The arrest of Partha Chatterjee, Commerce, Industry and IT Minister in West Bengal, in connection with an alleged money laundering case leaves the Trinamool Congress (TMC) with a lot of questions to answer. Chatterjee is not just any minister, he is the number two in the Mamata Banerjee cabinet and secretary general of the party. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) took Chatterjee into custody a day after it raided the premises of his aide Arpita Mukherjee and claimed to have seized Rs 21.20 crore in cash besides foreign currency, ornaments and property papers from her apartment. The party has refused to take action against Chatterjee until the charges against him are proven. Considering that cash was allegedly seized from Chatterjee’s aide and the evidence the agencies have flagged regarding his links to the irregular recruitment of school teachers, the TMC’s defence is unconvincing — and self-defeating.
Of course, the ED’s record of booking Opposition leaders is dodgy. But the TMC can’t hide behind that. Since it first won office in 2011 and captured the state’s political imagination storming the Left citadel, it has done little to check how its growing power on the ground marginalised opponents, spread fear and formed “syndicates” that corrupted many local transactions — from real-estate to extortion. Many ministers and party functionaries have been embroiled in corruption scandals. The Saradha ponzi scheme — and later the Narada sting operation — have entrapped several TMC leaders. Investigations, including by the CBI, could not achieve closure in these scandals while some politicians who came under scrutiny shifted parties and escaped the net. The TMC has since won multiple elections, and with formidable majorities but, curiously, it hasn’t used its political space to flush out the corrupt and wash the taint. Indeed, the Kolkata High Court’s remarks on an ED plea against Chatterjee being shifted to SSKM Hospital in Kolkata is a severe indictment of the government’s conduct with regard to due process. The court minced few words: …”it would not be impossible for the accused with the aid of other political executives to take shelter under the garb of serious illness and medical treatment to evade interrogation. If this happens, Lady Justice will be cursed by the tears of hundreds and thousands of deserving candidates whose future was sacrificed in lieu of money.”
At a time when the TMC is seeking to expand its footprint beyond West Bengal and its leader Mamata Banerjee attempts to take the moral high ground on a range of issues — from probity to transparency — the corruption within undermines her credibility. The party needs to confront the growing corruption within and purge those feeding it howsoever high they may be. That will be the only way it can do justice to the mandate it’s got. The CM can begin by firing Chatterjee and although that may not clean up the mess, it could signal that when it assured the state poribortan, its promise wasn’t entirely empty.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on July 26, 2022 under the title ‘Fire Mr Chatterjee’.