Eastern union

Has Modi overplayed his hand? Or, has Mamata revealed the chink in her armour?

Significant support: Mamata Banerjee with opposition leaders at the United India rally in Kolkata in January | Salil Bera Significant support: Mamata Banerjee with opposition leaders at the United India rally in Kolkata in January | Salil Bera

Everybody loves a good fight. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took a defiant stance against the Narendra Modi government’s shock-and-awe move—CBI action, and rallies in the state by senior BJP leaders—to unsettle her. The CBI team landed in Kolkata to interrogate Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar on the heels of rallies by Modi and Amit Shah in the state. The opposition questioned the timing of the CBI action as the Saradha and Rose Valley cases were six years old. Banerjee called it an attempted coup and an attack on the federal structure of the country.

As many as 22 political parties lent support to her (Banerjee). They offered full support inside Parliament, too. —Derek O’Brien, Trinamool Congress leader

The BJP has been accused of bullying state governments in the past, too. Its machinations in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand led to the imposition of president’s rule in both states in 2016. Though there was much hue and cry about the BJP’s tactics, it seized power in both states within a year. In 2015, the CBI raided Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s office. In November 2018, the Income Tax department and the Enforcement Directorate raided the house and offices of Y.S. Chowdary, former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP from the Telugu Desam Party. Chowdary is a close aide of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and the raid came just days after Naidu had withdrawn the general consent given to the Delhi Special Police Establishment (which includes the CBI) to carry out operations in the state. (Naidu had snapped ties with the BJP in March 2018.)

More recently, in January, the CBI raided the Congress’s former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. The action is believed to have helped the BJP wrest Jind in Haryana from the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in the assembly bypolls held on January 28. INLD had won the seat in the last two elections and the BJP had never won it before. (The Congress finished third.) Now the BJP needs a scalp to showcase its work on the anti-corruption front ahead of the general elections. Vijay Mallya’s extradition is going to take time as he still has three higher courts to go to in the UK, plus a review petition against the UK Supreme Court’s decision. Therefore, it would be a great boost to the BJP if a member of the opposition is convicted before the Lok Sabha polls.

At the same time, Banerjee’s stand in West Bengal may have won her brownie points with the proud Bengali. The jury is still out on who would gain most—defiant Banerjee or aggressive Modi. The heart of the struggle—42 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP hopes to win 23 to offset any loss in the Hindi heartland. Banerjee needs to hold on to all her 34 and add as many as possible to keep alive her dream of being a major player in Delhi, in the event of a hung Parliament. But the manner in which the constitutional crisis unfolded has left many uneasy. The BJP tried hard to win the battle of perception. Faced with charges of high-handedness, the BJP stressed that there was no constitutional impropriety on its part. “This is a wrong charge,” said Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. “Federalism cannot be a shield to protect the corrupt. The CBI had sent three summons to the Kolkata Police commissioner. He refused to comply. The CBI had no choice.” Nevertheless, the opposition which was on the lookout for a common cause in the battle against Modi, trooped in to support Didi. Leaders, including Naidu, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Kanimozhi, travelled to Kolkata to express solidarity with Banerjee. Others made statements in her support. The unprecedented developments in West Bengal was, for them, perhaps the most tangible instance of the charge that the Modi government was misusing institutions.

Banerjee’s street fighter avatar may even help her position herself as the prime campaigner against the Centre’s policies. “From the time Mamata di sat on dharna, all political parties wrote letters, tweeted, gave support to Mamata di, phoned her, too,” said Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien. “As many as 22 political parties lent support to her. They offered full support inside Parliament, too.” He added that the issue was not just about Banerjee or the Trinamool, but that it was relevant for the entire country. “The issue is about saving the Constitution,” he said. “The issue is about saving the country’s federal structure.”

The Congress and the left, however, were more nuanced in their approach. Congress president Rahul Gandhi called Banerjee to express solidarity and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who is among the party’s foremost lawyer-politicians, represented the West Bengal government in the Supreme Court. But the grand old party took care not to be seen as rallying behind Banerjee. Moreover, the party’s state unit has been critical of Banerjee and would not have appreciated any open support for her. Similarly, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Trinamool’s opponent in West Bengal, while being critical of the Centre’s actions, also attacked Banerjee’s party. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said there was nothing wrong with the CBI proceeding with its investigations into the chit fund scam, but asked why the BJP government waited five years to go ahead with the probe. The approaches were dictated by political exigencies. The fight between Banerjee and Modi can polarise Bengali voters, thus leaving no middle ground for the Congress and the left.

The crisis was defused following the intervention of the Supreme Court. Constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap said that the Supreme Court had “very rightly” and categorically voted in favour of the CBI by asking Rajeev Kumar to join the investigation at a neutral venue. This, he said, nullified the claims made by Banerjee about the Bureau’s action. “Her talk of confrontation with the Centre has more to do with political mobilisation and little to do with saving democracy,” said Kashyap. “And may be for leading the opposition front as elections are approaching.” He added that the worst part of the events in Kolkata was that a police officer sat on dharna with the chief minister in complete violation of the norm that the officialdom has to be apolitical. “The opposition is entitled to fight the Modi government as strongly as they like,” said Kashyap. “They have all the freedom of expression, of political mobilisation. But they cannot be allowed to subvert the Constitution. What was done in Kolkata was against all constitutional culture.”

The BJP is highlighting the fact that Modi never refused any probe when he was Gujarat chief minister. “Modi was once interrogated for nine hours,” said S.S. Ahluwalia, Union minister and MP for Darjeeling, West Bengal. “Even our national president Amit Shah, was arrested when he was Gujarat home minister, yet we respected the law.” Ahluwalia said Banerjee’s effort to draw sympathy from the people will not work. “People understand these things and realise what she is up to,” he said. “She is rattled by the crowds drawn by Modi and Shah in their public rallies. She is now saying that the federal structure is damaged. It is wrong. Every party has a right to organise political functions. She denied permission for our functions.” BJP leader Mukul Roy, a former confidant of Banerjee, said he joined the saffron party only after no evidence was found against him in the chit fund scams. “She has been exposed, and will not gain,” said Roy.

Even as Banerjee continues to deny permission to BJP leaders to campaign in the state, the party has planned over 300 rallies of senior leaders. If it is Modi versus all at the Centre, it is Didi versus all of the BJP’s heavyweights in West Bengal.