers from doing their job, it is the state government and its police force that are seemingly impeding a court-directed investigation into chit fund scams that defrauded Bengal residents of lakhs of crores. Therefore, if anyone is obstructing justice and not letting a judiciary-backed probe to be carried out, it appears to be the West Bengal government. Mamata's allegation seems not only baseless but pure theatrics aimed at obfuscating the state's heavy-handed approach.

Mamata's second charge is that the CBI had appeared unannounced at Kumar's doorstep. There are two different versions here. The CBI said it had summoned the top cop, requested permission from the Chief Minister's Office and had the relevant documents with them when they had reached Kumar's house even though, according to the interim CBI chief, it does not need permission from the state government. The West Bengal government counters this.

In 2010, the CBI had arrested Amit Shah, then a minister in Narendra Modi's Gujarat cabinet, and sent him to jail in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. Shah, in reply to a reporter's query during his arrest, had said: "There is no need to drag the chief minister into this issue."

Modi has sought to make political gains out of Mamata's decision to "ban" the CBI from entering the state, pointing out at several recent rallies that as the Gujarat chief minister, even when he was questioned and investigated, he had never decided to "ban the CBI" since he had nothing to hide.

Mamata's high-octane drama might be a ploy to ramp up political support, but the optics of a chief minister rushing to "protect" a police officer from being investigated by the CBI and that officer later sharing a political stage with her send the wrong message and do little to back Mamata's claim that she is "saving democracy".

"I am ready to die, but I am not ready to bow down before the Modi government. We won't allow the imposition of another Emergency... Please save India, save democracy, save the Constitution," Mamata thundered at an impromptu press conference called hurriedly on Sunday night. These dramatic words and references to popular movies and Mahatma Gandhi's 'Satyagraha' struggle are the chief minister's attempt to shift the investigation onto a political turf where she is more comfortable and confident. Ever the street fighter, Mamata knows how to use emotive phrases and melodrama to shore up political and mass support.

The entire dharna — made for a TV audience that may lap up the pictures of a chief minister on a 'Satyagraha' trying to "protect democracy" — is expected to solidify masses behind her and draw sympathetic support from Opposition leaders, many of whom since have joined ranks. Mamata knows she may technically be on a weak turf, which necessitates the need to create a dramatic 'Centre vs State' showdown that segues the dramatic developments into a larger political narrative ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. She has played her cards well, but this may backfire if the Supreme Court delivers an adversarial ruling. We will have to wait for that.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Feb 05, 2019 07:14:47 IST

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