In the run-up to India's parliamentary elections in April-May, a big political drama is being played out in front of Central Kolkata's impossible-to-miss landmark cinema hall Metro. Under a tent and perched over a makeshift dais is West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, who has been staging a sit-in since Sunday taking her years of battle with the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to an unprecedented height. The political turf war for dominance in Bengal has begun in right earnest.
The trigger for Mamata's sit-in protest is the Central Bureau of Investigation's bid to question Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar in connection with the multi-crore Rupee-chit fund scams in which some Trinamool Congress legislators and leaders were either questioned or arrested in the past.
The CBI was handed over the probe into the chit fund scams by the Supreme Court in 2014, following apprehensions and suspicion that the West Bengal police team that probed the scams was trying to allegedly dilute or remove evidence. The Special Investigation Team, set up by the state government, was headed by Rajeev Kumar.
While Mamata is projecting her sit-in as a fight against an alleged violation of norms of federalism by the Modi government, the BJP is showcasing it as the proposed opposition coalition's efforts to “shield the corrupt.”
By staging the sit-in, Mamata is back to the role she is best at doing—that of the feisty street fighter that she has always been known for. It was at the same spot 13 years ago that she had gone on a hunger strike for 26 days in protest against the then Left Front government's decision to hand over fertile land to the Indian business conglomerate Tatas for a small car factory in Singur, in North 24 Parganas district close to Kolkata.
That event in Singur catapulted her to the status of a mass leader and eventually to power in West Bengal eight years down the line in May 2011, as Trinamool Congress decimated 34 years of Left Front rule in the state. This time, Mamata's sights are on the throne in New Delhi, and the issue is the fight against the Modi government just two months before parliamentary polls.
Mamata's sit-in came just two weeks after she successfully organised a mega rally of all the anti-BJP parties at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata on January 19, when the contours of an opposition alliance emerged to take on the saffron party in the coming polls.
On the other hand, the BJP too has scaled up its efforts to make further inroads into West Bengal by deploying its top leaders—PM Narendra Modi, party chief Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Textile Minister Smriti Irani, among others—for campaigning. Shah has more than once made it clear that his party wants to win at least 23 of the 42 parliamentary seats up for grabs in West Bengal—a Herculean task for the BJP.
If the January 19 rally of anti-BJP forces cemented her place as the main anchor of an opposition alliance, the sit-in protest starting Sunday has elevated—by quite a few notches—her position as the pivot of that alliance, as support and solidarity poured in from all parties opposed to the Modi dispensation.
Politically significant is the issue Mamata has flagged in staging her sit-in—of alleged “constitutional coup” against her government and “destruction” of institutional bodies by the Modi government by using the Central Bureau of Investigation against political rivals. This is an issue that Mamata knows has the potential of uniting all opposition parties, which have from time to time made similar allegations.
In short, Mamata, faced with an aggressive BJP in West Bengal, has tried to give the anti-BJP fight an all-India character by presenting the whole issue as just not her own but also that of other anti-BJP parties—an opposition party-ruled state versus the federal government. At the same time, she is hoping to carve out for herself the image of a “political victim” at the hands of a more powerful force.
Mamata has repeatedly accused the Centre of misusing its security and ant-graft agencies against political rivals. The recent storm in the CBI over an internecine feud between two top officers over their alleged involvement in graft did not show the agency in good light.
For its part, the BJP is trying to showcase the battle as its larger campaign against corruption by accusing the opponents of “shielding the tainted persons.”
The Trinamool Congress-BJP face-off has escalated in recent months. The Mamata government has withdrawn from the Modi government's ambitious pan-Indian health insurance scheme, decided to go ahead on its own with a plan to build a deep sea port in the Bay of Bengal in Tajpur, and allegedly denied permission for landing of helicopters carrying Shah and Adityanath who wanted to campaign in West Bengal. While Shah's copter landed in a BSF helipad, Adityanath had to be content by addressing a rally over telephone from his home state Uttar Pradesh.
Another question is, why did Mamata stage the sit-in when the CBI wanted to interrogate Rajeev Kumar but did not do so when the agency had quizzed a number of Trinamool Congress leaders in the last few years—and more recently, her close aide Manik Majumdar—in connection with the chit fund scams?
The answer is: the timing of Mamata's sit-in just two months before polls. It is unusual for a chief minister to visit the house of a senior police officer (she visited Rajeev Kumar's official residence in Park Street on Sunday). Also, present on Mamata's sit-in site on Sunday were a number of top police officers.
If Mamata wanted to send a message of solidarity with the police apparatus, which would be on poll duty in the state, the Modi government too sent its cautionary signal against any partisan role by West Bengal police when Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, representing the central government, told the Supreme Court on Monday that Rajeev Kumar was a “potential accused” in the ponzi scams.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.