Has Mamata Banerjee Made Her Minister, Partha Chatterjee, A ‘Sacrificial Lamb’ To Protect Her Nephew?
The Trinamool’s tepid response to the arrest of Partha Chaterjee, a senior minister and fierce loyalist of CM Mamata Banerjee, has triggered speculation in political circles that it could be a part of a maneuver to protect Abhishek Banerjee, her nephew and heir apparent.
The arrest of senior Bengal minister Partha Chatterjee, a close aide of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) for his alleged involvement in the teacher recruitment scam has caused quite a ferment in political circles in the state.
The ferment, however, is not over the arrest per se but over the Trinamool’s tepid response to the arrest. Trinamool spokesperson Kunal Ghosh issued a languid response to the arrest. “The party is keeping a close watch on the developments,” he said rather off-handedly.
The Trinamool appears to be trying to distance itself from Chatterjee, who occupies the post of secretary general of the party’s Bengal unit. Chatterjee himself admitted after his arrest that he tried to get in touch with party supremo Mamata Banerjee but could not get through to her.
Chatterjee has a long association with Banerjee and has been among her most trusted aides. He was the leader of the opposition in the state Assembly from 2006 to 2011 and was inducted into the first Mamata Banerjee cabinet. He was given charge of very important departments: commerce and industries, public enterprises, information technology and parliamentary affairs.
He was given charge of the school education and higher education departments, as well as some other departments in the second Mamata Banerjee ministry in 2016. But he was replaced as the education minister last year. He currently holds the Commerce and Industries portfolio.
The Trinamool’s uncharacteristically muted response to Chatterjee’s arrest, which came within two days of Mamata Banerjee warning the Union Government against ‘misusing’ central probe and prosecuting agencies like the ED and CBI to harass her party leaders, has thus raised a lot of eyebrows in political circles in Bengal.
And it has also triggered a lot of speculation about the reasons for the muted response and Mamata Banerjee’s deafening silence to the arrest of a senior colleague.
Her atypical reticence now stands out in stark contrast to the dharna she staged before the CBI office in Kolkata in May last year when two of her ministers--Subrata Mukherjee and Firad Hakim--along with party MLA Madan Mitra and former Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee weather arrested by the central agency for their alleged involvement in the Narada case.
Mamata Banerjee had sat on a day-long dharna inside the CBI office premises while hundreds of her storm-troopers staged belligerent demonstrations outside.
In early February 2019, Mamata Banerjee had staged a long dharna in protest against the CBI’s attempt to raid the residence of the then Kolkata Police commissioner Rajeev Kumar. Kumar was Banerjee’s blue-eyed officer, and Banerjee came in for a lot of flak for staging that dharna. Kumar was accused of destroying evidence that could have proven the involvement of some top Trinamool leaders in the Saradha scam.
Given Banerjee’s propensity to go out of her way to protect her party leaders and even officers close to her from coercive action by central agencies, her inaction over Chatterjee’s arrest appears very strange.
Why is Mamata Banerjee silent?
Political circles in Bengal are agog with speculation that Mamata Banerjee has ‘sacrificed’ Chatterjee as part of her ‘deal’ with the BJP.
Mamata Banerjee’s meeting with her Assam counterpart, Himanta Biswa Sarma, at the Raj Bhawan in Darjeeling (read this) forms the basis of all that speculation.
The two-hour meeting, held on July 13 in the presence of the then Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankar, came just ahead of Dhankar’s nomination by the NDA as its Vice Presidential candidate.
“Dhankar had a very bitter relationship with Mamata Banerjee and the two had made very acerbic remarks against each other. But despite such animosity, the (Bengal) chief minister accepted an invitation by Dhankar to meet him and Sarma at the Raj Bhavan in Darjeeling. And Sarma could not have met Banerjee on his own, he was an emissary of the BJP central leadership and was deputed to cut a deal with Banerjee. It does not need a lot of intelligence or political acumen to figure that out,” said political analyst and commentator Ranabir Roychowdhury.
Roychowdhury points out that the fact that Trinamool had broken ranks with other Opposition parties and decided to abstain from voting in the Vice Presidential polls is vindication of all speculation that Banerjee has struck a ‘deal’ with the BJP.
“The Trinamool’s stand--that it was not consulted before the Opposition parties announced Margaret Alva’s name as the joint Opposition candidate for the Vice-President’s post--is specious. Sonia Gandhi reached out to her and the Trinamool, despite being invited, did not attend the meeting of Opposition parties. While that meeting was on, Sharad Pawar called her but was not put through to her by her aides. She did not return Pawar’s calls and did not respond to another message by Sonia Gandhi after the meeting. So it was apparent that the Trinamool had broken ranks and was looking for an excuse not to support the joint Opposition candidate,” a senior Congress leader who did not wish to be named told Swarajya.
And then, at the martyrs’ day rally on July 21--it is Trinamool’s signature annual event--Mamata Banerjee was quite muted in her criticism of the BJP and the Union Government. Her speech at the rally lacked the fire and the animosity that she has generally reserved for the BJP till now (read this).
A CPI(M) state committee member, who also did not want to be named, told Swarajya that it is very apparent that Mamata Banerjee has struck a deal with the BJP.
But what is the deal about? “It could not have been about the election of Dhankar as the Vice President. The BJP, on its own, has the numbers to get Dhankar elected to that post. It did not need the Trinamool’s votes at all for that,” said the CPI(M) leader.
Both the CPI(M) and the Congress leader said that the ‘deal’ must have been over protecting Abhishek Banerjee from any coercive action by central agencies which are probing him. Mamata Banerjee is very close to Abhishek and his family, including his daughter, and is grooming her nephew as her successor.
“She knows very well that if the central agencies properly investigate and can prove any of the charges against Abhishek, it will cause immense damage to her politically and will be a body blow to her party. It will debilitate her because she won’t be able to dissociate herself from her nephew. That is why she will be very keen on protecting her nephew,” said the Congress leader.
But Mamata Banerjee also cannot afford to be seen to have come to an ‘understanding’ with the BJP. “That is why, in order to disprove speculation about a ‘deal’ with the BJP, she would perhaps have agreed to allow central agencies to proceed against some senior leaders of her party. That way, she can always say that the action by central agencies against her party leaders disproves talks of a ‘deal’ with the BJP,” said the CPI(M) apparatchik.
Political analyst Roychowdhury concurs with this assessment. “The Congress and the CPI(M) have already started talking about a ‘secret deal’ sealed between BJP and Mamata Banerjee at the Darjeeling Raj Bhawan. If that perception gains ground, Mamata Banerjee will lose her core vote bank--the Muslims. And it’ll also alienate many other Trinamool supporters. So she can cite Partha Chatterjee’s arrest to hit back at anyone accusing her of striking a deal with the BJP and argue that had she struck such a deal, the central agencies would not have arrested Partha Chatterjee,” he said.
And what does the BJP get in return for preventing central probe and prosecuting agencies from going all out against Abhishek Banerjee? There are many theories about this, too. But the most popular--and also the most credible one--is that Mamata Banerjee will ‘allow’ the BJP to bag a respectable number of Lok Sabha seats from Bengal in 2024.
“She can ensure that the BJP wins at least a dozen, if not more, (Lok Sabha) seats in 2024 by putting up weak candidates in those seats or fielding dummy candidates from there. She can also ask her cadres to lie low, and can ensure that polls are held freely and fairly to provide a level playing field to the BJP,” said Roychowdhury.
Roychowdhury pointed out that it is important for the BJP to win a good number of seats from Bengal in order to post another big win in 2024. And in order to ensure that, asking central agencies to keep off Abhishek Banerjee is a small price to pay.
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