No meeting in the recent political history of the state evoked as much curiosity as Friday’s tête-à-tête between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The two were closeted for about 45 minutes at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg residence of the prime minister, wherein the Chief Minister gave detail accounts of the state’s dues with the Centre amounting to 100968.44 crore.
This include Rs 6,561.56 crore against MGNREGA, Rs 9,329.76 crore for PMAY (Gramin), Rs 1263.97 crore for food subsidy, performance grant of Rs 1016.56 crore and Rs 17,762.96 crore as share of the state in tax devolution among others.
“With such a large amount of Rs 10,00968.44 crore remaining outstanding on account of core sectors, you would no doubt appreciate that it is becoming extremely difficult for the state government to run the affairs and take care of the people of the state,” the Chief Minister said in a written representation submitted to the prime minister.
She also reportedly apprised the prime minister of the state government’s position on changing of names of various central government projects for which the Centre has stopped providing funding to Bengal.
The timing of the one-to-one, however, sparked speculation as it held at a time the TMC government in Bengal was battling corruption charges following the arrest of a senior minister, Partha Chatterjee, over teacher recruitment scam.
Chatterjee has since been relieved from the ministerial responsibilities and also suspended from the TMC.
On the day of the high-profile meeting, the CBI further summoned TMC Birbhum president Anubrata Mondal to appear before it on Monday in connection with a cattle-smuggling case.
Another central agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), on Wednesday conducted raids in various places in Birbhum district, including at the residence of a close aide of the party’s Birbhum strongman in the smuggling case.
“Why is this hush-hush meeting? In the past she (Banerjee) even skipped meetings with the Prime Minister. The intention is very clear. She wants the Centre to protect her government from various corruption charges,” alleged CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty.
Earlier in the day, even BJP leader and former governor Tathagata Roy fuelled the “setting up” theory.
“Kolkata is agog with the apprehension of a ‘setting’, which means a secret understanding between Modiji and Mamata, whereby the thieves of Trinamool and/or the murderers of BJP workers would go scot-free. Please convince us that there would be no such ‘setting’,” Roy tweeted, tagging Modi and the Prime Minister’s Office on Friday morning.
Former Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh had on Thursday argued against the meeting, alleging that Banerjee would use it to send out a signal that there has been some understanding between her and the BJP.
“The Centre should realise this and not fall for it,” he said.
The “setting” theory was further aided by the TMC’s recent unexpected decision to abstain from voting in the vice-presidential election in a blow to the attempt by Opposition parties to put up a joint front against the BJP.
The decision had come close on the heels of Banerjee meeting over a cup of tea with then Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and her Assam counterpart Himanta Biswa Sarma in Darjeeling. Soon after the meeting, Dhankhar was nominated as the NDA candidate for the coveted post.
The TMC, however, rubbished the charges of any ‘setting’ saying the Chief Minister called on the Prime Minister for the “interest of the state.”
“One should not read too much into the meeting where various issues pertaining to the state’s demands were discussed,” said TMC spokesperson Biswajit Deb.
Banerjee is in the national capital to attend the NITI Aayog Governing Council meeting on August 7, which itself is a departure from her previous position.
She did not attend the virtual meeting of this council last year and also skipped it in 2019 arguing that nothing worthwhile is discussed in the NITI Aayog meeting.
The two, however, met at a tea ceremony in New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan during a conference of the judiciary. In November last year, she met the prime minister to invite him to attend a global business summit organised by the state government.