Mamata’s power play: SC order on CBI standoff in Bengal gives face saver to both BJP and Mamata

Illustration: Uday Deb
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Not since when Delhi LG Najeeb Jung sent hot parathas to a protesting Arvind Kejriwal as the latter signed chief ministerial files on the street and huddled under a quilt outside Delhi’s Rail Bhavan in 2014, has a political dharna by a state chief minister garnered so much national air-time. Irrespective of which side of the political divide you are on, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s two-day political soap opera – giving out police gallantry medals from a makeshift roadside dais and holding cabinet meetings from a police outpost at Kolkata’s Esplanade – made for riveting political theatre as we head into full-scale election season.

No one who cares about institutional probity in India or the health of our police forces could be happy, of course, at the sight of rival police officers on either side seemingly ending up as little more than pawns on the political chessboard. In pure realpolitik terms, though, Didi’s dharna gambit and the public standoff between state and central governments sidetracked what could otherwise have played only as a politically embarrassing raid by CBI investigating Bengal’s Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund scams.

Instead the political drama, playing out in full glare of the TV cameras, turned into a wider and heated national political conversation on all the touchpoints that the opposition hopes will animate its 2019 campaign. Whether Mamata was a “super nautanki (drama) master” in Union minister Giriraj Singh’s words, or part of a united “kleptocrat’s club”, as Arun Jaitley put it; or was leading an “apolitical satyagraha” against a “Gabbar-style” coup and “super-emergency” as she claimed, her return to dharna politics after 13 years achieved two aims.
It established her at the centre of a united opposition front and polarised voter opinion sharply in the state where she is challenged by a resurgent BJP. Even as both sides claimed “moral victory” after the Supreme Court’s sagacious order defused the crisis by allowing questioning of the Kolkata police commissioner at a “neutral” venue, but without any “coercive steps” or arrest, the political fallout is clear.

First, the faceoff gave opposition parties renewed cause to unite, with as many as 22 parties ranging from SP in Uttar Pradesh to DMK in Tamil Nadu to NCP in Maharashtra extending support on allegations of political misuse of CBI. This became a new glue for opposition parties which otherwise have little in common. The fact that even NDA ally Shiv Sena and the neutral BJD came together on the galvanising issue of CBI (though Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik later nuanced his party’s position) shows how many regional parties share this concern.

At the national level, then, by weaving a narrative of victimhood, of an overweening Big Brotherly central government, and of political dadagiri using state organs, Mamata fast forwarded the opposition’s main playbook for the upcoming Lok Sabha campaign, simultaneously positioning herself at the centre of an opposition phalanx firming up against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even Rahul Gandhi, who in 2016 had directly targeted her for not speaking out on the Saradha scam, came out publicly in her support. As did her bete noire in the state, CPM, on what it called “autocratic misuse of central agencies”.

Second, in Bengal, where the state police played as much of a partisan role as CBI is accused of by the state government, both sides may gain from the political polarisation this crisis has engendered. BJP has been emerging as the real long-term challenger to Trinamool in Bengal in recent years. It won two Bengal seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls with a 17% vote share, dipped in the 2016 assembly polls to 10% vote share but made huge strides in 2018 state panchayat polls. It has been gaining largely at the expense of the Left, in districts like Purulia, Jhargram and Malda. Just as the latest crisis has enthused the local BJP, Mamata’s dharna is a political signalling of intent to her cadres.

Ironically, in a state where regional pride has always been a potent political issue, Mamata seems to be taking a leaf out of Modi’s ‘asmita’ card from Gujarat. BJP has questioned why she played such a dramatic gambit now, when she did not do so after her party MPs were arrested earlier. Mamata sidestepped the question by taking recourse to the administrative argument that she was moving against “disrespect to the chair of the Kolkata police chief”. The timing, just before Lok Sabha polls, is such that Trinamool is betting on sharp voter polarisation as much as BJP.

CBI has accused Bengal’s erstwhile SIT of a flawed investigation into the Saradha scam and of a systemic cover-up. The courts will ultimately adjudicate on what really happened. Even if CBI is ultimately proved right, it is easy to tar the motives of an agency mired in so much controversy in recent times. The timing of the latest raids on a Sunday aside, as TOI has reported, previous arrests and summons to Trinamool leaders have mostly followed a pattern where they happened just before or after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls or 2016 assembly elections. Similarly, opposition leaders have questioned why CBI has been silent on Mukul Roy and Himanta Biswa Sarma since they joined BJP (both were questioned once earlier, deny any wrong doing and like the Kolkata police commissioner have no charges filed against them).

Whether the timing was a coincidence or not, the West Bengal government and its officers must cooperate fully with the probe. Either way, the Modi-Mamata standoff may end up being a political win-win for both.

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