By Ashis Biswas
For West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, her party’s by-election win announced last Saturday in the Asansol (Lok Sabha) and Ballygunge (Assembly) seats was the best news in some time. Of late the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) had been facing some truly torrid times over repeated administrative failures in maintaining law and order. Group murders and a slew of never ending rapes rekindled a nation-wide infamy for the state.
Enormously relieved, she said the by-election wins were the best New Year gift for her from the people: They had firmly stood by the TMC, ignoring all the opposition’s campaigning against her government. However spokesmen of main opposition parties the BJP, Congress and the CPI(M) alleged that the administration and the Election Commission had not taken note of many malpractices as well as a systematic pre-poll intimidation campaign by armed TMC supporters.
During the past few weeks, the very process of governance in West Bengal had been exposed to some intense questioning. There was much political speculation whether President’s rule should be declared by the centre. As one observer explained during a recent TV chat show, “It appears the TMC Government has lost all control over its own administration, as had happened during the final unravelling of the Left front Government prior to the 2011 Assembly polls.”
Dealing with the post 2021 Assembly polls violence in the state and a few other incidents involving death, rapes and mayhem, the Calcutta High court had ordered the CBI to investigate at least eight ongoing cases, over ruling the state Government’s pleas. This was an unprecedented development, as the court virtually rejected the official versions of such incidents presented by state police and concerned authorities. ‘What we see now is not so much judicial activism in the state administration, it is more of a judicial intervention’ said a senior lawyer.
No wonder there were suggestions in a small section of the local media supporting such assertions, much to the annoyance of the TMC. The clinching evidence came when the court ordered specifically that pending investigation in four rape cases should be handed over to Damayanti Sen, senior police official, for further probe.
It was a clear message from the judiciary that the handling by the state government of serious crimes including political murders and rapes had sunk to abysmally low levels. The hapless much harassed aggrieved citizenry could expect minimal relief only through judicial intervention. A more damning indictment of the state Chief Minister’s failure to maintain law and order – she is also Minister for Police – would be hard to imagine.
The order to involve Sen in further legal proceedings added insult to the Chief Minister’s injuries, as it were. Back in 2012, the chief Minister herself had dismissed press reports on the rape of the late Suzette Jordan on Park Street by high-profile criminals one night as a ‘false concocted story’.
This came in the background of Sen’s initial probe into the matter as the Joint Commissioner of Kolkata police, which had already established that a rape had indeed occurred. Showing remarkable courage as a senior police official working under a dominant Chief Minister, Sen had the courage to declare publicly that rape had indeed been committed, contradicting her mighty superior!
Eventually the case was solved and several people were arrested. But the Chief Minister suffered a major political embarrassment that haunts her to this day.
Banerjee is among long serving politicians endowed with a powerful memory. As soon as the dust had settled and the investigation into the Park street rape was drawing to a close, she ordered the transfer of Sen to a relatively minor post, as DIG for Training, far away from Kolkata!
Naturally the return of Sen now from Coventry in a new empowered capacity has not gone unnoticed. ‘It seems some judges too have long memories, like our political leaders, ‘said a senior advocate.
However, the by-election victory did not bring much comfort to the state Government’s running battle against the Judiciary. But it did provide breathing space to the beleaguered TMC leadership lately divided into two camps – the pro-Abhishek Banerjee group of challengers, pitted against the incumbent, more senior Mamata Banerjee-led cabal.
The pro-changers led by Banerjee stand for the one- man-one-post slogan and the assigning of responsibilities for people with a corruption-free, non-controversial relatively clean image. If that means bringing in more educated newcomers into the high levels of administration/political leadership, so be it, runs their narrative.
Observers see in this an attempt, conscious or otherwise within the TMC to approximate the party’s future image to resemble as far as possible, that of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Naturally such thinking greatly worried and strongly upset the established TMC honchos in power, including senior Ministers, as well as state/district level leaders, MLAs and so on. It did not matter to the old guard if many such wizened functionaries were mostly involved in major acts of corruption. Or even if they were held in contempt among common people.
As for their winning elections, it is common knowledge that since 2011, when the TMC came to power the process of polling has neither been free nor fair. From the Chief Minister downwards to ‘Bahubalies’ like ‘Anubrata Mondal, the battle cry has been to ensure an opposition-free west Bengal’. ‘The police and the state administration have generally acted in concert with the ruling party’ is an allegation which has been strongly supported by the BJP, the state Congress as well as the Left parties,
As stated in these columns earlier, the need for a through image makeover for the TMC had been strongly emphazised by the party – appointed political strategic advisor Prashant Kishor (PK). During both the 2021 Assembly polls and the subsequent round of civic elections, PK’s expert IPAC team had suggested fielding as future TMC candidates, mainly new unspoilt young educated people, gradually weeding out the corrupt and the controversial elements. If this involved the dropping of established big guns so be it.
It was seen as the one major move that could effectively remove the taint of corruption and scandal from the TMC, a party that was deeply mired in such major corruptions such as the Narada bribery scam or the Sarada chit fund scheme.
The proposal was supported enthusiastically by Abhishek Banerjee the TMC General Secretary and his many younger followers within the party.
While the party did well beyond expectations in the 2021 Assembly polls, the IPACs suggestions for new younger candidates for the civic polls was shot down personally by the Chief Minister. She sensed that if too many old timers were dropped, they would rebel openly. This could lead to a major vote split that could spell big trouble for the TMC.
Since then, trouble had been brewing within the TMC between the two warring groups, even as Banerjee intervened personally to ensure that new state district level committees were set up where the old guard was allowed to retain a measure of superiority.
The outcome: a reluctant, sullen kind of truce, which is being increasingly disturbed by angry snappings from both sides, as they target each other. ‘Finally by eliminating the opposition as defined by the Constitution, the TMC has now unwittingly invited the functioning of an angry opposition within its own organisation, at all levels. And the anger and confusion among those in power and their dissident challengers seem to be spreading. (IPA Service)