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Will Partha's arrest in SSC scam impact Mamata?

By Ishita Ayan Dutt
August 10, 2022 21:58 IST
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After the Trinamool’s overwhelming majority in the West Bengal assembly elections last year, the SSC scam has given fresh ammunition to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India-Marxist. 

Ishita Ayan Dutt reports.

IMAGE: Former TMC leader Partha Chatterjee at ESI hospital for medical check-up before being produced in a court in connection with the teachers recruitment scam case in Kolkata. Photograph: PTI Photo

In 2011, when Mamata Banerjee stormed into Writers’ Building, which then housed the government in West Bengal, ending 34 years of Left rule, Partha Chatterjee was one of her most trusted lieutenants.

Among the few who had a say during the formation of the first Cabinet, he was one.

But from the high perch to being stripped of all posts in the government and party, it’s a long drop.

Television pictures showed heaps of money -- in bundles of Rs 2,000 and Rs 500 denominations -- recovered from the flats of Arpita Mukherjee, a “close associate” of Chatterjee, by the Enforcement Directorate.

The search operations extended to various premises of people linked to an alleged recruitment scam in the West Bengal School Service Commission (SSC) and West Bengal Primary Board Education.

The central agency is tracing the money trail under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002.

Chatterjee and Mukherjee were arrested after the first cash stash of Rs 20 crore was retrieved from Mukherjee’s residence on July 22.

 

An ED statement said the amount was suspected to be the proceeds of the crime of the said SSC scam.

A number of incriminating documents, records, details of “dubious” companies, electronic devices, foreign currency and gold were also recovered, it said.

But the last straw for the Trinamool Congress was perhaps the second stash of around Rs 28 crore recovered on July 28, precipitating a flurry of events.

The West Bengal government “relieved” Chatterjee of his duties as minister.

Suspension from party posts followed.

As the amount recovered spiralled to around Rs 50 crore, Chatterjee soon became the Achilles heel for the party leadership with pressure mounting from the Opposition parties -- the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India-Marxist -- and from within the party, particularly those close to Banerjee’s nephew and national general secretary of the Trinamool Congress, Abhishek Banerjee.

Chatterjee, however, said the money did not belong to him.

The optics do not look good.

But the bigger question is, will the alleged scam impact the Trinamool Congress adversely and will the absence of a heavyweight minister impact the government?

Heavyweight minister

Chatterjee held key portfolios including industry, commerce and enterprises, IT and electronics in the third term of the Mamata Banerjee-led government.

But multiple people from the business community that Business Standard spoke to said his role as industry and IT minister was limited.

“If a major investor were visiting West Bengal, he would want to meet the chief minister (the decision-making authority), if not the chief secretary or top officials of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC). That’s the pecking order,” an industry official said.

The Bengal Global Business Summit in April, which had the likes of Gautam Adani, Sajjan Jindal, and Purnendu Chatterjee taking stage, was also a WBIDC show with a minimal role for Chatterjee.

With Banerjee in charge of Chatterjee’s portfolios for now, industry can look forward to continuity in policies.

Perhaps, to signal this, Banerjee held a meeting of the West Bengal Industrial Promotion Board -- the day Chatterjee was removed from ministerial duties -- with full attendance from the business community, RP-SG Group Chairman Sanjiv Goenka to ITC Chairman and Managing Director Sanjiv Puri.

SSC case

In the first term of the Trinamool Congress in power, Chatterjee was allotted the portfolios of industry and commerce, IT, and parliamentary affairs.

However, in a 2014 Cabinet reshuffle, Chatterjee was removed from industry and given charge of education, a department he led till 2021.

The cash haul the ED suspects to be the “proceeds of crime” pertains to this period.

The Calcutta high court recently directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to carry out investigations into the alleged recruitment scam of Group ‘C’ and ‘D’ staff, assistant teachers of classes IX-XII and primary teachers. The ED is investigating the matter under the PMLA.

As the division bench mentioned in its order, in the language of Sherlock Holmes it would be elementary not to presume that the appointees secured appointments upon payment of illegal gratification.

Political ramifications

After the Trinamool’s overwhelming majority in the West Bengal assembly elections last year, the SSC scam has given fresh ammunition to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India-Marxist.

Protests are being held in Kolkata and the pitch against not just Chatterjee but the chief minister is getting louder.

But will the Opposition reap dividends?

According to political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty, corruption is not a big issue in West Bengal. “People in West Bengal cast their votes based on their identity.”

Past events point to it.

Ahead of the assembly election in 2016, the Narada video footage surfaced, allegedly showing ministers, MLAs and MPs of the Trinamool accepting cash for extending favours to a fictitious company.

That was followed by the collapse of the Vivekananda flyover in North Kolkata, which laid bare the “syndicate raj”.

But the party came out with flying colours in the elections.

Many predict in the unfolding SSC episode there could be an unlikely gainer in Abhishek Banerjee, having donned the role of a crisis manager.

He has made it clear the onus was on Chatterjee to prove his innocence. And assured help to agitating aspirants -- they were allegedly denied jobs even after their names were on the merit list and have been agitating for more than 500 days. Dousing it will boost his image.

According to Chakraborty, “He will be the power behind the throne”.

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Ishita Ayan Dutt in Kolkata
Source: source
 
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