Thursday, June 24, 2021

Bribery charge and a sting: Decoding the Narada case

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Between February and April 2014, a bunch of leaders of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and a senior Indian Police Service officer in the state met with a businessman who offered them money in return for help to run his business.

In truth, there was no businessman; the man offering them money, and surreptitiously recording the videos on his iPhone was Delhi-based journalist Mathew Samuel .

Among the people who were caught in his sting were then TMC Rajya Sabha MP Mukul Roy (now a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party), then Lok Sabha MPs Saugata Roy, Aparupa Poddar, Sultan Ahmed, Prasun Banerjee and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, then ministers Firhad Hakim, Suvendu Adhikari (now with the BJP, and the leader of the opposition in West Bengal), Sovan Chatterjee (who was also the Kolkata mayor) Subrata Mukherjee and Madan Mitra. Then MLA Iqbal Ahmed and IPS officer Saiyaad Mustafa Hussain Mirza were also caught on camera. Mukul Roy could not been seen in the videos accepting the cash directly.

The videos did not surface for two years.

On March 13, 2016, Samuel uploaded the videos on the website of Narada News. The videos instantly raised a storm as assembly polls in Bengal were about to be held. The BJP called a press conference where the videos were played before the media. TMC leaders went on the defensive, calling the sting operation a conspiracy and dismissing the videos as fake.

The BJP, Left and the Congress made the Narada videos an election issue but in the six-phase election held between April 4 and May 5, TMC won 211 seats, 27 seats more than in the party’s first landmark victory in 2011. The Congress, the Left and the BJP won 44, 26 and 3 seats, respectively. The opposition parties said the videos surfaced too close to the polls to make a difference. The Congress and Left moved the Calcutta high court, demanding a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

On March 17, 2017, the Calcutta high court ordered CBI to conduct a preliminary inquiry and submit a report within 72 hours after taking into the custody the devices used in the sting operation and forensic reports from the committee constituted by the court. The court also directed CBI to ascertain whether the accused leaders accepted the money. The court said that depending on the result of the enquiry, CBI should register an FIR and proceed with the investigation.

The TMC filed a special leave petition before the Supreme Court, challenging the high court order.

On March 21, 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the order of the high court but relaxed the timeline for conclusion of the enquiry. The Supreme Court granted one month to CBI to conduct preliminary inquiry.

On April 17, 2017, CBI registered a case under sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 7 & 13(2) r/w 13(1) (a) & (d) of Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. The agency said the enquiry revealed prima facie material for registration of a regular case (FIR). Immediately after this, Congress and Left workers hit the streets in large numbers, demanding the immediate arrest of all TMC leaders and ministers who were seen in the sting videos.

CBI started the probe and many of the accused were questioned but no arrest was made.

In September 2017, Mukul Roy resigned from the TMC. He was suspended from the party for six years for anti-party activities. He also resigned from the Rajya Sabha in October, 2017. He joined the BJP in November. In September 2020, Roy was made national vice-president of the BJP.

In September 2017, TMC leader Iqbal Ahmed died of a heart attack in Kolkata. Mamata Banerjee accused CBI for his death saying the agency had put him under intense pressure.

In June 2018, CBI’s probe apparently received a boost when the agency’s then special director Rakesh Asthana visited Kolkata and held a long meeting with officers to review the Narada case and other important cases.

In November 2018, the West Bengal government withdrew the so-called general consent states give to CBI to operate on their turf.

In September 2019, IPS officer Mirza was arrested by CBI. The ministry of home affairs (MHA) granted the agency permission to move against him.

In February 2020, the Lok Sabha secretariat sought the Union law ministry’s opinion on a request by CBI for sanction to prosecute three sitting Trinamool Congress (TMC) MPs, accused in the Narada sting operation case, within weeks of receiving the agency’s request, senior officials at the Lower House said.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) also started a parallel investigation into the Narada sting case.

In August 2020, ED sent notices to five TMC leaders and summoned suspended IPS officer Mirza. The TMC leaders were Lok Sabha members Saugata Roy and Kakali Ghosh Dastidar, former Lok Sabha member Aparupa Poddar, then minister Suvendu Adhikari and TMC leader Ratna Chatterjee who is estranged the wife of former Kolkata mayor Sovan Chatterjee who is an accused in the case.

Suvendu Adhikari joined the BJP in December 2020. He contested the recent assembly polls and defeated Mamata Banerjee from Nandigram in East Midnapore. The BJP was expected to win at least 200 seats in the assembly and displace the TMC but the latter swept back to power, winning 213 seats. The results were announced on May 2. Sovan Chatterjee also joined the BJP prior to the assembly polls but left the party following differences with the leadership.

Ratna Chatterjee contested the Behala East seat for the TMC and defeated the BJP candidate .

On May 9, Raj Bhawan said in a statement that governor Jagdeep Dhankhar had accorded prosecution sanction to the CBI against three TMC MLAs, Madan Mitra, Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim, and former party leader Sovan Chatterjee. This empowered the agency to file the charge sheet against the four. On May 10, Mukherjee and Hakim took oath as ministers.

A statement issued by Raj Bhavan in Kolkata said: “Governor of West Bengal accorded sanction for prosecution in respect of Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, Madan Mitra and Suvon Chatterjee, for the reason that all of them at the relevant time of commission of crime were holding the position of ministers in the government of West Bengal.”

A controversy has broken out over the governor using the interregnum between two governments to accord his consent; in the normal course of events this consent would have been needed from the speaker of the assembly.

“The CBI has to seek sanction from the assembly speaker to file charge sheet against a sitting member of the house. It was not done. I do not know under which provision and with what intention the governor gave such a clearance. This goes against democracy,” assembly speaker Biman Banerjee said.

The three TMC leaders and Sovan Chatterjee were arrested on Monday morning amid wild protests by TMC workers across Bengal.

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