Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been one of the most vociferous critics of demonetisation. For some time, it was thought that her opposition to the move was part of her larger agenda of opposing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for two primary reasons: keeping her Muslim vote-bank intact and also to achieve her (pipe) dream of becoming the prime minister of the country by trying to (futilely) project herself as an alternative to Narendra Modi.
But since then, it has become increasingly clear that her high-pitched and often ugly diatribes against demonetisation and Modi are borne out of a deep fear of skeletons tumbling out of her cupboard. And she sure has many: it is widely known that her party and many of her close aides benefited immensely from chit fund companies like Saradha and Rose Valley that went bust. Lakhs of people, mostly poor and lower middle class, lost their life’s savings to the scams, which enriched Banerjee’s supporters and her party.
It is also widely known that despite Banerjee's show of personal austerity and her claims of honesty, her immediate family members have grown phenomenally rich in a relatively short period of time and are now owners of huge assets. Most of her party members are involved in extortions and her party colleagues have the unsavoury reputation of being extremely corrupt.
Banerjee may have many failings, but one quality she possesses in ample measure is the survival instinct. She knows that the long investigations by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the chit fund scams emanating from West Bengal have unearthed a lot of material against her party and her close aides. She knows that the Enforcement Directorate, Economic Offences Wing, Income Tax Department and other Central government agencies have also gathered a lot of foolproof and incriminating information against her family members and party men.
Banerjee knows it may be only a matter of time before the cookie starts crumbling for her. She knows that the demonetisation drive is just the first step towards the larger fight against corruption that will claim many victims all over the country. She knows that once her corrupt aides and family members are netted, she will suffer a body blow that she would find impossible to recover from. She also knows that unlike the UPA government under Manmohan Singh that would only wink at corruption, the NDA under Modi is going all out against the menace.
Hence, her immediate instinct was to go hammer and tongs against the demonetisation drive. She has twin motives for this. One, she fathomed that when the crackdown against her family members and/or party men commences, she would be able to claim that she was being victimised by a vengeful Union government for her strident opposition to demonetisation. Such protestations of victimhood would scare the NDA government away and gain her public sympathy, she feels.
And two, her daily barrage of invectives has also been gaining a lot of attention in the national media. This has enabled her to reach out to and establish a rapport with leaders of anti-BJP parties like Congress, Samajwadi Party, Nationalist Congress Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. This, she hopes, will accord her a national-level profile which can ward off the Union government from going against her corrupt aides and relatives.
But her premise, based on her long experience in dealing with the pusillanimous Manmohan Singh and corrupt Congress, is deeply flawed. The NDA under Modi is not the UPA under Manmohan Singh. There is vast difference between the two dispensations and she has a lot to fear for this. She harbours a lurking suspicion that her diabolical game plan – of playing the victimhood card and gaining a national profile to keep Central prosecuting agencies away – may not just work. That is why she is deeply scared. And this fear of hers has started showing.
The latest manifestation of this fear surfaced two days ago when Banerjee strongly opposed the Union Home Ministry’s approval to the Income Tax authorities in Bengal to use central forces during I-T raids. She also opposed the continuing I-T and ED raids all over the country, and demanded that only the Bengal and Kolkata Police be requisitioned by the I-T Department for conducting searches in Bengal.
It is a well-known fact that the state and Kolkata police have been reduced to an extension of her party machinery and have become totally subservient to her. I-T authorities point out that in recent searches conducted at Burrabazar, Kolkata’s commercial hub, the city police not only did nothing to ward off protesters, who threatened I-T officers and prevented them from carrying out the raids thoroughly, but also subtly encouraged them (the protesters).
Thus, I-T authorities feel it will be futile and, in fact, counterproductive, to depend on state or city police cover for conducting raids on Trinamool politicians or Banerjee's relatives. The state or city police, in such an event, would thwart the raids by preventing I-T officers from going about their tasks, helping the politicians or persons raided to siphon off all their ill-gotten wealth or even threatening the I-T officers at gunpoint. And there can be no doubt that Banerjee's men in khaki would alert the persons to be raided in advance to keep their madam/didi happy and to save their jobs.
But Banerjee's opposition on this score is highly hypocritical since she herself retains six armed Railway Protection Force (RPF) guards for her personal safety. Just last week, the Union government approved the Bengal government’s request to allow her to retain the RPF personnel for another two years. These personnel have been with her since she was the railway minister during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s premiership. She did not deem it necessary to give up RPF security cover when she resigned from the cabinet in a huff or even after she became the Chief Minister. Perhaps she does not trust her subservient police force sufficiently enough to provide her inner perimeter security.
The increasing stridency of Banerjee's attacks on Modi can be explained by her mounting fear of crackdown on her party workers and relatives. The suspense of (waiting for) the impending crackdown is keeping her on tenterhooks and, this is finding reflection in her behaviour and statements. Had she been the honest politician she professes to be, she would not have had to criticise the spate of I-T and ED raids across the country. By doing do, she has, albeit unwittingly, let the cat out of the bag. Her mounting tension over what she feels is inevitable – exposure of the corruption of people close to her – is making her extremely edgy. More so since the NDA is not like the UPA that she would be able to cut deals with and go scot-free. This explains Banerjee's behaviour and statement post-demonetisation.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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