Partha Chatterjee removed from cabinet and TMC in quick succession: TMC cries ‘zero tolerance’ for corruption

Abhishek Banerjee requests Enforcement Directorate to conclude probe in a time-bound manner
Partha Chatterjee: File picture
Devadeep Purohit   |   TT  |  Calcutta   |   29.07.22 : Trinamul all-India general secretary Abhishek Banerjee on Thursday announced the party’s decision to suspend Partha Chatterjee from the party within two hours of chief minister Mamata Banerjee removing one of her oldest colleagues from the cabinet.

The twin decisions — six days after Chatterjee was arrested and currency stacks totalling crores of rupees were purportedly recovered from the flats of his associate Arpita Mukherjee — are seen as part of attempts to send a message that Trinamul has “zero tolerance” for corruption.

This is not the first time that corruption charges have been levelled at Trinamul leaders — several of its lawmakers had been arrested earlier and some had purportedly been caught on camera taking cash. But multiple sources in the party conceded that the developments surrounding the recruitment scandal had dealt a first-of-its-kind blow to the image of the party that Mamata had founded in 1998.

“If something happens, it’s not in our control.… But let me tell you that Trinamul will be the last to tolerate any kind of irregularity and corruption. There will be zero tolerance for corruption,” Abhishek told a news conference after the party’s disciplinary committee met in the evening to take a decision on Chatterjee.

“We deliberated among ourselves and were unanimous that he should be suspended, pending investigations.... The CM too has removed him from the cabinet. We took the decision on the sixth day itself,” the MP said.

He requested the Enforcement Directorate to conclude the investigation in a time-bound manner.

The Trinamul house was initially divided on how to deal with Chatterjee after he was arrested on July 22. While Mamata and the old guard were in favour of a wait-and-watch approach, Abhishek’s team advocated Chatterjee’s immediate ouster.

That the view attributed to Abhishek would prevail was apparent on Thursday morning with some of his aides tweeting the demand for Chatterjee’s removal. Chatterjee was out of the cabinet by 4pm and lost his party position in another two hours.

Mamata made a brief remark on the removal at Nabanna. Abhishek — flanked by senior party colleagues like Subrata Bakshi, Trinamul state president, and city mayor and urban development minister Firhad Hakim — spoke extensively at the news conference, explaining the party's position on Chatterjee’s arrest and the purported cash haul at his associate’s addresses.

“I will not comment on the case till the investigation is complete, but there is little doubt that the kind of pictures that have come in front of us have pained everyone,” Abhishek said.

“If someone does anything wrong against the people, that person deserves punishment. Right now, we want to give the benefit of the doubt to the people of Bengal.”

His comments betrayed the party’s concern about the possible popular impact of the visuals of the purported yields from the Enforcement Directorate raids.

Bengal has never seen such a cash haul — one of over Rs 50 crore, along with foreign currencies, gold bars and jewellery.

Following Trinamul tradition when faced with crises, Abhishek cited Mamata’s personal probity — which had helped the party blunt the Opposition when the Saradha scam and the Narada sting operations spilled out in the open.

“The people are our biggest asset and as long as the people trust Mamata Banerjee, there is no such possibility,” he said when asked whether the party’s image had taken a beating.

With electoral battles still some distance away — the panchayat polls are due next summer, followed by the Lok Sabha polls and Assembly polls in 2024 and 2026 — it will take time to find out whether Mamata’s personal probity can help Trinamul one more time.

However, there is little doubt that corruption will rule the political discourse in Bengal for the next few months since all the Opposition parties — the BJP, CPM and the Congress — think they can turn the recruitment scam into Mamata’s Waterloo. The BJP plans to field its central leadership soon to corner the ruling party, especially Mamata and Abhishek, on the issue of corruption.

Over the past few days, all the Opposition parties have hit the streets with gusto, describing Trinamul as the beneficiary of the proceeds from the recruitment scam and demanding Mamata’s resignation.

While these rallies have witnessed impressive turnouts — the BJP held a huge show of strength in Calcutta on Thursday afternoon — the question remains whether the anti-Trinamul forces have the organisational might to sustain a movement till the rural polls, due next May.

Trinamul is aware of the assault lurking round the corner. At the news conference, Abhishek — acting as the public face of the party’s political strategy after Trinamul snapped ties with poll consultant Prashant Kishor — raised several questions that the BJP will find difficult to answer.

“If the investigating agencies are seizing cash not only in Bengal but from every nook and corner of the country, whose fault is it? The Prime Minister had while announcing the demonetisation brazenly boasted that he would weed out corruption and there would be no black money…. We all had stood hours in the queues, so many people died. But what happened?” Abhishek asked.

“Why so much black money even now? If Arpita is responsible, so is the PM, and all others in the central government. The finance minister herself, even the RBI governor,” he added.

The seized notes were reportedly of the denomination of Rs 2,000 and Rs 500.

The Trinamul all-India general secretary kept repeating that he was not defending Chatterjee. But he cited several instances — loss to the common people because of financial frauds, the saffron camp’s perceived complicity with defaulters Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and Vijay Mallya — and asked whether the BJP was clean enough to raise corruption-related issues.

“They don’t have the right to talk about corruption.… What action did the BJP take against Shivraj Singh Chauhan (on the Vyapam scam)?” he said.

“When the then CM of Gujarat’s name got involved in the GIFT (Gujarat International Finance Tec) City scam or ABG Shipyard scam, what action did they take?” Abhishek asked, without naming Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

He said Trinamul was the only party to have acted against “someone who was as senior as the party’s secretary-general since the time it was formed”.

“His name is not in the FIR.… He can be an accused or a witness and it is incumbent on the judiciary and the investigating agency to prove his guilt. Our position is: let the law of the land take its course,” Abhishek said.

He requested the ED and other central agencies to prove their neutrality with their work.

“When Mukul Roy was in Trinamul, he was questioned, but after he joined the BJP, he wasn’t.… The same thing happened to (former mayor and minister) Sovan Chatterjee: his questioning stopped when he joined the BJP. In case of Suvendu Adhikari (a BJP MLA and leader of the Opposition in the Assembly), they never questioned him after he joined the BJP,” Abhishek said, trying to establish how the BJP-ruled Centre was using its probe agencies against political opponents.

The chief minister is expected to raise the pitch on these issues during her district tours in the coming days. Trinamul will try to claim the high moral ground over its decision to remove Chatterjee from the government and the party as it attempts to counter the Opposition.

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