Poll-bound West Bengal's ruling Trinamool Congress on Monday faced an embarrassment after several of its leaders were allegedly caught on camera accepting bribes. With the opposition coming out all gun blazing, the Trinamool rubbished the claims calling the videos "doctored" and part of a "smear campaign" against it.
With the contents of the sting broadcast by TV news channels and also going viral on social media upping the political temperature in the state, Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee, who is currently touring north Bengal, refrained from making any direct references to it, but challenged her political opponents to "fight her politically instead of resorting to spreading canards against her party".
The sting operation carried out by Narada News and uploaded on its website, purportedly shows as many as 11 Trinamool leaders including former union ministers, state ministers and MPs accepting bribes in return for favours to a fictitious company.
"We formed a fictitious company—Impex Consultancy—and approached several ministers and Trinamool leaders to seek favours. This was an attempt to unravel what is happening behind closed doors," the report on the website claimed.
"We have about 52 hours of footage of this operation. What we understood after analysing it is that the leadership of the Trinamool Congress were more than willing to sidestep the norms, circumvent laws to extend illegal help to those who offer money," claimed the website listing against each of the leaders amounts ranging from Rs. 4 lakh to Rs. 20 lakh that it said it had paid.
The authenticity of the video uploaded by the website could not be ascertained.
The list of alleged "bribe takers", according to Narada News, also includes a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, who is claimed by the website as acknowledging that he was a "key person who collects funds for the Trinamool Congress".
In the video, one of the senior leaders is seen telling the website reporter that the IPS officer would be the communicator between them.
"I have Rs. 20 lakhs, I will go to your office and will give. You will be there no," asked the reporter to which the leader allegedly replies: "Yes, I will be there."
The video also shows a former central minister and Trinamool MP allegedly accepting bundles of money.
While the Trinamool has dismissed the sting as "dirty tricks" by its political opponents, the opposition has demanded that Banerjee immediately step down.
"We have watched the video of the so-called 'sting' operation. There is no sting in it. We are completely dismissive about it," said Trinamool Rajya Sabha member Derek O'Brien.
"The timing of the dirty tricks video too clearly indicates the devious motive behind it. Why was the organisation that supposedly shot this video hiding the so-called 'truth' for more than two years," O'Brien added.
AThe Trinamool also held a press conference later in the day with party secretary general Partha Chatterjee and vice president Mukul Roy threatening legal action against the portal.
"Everybody knows technology can be abused. These videos are manufactured and doctored. We will be taking legal action," said Roy.
Questioning why the video shot in 2014 was released two years later ahead of the assembly polls, the Trinamool leaders also questioned the source of money used by the portal in the sting.
Tearing into the Trinamool, the Bharatiya Janata Party demanded Banerjee immediately resign.
"The sting operation has completely exposed the TMC, proving their entire leadership is deep in corruption. We demand the immediate resignation of Mamata Banerjee. She has no right, no business, to continue as the chief minister," said BJP national secretary S.N. Singh.
He also demanded an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the matter and disallowing the leaders caught on tape from contesting the polls.
Describing the development as "unprecedented" in the state, the Communist Party of India-Marxist-led Left Front also demanded the Election Commission take immediate steps in the matter after verifying the veracity of the video.
Reading out the names of those caught in the sting, CPI-M state secretary and leader of opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra said everything had been brought to the fore.
Calling for immediate intervention of the EC, Mishra said: "To ensure fair poll, EC has to take steps immediately, else election should not be conducted till such steps were taken. If required, President's rule can be also be imposed."
Observing that the sting would be a major issue in the polls, state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said: "The chief minister keeps on claiming herself as a symbol of honesty, but yet again it has been proved that her party is of thieves and robbers".