In March 2001, journalist Mathew Samuel set the cat among the pigeons by releasing video clips of what would later be known as Operation West End. A sting operation, it highlighted the corruption in the defence procurement procedure. The A.B. Vajpayee government was shaken, and heads rolled in the wake of the scandal. Prominent ones were those of defence minister George Fernandes, Samata Party chief Jaya Jaitley and BJP president Bangaru Laxman.
The Trinamool Congress was part of the ruling National Democratic Alliance. Railway minister Mamata Banerjee and colleague Ajit Kumar Panja quit the government over the scandal. Samuel would face the full force of the government's wrath.
Fifteen years later, some of the characters have appeared again in a political potboiler. Panja and Laxman are no more. Vajpayee and Fernandez are ill and out of public life. Jaitley is not as active in politics. And, Samuel baited a trap for Trinamool leaders ahead of the recent West Bengal assembly polls.
Samuel's investigative portal, naradanews.com, ran a sting operation, in which 12 senior Trinamool Congress leaders were seen accepting bribes for swinging a deal for a fake company. Panchayat and Rural Development Minister Subrata Mukherjee and Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee were among those stung. An angry Mamata promised to come back to power and prove that her government was being targeted.
The Calcutta High Court set up a provisional inquiry committee to probe the authenticity of the video files. Meanwhile, Mamata came back to power and set up a probe committee headed by Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajiv Kumar. Sovan Chatterjee's wife, Ratna, lodged a complaint with the Kolkata Police alleging that her husband was defamed as part of a criminal conspiracy.
Interestingly, the Kolkata Police first took up Ratna's complaint and summoned Samuel. He did not respond to it initially, and later said, “I am consulting my legal cell on this.” Last heard, Samuel's cell phone is off air and he is untraceable.
On June 27, Samuel sent a written statement to the Kolkata Police, questioning the legality of them probing an issue that was being heard by the High Court. Vishal Garg, joint commissioner of police (crime), said that the police, too, were seeking legal advice on the issue.
There were interesting developments at the High Court, too. The division bench headed by Chief Justice Manjula Chellur said the forensic test of video files in a Hyderabad laboratory was “inconclusive”. The court sent the samples to a Chandigarh lab for a second opinion. The court then said that its decision was binding on all investigators, and that those who disagree “could move a higher court against our order”.
Lawyer Arunava Ghosh said, “At this juncture, any move by the state government is the same as challenging the High Court. Government must refrain from doing so.” A lawyer from the High Court said the state's inquiry might be a ploy to prevent the court from ordering a CBI inquiry.
The opposition is up in arms, calling the state inquiry commission “extra judicial”. “The matter is being heard in High Court, on what kind of investigation it requires,” said opposition leader Abdul Mannan. “The court has also been looking into the authenticity of the tapes. So, why has chief minister ordered an inquiry? And, why has it begun by summoning the editor-in-chief of the portal?”
Rahul Sinha, BJP national secretary, told THE WEEK, “Mamata Banerjee is trying to destroy the evidence of Narada tape, like she tried to do with the Saradha investigation. Interestingly, in both the cases she engaged same police officer, Rajiv Kumar. She would do better not to play with fire. It could be catastrophic for her.”
Education Minister Partha Chatterjee, who is Trinamool Congress secretary general, told THE WEEK that the inquiry was in keeping with what the party has promised when the scandal broke.
A senior Trinamool leader said that party had been probing the role of leaders from rival parties in the Narada scandal. The inquiry was called off after the Kolkata Police probe was ordered, he said. Leaders in the gunsights allegedly included Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi; BJP national secretary Sidharth Nath Singh and CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury.
Sinha said Mamata was trying to save the accused. “The chief minister had said that she would not have given tickets to the accused had she been aware of the sting operation,” Sinha said. “The accused party leaders accepted they had taken money as donation. So, there should not be any ambiguity over the issue of transaction. Now it has to be proved whether it was bribe or donation. Why is the chief minister afraid of a transparent investigation being carried out by the court?”
Meanwhile, the police are focusing on Samuel. Sources in Kolkata Police said a team was planning to travel to Delhi to apprehend and interrogate him. As this article goes to print, Samuel has not sought anticipatory bail in any court in Kolkata. His office, too, is silent about his plans.
Police sources said that Samuel would have to reveal how he got access to ministers and the source of the money he had given to them. Interestingly, this line of questioning was what was employed in the Operation West End case, too.