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A video of a sting operation showing some TMC leaders accepting bribes has led to three PILs being filed in Calcutta High Court and doesn’t portend well for the party in the assembly polls
By Sujit Bhar in Kolkata


Barely had the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) of West Bengal managed to wade through the Saradha chit fund scam, than a sting operation by the news portal, Narada News, emerged before the assembly polls. It showed 14 TMC partymen, including top MPs, ministers and activists, taking wads of currency notes totaling nearly Rs 70 lakh for future favors.

In the beginning, the party tried to wade through the angry protests from opposition leaders who termed them as “chors” (thieves) by claiming that the videos were doctored. When calls for putting their claim to a technology test backfired, they said the money was “donation” received legally before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. That tactic also backfired and deep fissures have shown up within the party with some party MPs, including Dinesh Trivedi, asking for introspection and a temporary ban on those featured in the sting.

OPPOSITION ATTACK

Three PILs — filed by Congress leader Amitava Chakraborty, BJP leader Brajesh Jha and advocate Akshay Sarengi — were admitted by the Calcutta High Court after the sting. And when TMC’s advocate appealed to the Court that these PILs be heard after the elections so that it wouldn’t affect its outcome, it was rejected. Instead, it heard all three PILs and the division bench of Chief Justice Manjula Chellur and Justice Arijit Banerjee directed Narada News to submit the video footage of its sting. The bench also directed Mathew Samuel, owner of Narada News, to disclose all details regarding his company and the sting operation in an affidavit by April 5. The court wants the affidavit to state the identity of those involved in the sting, a list of shareholders of the company and its directors. The next hearing is on April 8, four days after the first phase of elections in the state. Trinamool lawyer Kalyan Banerjee (also an MP) again appealed that the court’s order not be made public before the election process.

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And if that wasn’t enough, West Bengal governor KN Tripathi has got memorandums from the BJP, the Congress and the CPM demanding a CBI probe into the sting and urging him to bar the accused from standing for elections. This is pending with the governor. The demand for a CBI probe gains currency in the backdrop of the Supreme Court handing over the Saradha scam case to the same investigating agency in the face of stiff TMC resistance. One of its ministers (now ex-minister), Madan Mitra, would be contesting the polls from behind bars.

Meanwhile, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said: “Our party has already said it is a fake video and even in the court we have said that.” She further said: “Much like accepting bribe, giving bribe too is a crime. Being a journalist why would you approach somebody like that? The entire video is fake, this has been manufactured.”


BRICKBATS

These are comments given by various leaders and those involved during press conferences and individual interviews:

From Saradha to Narada, Trinamool is involved in loot. The dignity of parliament has been compromised.
— Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury

Let’s say if I were head of the party, I would have just said, “You come out clean and tell us what it is. And till the time you are clear you sit at home… If Mamata did that she would have swept the elections.”
— Dinesh Trivedi, TMC MP who refused to meet Mathew Samuel

The chief minister has expressed her anguish over the tapes, and not those who have been caught taking money. This shows that for the CM, stealing, robbing, extortion is pardonable so long as her men don’t get caught.
— CPM leader Mohammad Salim

There is a political conspiracy against Trinamool by the three parties — BJP, Congress and CPM — as they all are going to lose the upcoming assembly elections
— Prof Saugata Roy, TMC MP (seen in the video taking money)

I do not remember that… During elections many people give donations… It is free and fair… I give an ultimatum to the central government. If proved I will resign in a week…
— Aparupa Poddar, TMC MP from Arambagh (seen in the second video taking money)

Neither the chief minister nor the Trinamool government has any right to continue. We have placed our demand with the governor seeking his intervention in the matter.
— BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya

Some of the leaders (of TMC) shown in the video accepting bribes are contesting in the assembly polls. They should not be allowed to contest.
— CPM leader Rabin Deb

Sultan Ahmed (another MP seen taking money) talked to MP Dinesh Trivedi but Trivedi did not want to meet us. He did not entertain us. Subrata Bakshi also did not want to meet us.
— Mathew Samuel (Narada News owner/reporter) on the people whom he tried to approach


DUBIOUS DEALS

So what did the sting show? The two sets of videos, released at different times, showed the greed of 14 of the TMC’s best who succumbed to bribes. Technically, though, the “donation” claim by the TMC cannot be totally discounted because nowhere in the videos does one hear the reporter (Mathew Samuel, disguised as a representative of a fictitious company called Impex Consultancy) ask for any favor. Nonetheless, when there is a ruling that all donations to political parties above Rs 2,000 should be in cheque, how did money exchange hands? Also, can an SP, Syed MH Mirza, accept political donations for a party?

Samuel did a sting in 2001 too —Operation West End — where then BJP president Bangaru Laxman was shown taking money from him when he was a reporter for Tehelka for a “defense purchase”. But the difference between that video and this one is that while the earlier one was an actual favor asked, this time it was not so obvious.

People in the know say this is an “inside job”. They say that Samuel couldn’t have met top ministers and MPs so casually and offered money which was taken without a second thought without an inside hand. As it turned out — and as Samuel himself admitted — it was TMC MP Sultan Ahmed’s brother Iqbal Ahmed, a party leader, who had taken Samuel to meet these top leaders. Iqbal Ahmed had bought Samuel’s story that he was a rich businessman from Chennai and had come to Kolkata to buy favors for a project. The other person who believed his story and also took him to leaders, especially Mukul Roy, the No 2 in the TMC — was Syed MH Mirza.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

However, there are still three critical questions that need to be answered:

*Why would Samuel think of doing a sting in West Bengal when he had been involved in stories of national importance earlier? His explanation that he had visited the city and had thought it up is fragile.

*Why did he sit on the sting when it was done in 2014? He has told the media that he was busy handling the Tehelka portal and did not have the time, rings hollow.

*Who got him in touch with Mirza and Iqbal in the first place? This he has not answered. People believe that the entire funding of the sting was done by somebody close to the TMC or even within it. Samuel’s explanation that his “friends” from Dubai to Australia chipped in with Rs 2-3 lakh is something the court would need to ascertain. Samuel, posing as a businessman, handed out Rs 20 lakh to Mukul Roy and between Rs 4-6 lakh to the others.

Former Trinamool MLA and eminent advocate Arunava Ghosh said he was “100 per cent sure it was an inside job”. Ghosh, incidentally, has got a Congress ticket to contest from Bidhannagar constituency. Though his pronouncement seemed preposterous, that seems to be the case. His assumption was correct when Iqbal and Mirza’s names cropped up. But Ghosh also maintains that the basic idea of the sting was not Samuel’s but from a person “close to the TMC or even within it”.

Who could that be? “That somebody would be someone who would have been in a rather inconvenient position vis-à-vis Mamata at that point of time,” Ghosh said. But it could also be a current young member of the government with huge ambitions who is out to pull the carpet from under the feet of old, established leaders.

GREEDY POLITICOS

A Calcutta University professor, who did not wish to be named, and who has been in the thick of politics, put it in perspective: “The amounts given to senior ministers and MPs are so puny that it surprises me. Nobody with such a small cash stash to deliver — mostly Rs 5-6 lakh — would be asking for a big favor. And if that wasn’t so, why was he allowed to go near the top brass of the ruling party?”

So what is the catch? “The reporter — Samuel — had barely started to talk when the ministers agreed to take the money. Saugata Roy (an MP and respected among academics. His presence in the sting has surprised many) even exclaimed: ‘That’s a lot of money.’ This could translate to ‘That’s a lot of money for a favor so small’,” said the professor. The alacrity with which the money was accepted and the candor with which they spoke has surprised him. Ghosh said the reason why those implicated in this sting agreed to such small sums of money was elections. “Each of these people was contributing his quota of cash to the party fund. It was a mad scramble for money and any amount was welcome.” This was evident in Syed Mirza’s boasting that he had already given Rs 60 lakh.

It must also be remembered that Sanuel was working for Tehelka, which was then owned by Trinamool MP KD Singh, himself a controversial businessman-cum-politician. While Samuel has said that he was working on the sting alone without Singh’s knowledge, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. “That’s difficult to believe,” said Ghosh, “especially as Singh was by then a member of the Trinamool Congress after moving over from the JMM.”

He added: “The sting had clearly been funded from the beginning and shelved for whatever reason. Now, either Samuel himself has decided to bring it to light despite the unwillingness of his original funders or this has been managed from behind.”

While nobody denies now that money exchanged hands for future favors, there is little to suggest that the tapes were doctored — the quality of presentation has been shoddy and there is little expert editing, clues that could lead to a doctored video.

FAMILY TIES

Another thing that has not escaped many observers is that while Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s hangers-on were interviewed in 2014, Abhishek was really not at the forefront of things. Mukul Roy was the virtual number two in the Mamata government. It was only after the Saradha scam blew up and after he made comments about a dubious IRCTC deal not having been made during his tenure as railway minister, that Mamata started promoting her nephew. That’s when Mukul’s fall began. It was only recently that Mukul came back into the limelight. The professor asked why Abhishek himself was not shown. Was someone shielding him?

“All this would explain why the Trinamool is against a full inquiry — CBI or otherwise — and why despite saying that the footage is doctored, it did not want to go out on a limb asking for a verification of the video’s authenticity,” Ghosh said. “Mamata had planned to conduct an internal inquiry first before a full probe. But now that the cat is out of the bag, she has to own up.”

Meanwhile, the TMC has already started co-operating with the BJP, he revealed. “Allowing the Aadhaar card issue to go through by simply walking out of the Rajya Sabha to provide the BJP a numerical comfort zone is a case in point. Now it will be expecting a quid pro quo from the BJP in the sting issue.”

So who initiated the sting in the first place? While nothing can be said for sure, neither the Congress nor the Left Front, seem to have a hand in it. “The Congress is virtually leaderless and rudderless. It would not have the wherewithal or foresight for such an operation. The Left Front has intelligent people in its ranks, but the CPM’s Central Committee would probably not allow such a thing even if its local rank and file wanted it,” said the professor.

It remains to be seen if the sting will indeed sting the TMC in the coming elections.

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