No 'lockdown' on Bengal political mudslinging as TMC, BJP exchange barbs over Narada case, post-poll violence

With the long-drawn West Bengal Assembly election done and dusted, it was hoped that political leaders in the state would finally focus on the alarming COVID-19 situation in the state. However, over two weeks after the election results, that hope has largely been belied.

To be sure, there have been some indications of the state administration giving the pandemic the attention that it requires. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, shortly after her swearing-in, said that combating the coronavirus will be her 'topmost priority.' A fifteen-day lockdown in the state also began on Sunday.

However, the focus of the state's political class appears to have shifted to the alleged Narada scam, in which two TMC minister, an MLA and a former Kolkata mayor have been arrested. Notably, two accused persons who have not been arrested are Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari, both of whom crossed over from the TMC to the BJP.

Following the arrests, Banerjee rushed to the CBI office in Kolkata, and began a sit-in demonstration there. She later dared the agency to arrest her as well.

On the whole, both the Trinamool Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party appear more intent on attacking each other rather than taking on the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, the TMC  had faced criticism over post-poll violence, of which BJP workers faced the brunt. The saffron party has claimed that twelve of its workers were killed in the violence, while the TMC has claimed that four of its workers were killed. Now, the selective arrests of TMC leaders have added further weight to allegations about the BJP using central agencies to target political opponents.

Nevertheless, the allegations against the TMC leaders are of a serious nature. The sting operation at the centre of the controversy was conducted by Narada news founder Mathew Samuel for over two years. Before the 2016 Assembly elections, Narada news had released videos showing 13 TMC ministers and leaders accepting bribes in return of favours.

Those seen in the Narada sting tapes were: Firhad Hakim, Mukul Roy, Saugata Roy, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, Sultan Ahmed, Subrata Mukherjee, Suvendu Adhikari , Sovan Chatterjee (who joined the BJP and then quit), Aparupa Poddar, Madan Mitra, Iqbal Ahmed, Prasun Banerjee and HMS Mirza. Among these, Roy and Adhikari crossed over to the BJP, with the saffron party having successfully fielded the latter against the chief minister herself.

PTI has quoted CBI officials as saying that the agency has found nothing "so far" against Mukul Roy, while its application seeking sanction to prosecute four others including Suvendu Adhikari has been pending with the Lok Sabha Speaker for over two years. Notably, the CBI had also sent requests in January to the West Bengal governor seeking sanction to prosecute the four leaders who are currently under arrest. The agency got the sanction within five days of the election results, as reported by The Indian Express.

Thus, while the CBI claims that the investigation is still open and no clean chit has been given to anyone, doubts over the impartiality of its probe are likely to persist.

The TMC has also hit out at West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who gave the sanction for prosecution a day before the new council of ministers was sworn in on 11 May. Dhankhar claimed that the governor was their 'appointing authority' as ministers when the alleged offence took place in 2016.

The West Bengal governor has locked horns with the state government numerous times in the past. Earlier this month, the TMC  objected to his visit to violence-hit Cooch Behar, accusing him of 'surpassing' the council of ministers and exceeding his powers.

Such political slugfests are particularly unseemly when seen in the context of the COVID-19 crisis in the state. Already, coronavirus cases in Bengal have spiralled in the duration of the election campaign. Between 26 February, the day the election commission announced the schedule for the Assembly Election and 29 April, the day the eighth and final phase of the Assembly election was held, the daily COVID-19 cases rose from just 216 to 17,403.

Since then, the crisis in West Bengal has further worsened, even as several other states are seeing their coronavirus numbers dip. On Tuesday, the state registered 19,428 new COVID-19 cases and 145 new fatalities.

Thus, at this time, both the TMC and BJP would do well to put political mudslinging on the backburner and focus on the health crisis at hand.