Trademark white cotton sari with a blue border and rubber chappals who likes to refer to herself publicly as “LIP – Least Important Person.” Mamata Banerjee, three-term Chief minister of West Bengal, has made a fetish of her clean image. She is the little guy, an agit-prop leader, forever fighting the system, despite being in office.
But her carefully-curated image has been severely dented by the mountain of cash (Rs 50 crore) allegedly accumulated by a senior minister in her government, Partha Chatterjee. The scandal erupted on July 23 after Chatterjee was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate after non-stop questioning for 26 hours.
Mamata Banerjee has finally sacked the 69-year-old leader. In multiple raids at apartments linked to Partha Chatterjee, cash-counting machines have whirred incessantly, making their way through wads that have tumbled out of cupboards and other hiding places.
The facts are so glaring that even her own party’s spokie Kunal Ghosh said on Twitter that Partha Chatterjee must be sacked as Industries Minister and expelled from the party. The tweet had a sting in the tail, challenging Banerjee to remove him from all party posts if his demand was unwarranted.
After the tweet went viral, Kunal Ghosh deleted it. Mamata Banerjee rules the Trinamool with an iron fist.
Even as the cash recovered from apartments was being broadcast live on television channels, the Chief Minister tried to distance herself from Partha Chatterjee. Banerjee said that she does not support any corruption. As Partha Chatterjee was ferried in a wheelchair to hospitals by the Enforcement Directorate (he claims to be sick), he belligerently asked why he should be fired.
Top Trinamool sources say that Partha Chatterjee had replaced Suvendu Adhikari who defected to the BJP as the party’s main fund-raiser. Partha Chatterjee has always been extremely close to Mamata Banerjee who calls him “Dada”. Partha Chatterjee became the one-person replacement for Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy, another crossover to the BJP. He knows the inner-most details of the party, say sources.
This cash-for-jobs scandal and her fumbling over Partha Chatterjee are the latest in a series of problems for Mamata Banerjee ever since she won her third term by decisively defeating the BJP in May. After that succulent win, Mamata Banerjee thought she could take her brand national and become the fulcrum of the Opposition’s planned league against Prime Minister Modi for the 2024 general election.
Encouraged by her close aides including Partha Chatterjee and guided by uber poll strategist Prashant Kishor or “PK”, who crafted her campaign in Bengal, Mamata Banerjee tried her luck in the Goa election in February this year funding an expensive campaign. She won not one seat. As PK distanced himself from the electoral debacle in Goa, Mamata Banerjee blamed him for her embarrassment. When PK said he wanted to quit as TMC strategist Banerjee texted him “thank you”.
There was growing talk in Bengal after the Goa disaster of “cut money” a colloquial term for extortion in which TMC members from the panchayats onwards allegedly pocket a percentage of public money to include beneficiaries of government schemes. Amit Shah and J P Nadda had repeatedly raised “cut money” corruption in their election speeches.
Then, the BJP’s SOP kicked in with Abhishek Banerjee, who is the Chief Minister’s nephew and considered her political heir, being summoned for repeated questioning by the Enforcement Directorate for the West Bengal coal scam.
The coal scam pilferage case was registered by the CBI in 2020. The CBI claims that Banerjee allegedly conspired with the officials of Eastern Coalfields Limited located near Asansol, officials of eastern railways and the CISF to pilfer coal. The ED is investigating the money laundering part of the scam.
Mamata Banerjee has publicly defended her nephew and, like other Opposition leaders, accused the Modi government of launching fake investigations using the Enforcement Directorate to target Opposition leaders.
Mamata Banerjee’s impetuous personality saw her attacking Rahul Gandhi in December 2021 saying, “What UPA? If one does nothing and is abroad half the time, then how will one do politics?” with an uncomfortable Sharad Pawar standing next to her in Mumbai – while the trip was intended to cement Opposition unity against the Modi government and her outburst exposed the downside of a whimsical and impulsive operating style.
Banerjee also wrecked whatever little remained of Opposition unity in the presidential elections by refusing to support Margaret Alva for the post of Vice President and incredibly abstaining from the vote which amounted to supporting her bête noire, Jagdeep Dhankhar, who had daily run-ins with her as Governor of West Bengal. Apparently, Jagedeep Dhankar was chosen by the Modi government because of the fact that he kept Mamata Banerjee in check.
After publicly blocking Dhankhar on Twitter in February Mamata Banerjee had a cosy tea party with him and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in Darjeeling on the eve of the presidential elections. Mamata Banerjee shares a very cordial equation with Himanta Sarma who has emerged as the BJP’s chief trouble-shooter in the East. There is talk of Himanta Sarma serving as a conduit for better relations between Mamata Banerjee and the PM.
Opposition leaders don’t quite know what to make of these recent political moves. And while she is established as a fighter who beats apparently insurmountable odds, Mamata Banerjee now has a serious image crisis.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.