Tigress by the Tail

Nowadays, the people of Bengal want to hear news about jobs and are loath to follow the antics of the CBI, Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Firstpost print Edition

In its best days, the office of the Commissioner of Police of Calcutta, now Kolkata, was the engine room of colonial efficiency. Sir Stuart Hogg, one of its early occupants, after whom the city’s New Market was named, spawned the feared detective department. In the later, and much more troubled, years, Sir Charles Tegart, demon to the freedom fighters, survived six attempts on his life, yet he drove around in hood-open car with his bull terrier lazing on the bonnet. Post-Independence, in the 70’s, Ranjit Gupta, the scholarly chief, made his mark as the scourge of Naxalites with the help of his favourite ‘encounter specialists’.

Breezily indifferent to their political masters’ passing whims, these men proudly did all they thought were within their remit, leaving moral judgment of their acts only in the hands of future historians.

This past sits ill with the vaudeville show that began at their latest successor Rajeev Kumar’s official residence on Loudon Street last Sunday evening. For over a month till then, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had been trying to approach him. But he’d not give an appointment. On February 3, the CBI ran out of patience and sent a posse of its officers to his residence.

 Tigress by the Tail

File image of the crowd at Mamata Banerjee's rally in Kolkata. PTI

Kumar couldn’t have played a gracious host as he knew what the CBI team was looking for. As head of the Special Investigation Team that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had set up to look into a multi-billion-rupee Ponzi scheme scam in 2013, Kumar had access to hard evidence of the inflow and outflow of funds collected from the public on false promise of sky-high returns.

To the CBI, the evidence that could be particularly alluring was a red diary containing the details of transactions with politicians, reportedly obtained from Sudipta Sen, chief of Saradha, the largest of the rogue chit funds, and the call detail records (CDR) of Sen and his associates.

The CBI had a hunch that Kumar had been guarding a pile of evidence on behalf of Banerjee, as, if disclosed, it could expose the inner working of a so-called ‘party of the poor’, its wheels greased with cash — reportedly amounting to Rs 40,000 crore — obtained by hoodwinking the gullible masses. Kumar was therefore playing hooky with the CBI ever since the latter sought clarification.

Banerjee was surprisingly quick in responding to the ‘noisome’ developments on Loudon Street. Local cops under her control were out in large numbers to ‘save’ their Commissioner from CBI’s ‘clutches’. In two hours flat, a 620-square-foot platform was up near Chowringhee crossing. Called “metro channel”, it had been popularised by none other than Mamata Banerjee more than a decade ago when she sat in dharna there for weeks together to rouse public anger against the erstwhile Left Front government’s Singur land acquisition. It brought her a rich dividend by bringing her to power, for nine years now.

Once on the stage, the lady was in her element, striding up and down and often switching on the mike to announce that her’s was not a “political” campaign but a platform to “save the constitution”. ‘Save Democracy’ read the festoon above the stage. Opposition leaders across the country were connected. Next day, on stage with her were Tejashwi Yadav of RJD and Kanimozhi of DMK.

At a meeting on Monday in NCP leader Sharad Pawar’s residence in New Delhi, the focus was on “support to Mamata” in the attack launched by the Narendra Modi administration on her government. “What happened to Mamataji also happened in Delhi”, said Pawar, “(Arvind) Kejriwalji faced similar issues”. Its echo reached Parliament instantly, with the proceedings of the Budget Session stalled in the ruckus by lawmakers sympathetic to Banerjee’s ‘cause’.

However, the show on January 19 had to fizzle out anyway as the Supreme Court took a tough stand on Kumar’s obduracy, ordering him to meet the CBI team at a “neutral” place. Banerjee promptly declared it as her “moral victory”. But she could not order the winding up of the street show without considerable trepidation. Her political allies also got the message from minister Arun Jaitley’s blog, describing them as a “kleptocrats’ club”.

However, having long earned its notoriety as politicians’ “caged parrot”, the CBI too was following the whistle of its master, the BJP. In 2014, the year of Modi’s election, the Supreme Court ordered the West Bengal SIT to hand over the investigation to CBI. But the bureau would wake up only when a big election is around. In 2015, on the eve of the 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections, it summoned Mukul Roy, TMC general secretary with the reputation of being one of the party’s cash-handlers. Banerjee was not amused, as suspicion arose that he’d spill the beans.

She was right as Roy indeed cut a deal with the BJP, which he joined in 2017.

The party seems to have inducted Roy to use him as a strategist. It had worked in 2014 when the CBI raided Assam Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma on the charge of his involvement with the same chit fund scam. Soon after, Sarma joined the BJP and played his new party’s divisive card with such dexterity that the credit of the BJP-led alliance capturing Assam in the 2016 election went solely to him. Similarly, it was thought that Roy too would have a card up his sleeve.

That card could well be ‘advice’ from Roy to target “four IPS officers” in the state. It circulated from an audio clip of a voice strongly resembling that of Roy telling BJP general secretary in charge of West Bengal Kailash Vijayvargiya to get two Income Tax officers moved into the state to “scare” the four IPS officers. Police Commissioner Kumar could be one of the four. Last week’s events follow from this script. The plan runs like this: use Kumar to share incriminating evidence with CBI; drag TMC leaders to court on that basis; once the CBI gets Banerjee by the short and curlies, West Bengal, with its 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, gives BJP a valuable cushion against possible Lok Sabha election losses in the Hindi-speaking states.

However, the party is an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which, in its imagined history, has a key place for Bengal. The Hindu Mahasabha, RSS’s erstwhile political wing, took the leading role in the 1947 partition of Bengal.

On 11 April 1947, Bengal Governor Sir Frederick Burrows sent a secret report to Viceroy that “partitionists mean business”, with the Mahasabha authorising Shyama Prasad Mookerjee to form a volunteer force to secure a homeland for Hindus in Bengal. The truncated Bengal has since then become, to the Sangh followers, the fount of emotion as in the psalm ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ for Jews. The state’s 30 per cent Muslim population also offers to the BJP’s Hindu-first politicians the adrenaline-pumping challenge of confronting a home-made Gaza.

Banerjee’s mis-steps made such dreams look realisable to the BJP. On assuming office, she launched a brazen policy of coddling the Muslims. From the state treasury, allowances were given to the clerics and even to the town-criers of mosques. There were unwritten fiats to the police making it reluctant to take a complaint if the accused were Muslim. The rule of motor bikers wearing a helmet were not applicable as long as they had a religious skull cap on the head. In low grade government jobs, the TMC administration made some effort, quite justifiably, to design recruitment policy for redressal of the inadequate Muslim representation. A

ll these moves had turned her into an all-out hate object of the BJP trolls, who began calling her ‘Mamata begum’.

The politically motivated fake-news industry has now spread the venom not only to the genteel society of Kolkata’s clubs and drawing rooms in leafy areas. It has percolated down to the mofussils, causing astonishing levels of communal divide in places where the two communities lived without rancour till recently. Its blowback on the majority society is felt not only in rising levels of Islamophobia but in growing rigidity along the Hindu caste boundaries. At Birati in Kolkata’s northern suburbs, Satirtha Club, an association of the locals, has suddenly introduced the service of offering free the ritual of wearing the ‘sacred thread’ by Brahmin boys.

Banerjee has understood she’d moved too close to the edge of the communal precipice, that too in a state with the minority population tightly clustered in just a few of the 23 districts. As Shutapa Paul quotes Banerjee in her effusive but informative recent book, Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee, “I am very confident of seeing four things done by the government of West Bengal... holidays for a large number of pujas,... quiz competitions on Hindu dharma,... Varanasi-like aarti in Kolkata, and 2-3 places like the Ayodhya Ram mandir....”. Sadly for her, Twitter trolls have carried her old pictures wearing the hijab.

Banerjee tripped over into the communal crevice as she came to power through street protest. Her followers were a legacy from the leftist past, a rapacious army of violent, poorly educated and extortionist youngsters. They had no patience for job-creating factories to grow; instead they’d force the factory manager to buy from them inferior construction material, at twice the market price. While Banerjee captured power by stalling Tatas’ Nano plant, it ruined her image forever, with investors all smiles to her but their cheque books firmly sequestered.

Nowadays, the people of Bengal want to hear, more than “quiz competition on Hindu dharma”, any news about jobs. With even an auto rickshaw route permit costing Rs 8 lakh, thanks to politically connected unions, they run to every political rally to gauge who could bring them jobs. Modi. Marx. Mamata. Who?

(Sumit Mitra is a senior journalist)

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