A sting operation video released at the time of West Bengal elections failed to cut the ice then, but court intervention and central agency probes are tightening the grip of Trinamool Congress leaders.
In early March 2016, West Bengal was gearing up for the Assembly elections. The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool was seeking a second term, the Left was hoping that it would reclaim its lost bastion, and the national parties — the Congress and the BJP — wanted their share in the East.
Narada News, then a little-known portal, carried ‘X Files’, a 24-minute-sting video in which many Trinamool Ministers, and officers close to them were shown accepting bribes. The video went viral on social media. Though the Trinamool dismissed it as “conspiracy” and “manufactured video”, it featured in Opposition campaigns.
The sting operation was conducted by Mathew Samuel, a former employee of investigative magazine Tehelka , and Angel Abraham. Mr. Samuel has said he had been working on the expose since the 2014, during the Lok Sabha elections. Incidentally, at that time Mr. Samuel was still with Tehelka , whose majority shares were with businessman K.D. Singh, who is a Trinamool-backed Rajya Sabha MP.
Claiming they were from a fictitious Chennai-based company called Impex Consultancy, which wanted to expand its operations to Kolkata, the reporters approached the Ministers. The footage shows several top Trinamool leaders including party vice-president Mukul Roy and Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee. The “Impex employees” allegedly bribed the Ministers and legislators up to Rs. 25 lakh. The portal claimed 11 Trinamool leaders and a police officer accepted bribes. The portal also claimed it had “52 hours of content” to prove its claim.
But the sting operation failed to cut ice in the West Bengal Assembly elections. The Trinamool Congress not only emerged victorious, five out of six Narada-stung MLAs retained their seats. Only Madan Mitra lost the elections. But he contested from jail after he was arrested in connection with the Saradha chit fund scam.
The first Assembly session after the West Bengal elections witnessed heated exchanges over the sting operation. Ms. Banerjee ordered Kolkata Police to probe the allegations. The Calcutta High Court also constituted a three-member committee to collect footage of the sting.
Kolkata Police made little headway in the probe. It summoned Mr. Samuel a couple of times and interrogated a few others including Trinamool MLA Iqbal Ahmed, but none were booked. No action was taken against M.H. Ahmed Mirza, the police official who was seen accepting cash on camera. Appalled by this, the Calcutta High Court, on March 17, 2017, ordered transfer of the case to CBI saying “(the) State police has ended up being with the respondents”. The court also ordered the police to take disciplinary action against Mr. Mirza.
A month later, the CBI lodged an FIR against 13 persons in connection with the Narada News sting videos. All those who figured in the sting video, and Aparupa Poddar were named in the FIR. The Enforcement Directorate, based on the CBI’s FIR, launched a probe under Prevention of Money Laundering Act against these Trinamool leaders.
While the booked leaders are not part of Ms. Banerjee’s Cabinet, Mr. Suvon Chatterjee continues to be the Mayor of Kolkata. Ms. Banerjee claims there is “political motive” behind the central agency probe.