A few months before the West Bengal elections last year, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had publicly told her party cadre to return “cut money” taken from people for delivering various services, in a tacit admission that the Trinamool Congress workers had been indulging in corruption.
While the state’s public seemed to have “forgiven” Banerjee on that count by bringing her back as the CM, the bundles of cash amounting to nearly Rs 50 crore seized by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) from a close aide of her top minister Partha Chatterjee are set to hurt the national ambitions of the TMC chairperson ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. This is because the national mood of the electorate is intolerant to large-scale corruption, with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister epitomising a clean image in stark contrast to the days of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
The Bengal CM is still to sack Chatterjee who is in ED custody after raids on his aide Arpita Mukherjee’s flats have thrown up huge stashes of cash, jewellery, property documents, and deeds. The party has distanced itself from the arrested minister and Arpita and Chatterjee may be sacked soon. But the BJP has been able to affix the public perception that the TMC and the chief minister are connected to this teacher recruitment scam dating back to her previous term. Trinamool MLA Manik Bhattacharya has also been questioned by the ED.
“The TMC may say anything but the fact is that such large-scale corruption was happening under the CM’s nose and people are watching in shock at the pictures of the cash seizures. These photos are going to haunt the TMC and Banerjee as her image of being a simple, non-corrupt leader wearing Hawai chappal stands exposed,” a senior BJP leader who looks at West Bengal told News18.
Another party leader said such distancing by the CM was reminiscent of the UPA days when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh distanced himself from corruption scams but the public did not spare the PM or the Congress.
Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014 on the plank of targeting the Congress on the issue of corruption, has claimed to have run a government for the last eight years in which no allegation of unscrupulousness has stuck. Modi has repeatedly said that even his fiercest opponents have not been able to prove any corruption charge against his government. BJP leaders, hence, believe that on the national stage, the electorate has turned “intolerant” to mega corruption scandals like in the UPA era.
The TMC’s share of troubles may just be beginning as the ED is also probing the CM’s nephew and MP Abhishek Banerjee in a money laundering case related to coal smuggling and action may next be targeted at him. This may bring the taint right to Mamata’s doorstep.
The other challenger to the BJP, Arvind Kejriwal, has been facing a similar political quandary since the arrest of his senior minister, Satyendar Jain, in a money laundering case by the ED and the courts denying him bail. Kejriwal is also yet to sack Jain though the ED filed a prosecution complaint against the minister on Tuesday, after having claimed to have seized Rs 2.85 crore in cash from him in raids earlier. AAP has so far termed the action as “political vendetta” and has been backing him.
Last week, the Delhi lieutenant governor recommended a CBI probe into the excise policy of the AAP government with the suspicion of quid quo pro favours going up to the top political levels of the administration, bringing under the scanner the role of another top minister, Manish Sisodia. The Central Bureau of Investigation is set to launch its initial inquiries into the matter soon.
These cases stand to damage the image of Kejriwal who came into politics as an anti-corruption crusader.
Senior BJP leader BL Santhosh tweeted on Tuesday night, saying: “First it was Arvind Kejriwal who refused to drop in custody Satyendra Jain. Now it is Mamata Banerjee refusing to drop Partha Chatterjee in custody. Both champions of democracy…pride of respective states, crusaders against corruption.” The BJP is expected to take this political line to target its two major opponents, the TMC and AAP.