Bengal defection saga: TMC turncoats ‘admit’ to graft in earlier avatars

The government’s move to order probe came amid defections becoming the most talked-about issue in the run-up to the assembly elections, forcing the BJP to redraw its poaching strategy

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's move to order probe involving defectors is proving to be an embarrassment for the ruling as well as the opposition BJP. | File photo: PTI

The West Bengal government has decided to order an inquiry involving corruption charges against a turncoat minister and another Trinamool Congress defector who recently joined the BJP, leaving both the parties red-faced. Both the defectors have in their own ways accepted the charges, while seeking to blame the top TMC leadership for the irregularities.

The state cabinet on Friday gave the go-ahead to a probe into alleged irregularities in the recruitment of forest department personnel during the tenure of then minister-in-charge, Rajib Banerjee.

The government’s move came amid defection becoming the most talked-about issue in the run-up to the assembly elections, so much so that the BJP is now rethinking on its poaching strategy.

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Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday (February 3) claimed, without naming her former cabinet colleague, there were irregularities in the recruitment in forest department last year, triggering chain reactions uncomfortable for both the TMC and the BJP.

“I received several complaints of irregularities in the recruitment of ‘Bana Sahayaks’ in the forest department during the tenure of one person who recently left us to join the BJP to hide his misdeed,” said the chief minister.

Hours later in another public meeting, the minister concerned admitted that there had been irregularities in the recruitment process. But he claimed that he was coerced by many TMC leaders to recruit party workers as ‘Bana Sahayaks.’

The forest department in a notification on July 22 last year created 2,000 posts in a new category called ‘Bana Sahayaks’, on a purely contractual basis with a remuneration of ₹10,000 per month.

“In October last year, I had informed the chief minister about an influential TMC leader from Birbhum pressuring me to recruit TMC workers as Bana Sahayaks. But the chief minister herself told me to allot some quotas in every district for TMC cadre in the recruitment process,” said Rajib Banerjee, the then forest minister.

Also read: Decoding Mamata’s pick of Nandigram for Bengal Assembly polls

“I can show proof of how TMC leaders, including those from Kalighat (the place where Mamata Banerjee’s residence is located), had recommended their candidates for recruitment,” he said.

A day after a war of words between the chief minister and her former forest minister, another TMC defector, Kalna MLA Biswajit Kundu, claimed there were gross irregularities in the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) examination conducted by the state government for the recruitment of primary teachers in 2014.

He told a Bengali news channel that two of his family members were beneficiaries of the irregular recruitment process in which several TMC leaders were involved.

“Yes, it’s true that my wife and sister-in-law were the beneficiaries. Apart from them, 62 TMC workers got job in 2014 based on my recommendations,” said Kundu who recently left the TMC to join BJP.

BJP’s weak defence

The TMC, however, denied the allegations and asked why he was silent all these years.

Ironically, in 2014, the BJP had raised allegation of nepotism against Kundu after his relatives cleared the test.

The party now puts up a weak defence to defend the leaders it had once accused of corruption.

“It’s the system and not the individual against which we had a complaint. Our party has no intention of giving protection to anyone found involved in any wrongdoing,” said BJP spokesperson Debjit Sarkar in a television talk-show on Friday.

Also read: BJP to roll out rath yatras in Bengal’s religious hubs to strengthen vote bank

The BJP, in December last year, was forced to delete from its official YouTube channel a purported sting video that showed former TMC and current BJP members Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy accepting bribes.

The sting video that came to be known as the Narada cash scandal was removed after Adhikari joined the BJP. The sting operation was carried out by Mathew Samuels for the Narada news in 2016.

Former Kolkata mayor Sovan Chatterjee is another ex-TMC leader featured in the Narada tapes to join the BJP.

Poaching for power

In the absence of a strong organisational base to leverage the momentum it received in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is heavily relying on poaching leaders from other parties, mainly the TMC, to come to power for the first time in the state.

The rampant poaching has not only drilled holes in BJP’s anti-corruption plank, but is also fuelling resentment within the party. “We don’t want the BJP to become a B-team of TMC. We don’t want tainted TMC leaders to join our party. From now on, there will be selective joining after scrutiny,” BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya has said.

His statement came on the day another TMC legislator, Dipak Haldar, who was once arrested and suspended from the TMC for his involvement in a political clash, joined the saffron brigade.

“In the last Lok Sabha elections, our support-base increased considerably only because leaders like Mukul Roy, Arjun Singh, Nisith Pramanik, Saumitra Khan, Anupam Hazra, Khagen Murmu and others from TMC and CPI (M) who joined us,” said a BJP MP.

BJP state president Dilip Ghosh admits that the party needs to poach to increase its base.

“Yes, there is some resentment over mass inflow of people from the TMC. But we have to take this calculated risk of piggybacking on the turncoats in districts where our organization is not so strong. At the same time we should be more careful about the background of those joining us,” the BJP leader said.

Double trouble for TMC

The allegations of the defectors are proving to be a double whammy for TMC. “Desertion of these leaders is creating a perception that the TMC is a sinking ship. Now their allegations will bolster another perception that the corruption is rampant in the party,” pointed out political commentator and author Nirmalya Banerjee.

By deciding to conduct the inquiry involving Rajib Banerjee, the chief minister is trying to turn around the narrative by projecting that it is only the corrupt who are deserting her.

The question is if the chief minister was aware of irregularities in the recruitment in the forest department, why she remained silent until Rajib Banerjee joined the BJP.

Banerjee had a relatively clean image in state politics until the recent revelation.

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