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What To Make Of TMC’s Near Silence on Cash-For-Query Row Involving Mahua Moitra?

While the party has usually strongly defended members accused of corruption in the past, its response this time has been subdued. TMC leaders insist there is no instruction on leaders to “go soft” on Adani.
Mamata Banerjee and Mahua Moitra. Photos: X Collage: The Wire

Kolkata: It was an unusual press conference at the Kalighat residence of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on October 26. She was facing journalists at home after nearly six weeks: she was travelling abroad and then resting due to a leg injury. That day, media persons were informed in advance that she would not be taking any questions.

“It was a rare instance. There have been occasions when questions irked her. She has sometimes declined to answer certain questions or those coming from certain media houses perceived to be pro-BJP. But never were journalists told that questions were not allowed,” recalled a senior journalist who was present at the conference.

There were two major developments on which journalists wanted her comments. Since October 15, allegations that Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra took bribes from industrialist Darshan Hiranandani to ask questions in parliament about the Adani Group had snowballed into a major controversy.

The other major development was the Enforcement Directorate (ED)’s raid at the residence of state forest minister and former food minister Jyoti Priya Mallick, an old loyalist of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief. Mallick is the top leader from North 24-Parganas, West Bengal’s most-populous district with five Lok Sabha seats.

During her 34-minute monologue, Banerjee came out strongly in Mallick’s support and blasted the Modi government for “harassing” and “terrorising” opposition leaders, but made no mention of or reference to Moitra.

“Our leaders in the districts were all busy managing the local Durga puja carnivals. Today, at the crack of dawn, people came to Balu’s (as Mallick is known) house and found the ED was conducting a raid. If they are to raid every minister’s house, then what is left of the (state) government? If the BJP believes they can silence everyone this way… this is a dirty game and they are pathological liars,” she said.

“Balu has high blood sugar and has not been well. If he dies, we will have to lodge police cases against the BJP and the ED,” she said.

Jyoti Priya Mallick. Photo: X/@MALLICKBALU

Banerjee mentioned the recent central agency raids at the residences of ministers Rathin Ghosh and Firhad Hakim and even raised the issue of harassment of her nephew and TMC’s all-India general secretary Abhishek Banerjee.

“Agencies have been sent after all opposition party ministers in the country. Why is an opposition chief minister’s son’s house being raided in election time?” she asked.

“Show me a single BJP leader and minister, any single BJP chief or dacoit whose house has been raided.”

The total omission of any reference to Moitra could not be missed.

Moitra, however, said that Banerjee need not waste her time defending her, as she could manage it herself. Moitra also rubbished any rift between her and the party.

Different treatment?

Among senior TMC leaders who have faced corruption charges in the past, the party has stood by almost all of them – except former education minister and party secretary-general Partha Chatterjee. The party is believed to have felt that there was overwhelming evidence against him, and he would seen by the public as “guilty until proven innocent”.

Banerjee stood strongly by Birbhum district unit chief Anubrata Mondal, the only leader from the districts who found a place in the party’s highest decision-making body, the national working committee. She has repeatedly claimed that Mandal was being framed in false cases because the BJP could not deal with his organisational skills.

Another case for reference is of the Delhi-based leader Saket Gokhale, who has been one of the party’s national spokespersons. Gokhale faced repeated arrests in a short period by Gujarat police, including on charges related to spreading misinformation and involvement in corruption.

The party not only stood by him but later also rewarded him with a Rajya Sabha seat.

The chief minister, during her next press meet, on November 1 at Nabanna, the state secretariat, spoke for four minutes highlighting the achievements of the state food department, which Mallick headed from 2011 to 2021.

Without naming Mallick, she said, “Do you know how hard he worked for the digitisation of ration cards, how they cancelled 1 crore fake ration cards (allegedly issued by the previous Left Front government), and started procuring paddy directly from the farmers? Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, we gave free ration to all.”

“I don’t want to comment on the legal aspects, they have to defend themselves. But I hope he is safe and in sound health.”

Banerjee did not mention Moitra this time either, even though she mentioned the ED’s notice to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and said that she was aware of the alleged phone hacking attempt on “five-six MPs.” One of those MPs was Moitra.

However, when a journalist sought her comment on both Mallick and Moitra, asking if these reflected politics of vendetta, she said: “All are (cases of) political vendetta. You people know it better than me.” She did not take any more questions.

‘Don’t jump to conclusions’

The TMC’s guarded response to the issue has drawn public attention, especially when one contrasted it with how other opposition parties came out in Moitra’s support and accused the Modi government of trying to silence a prominent critic. Even the TMC’s archrival, the CPI(M), questioned the role of the ethics committee.

A day after the controversy broke out, TMC Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien told the media that the party had asked Moitra to explain her position in public. On October 22, O’Brien said that Moitra had already done what she had been asked to and now the party would wait for the outcome of the ethics committee’s investigations before taking a call on the matter.

The next day, the party’s state unit spokesperson Kunal Ghosh, who is perceived to be close to Abhishek Banerjee, told the media that the party had nothing to comment at that juncture. However, the very next day, Firhad Hakim said that he personally believed Moitra was being targeted because her questions embarrassed the Modi government.

On October 28, Ghosh questioned the role of the parliamentary ethics committee. “She has not refused to cooperate but why is the ethics committee in such a hurry? Complaint against the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari has been pending before the ethics committee for years now. Let them first deal with the complaint against Adhikari,” Ghosh said.

Moitra has been vocal in parliament about the alleged nexus between the Adani Group and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The TMC’s apparent distancing from her has triggered many speculations, including if the party was trying to keep the Adani Group in good humour, hoping for investments in the state. Senior TMC leaders spoke of different possibilities, although none were certain about them.

“The party seems to think that Mandal, Hakim and Mallick acted in the party’s interest but Moitra’s war against Adani could be in her personal interest,” said a Lok Sabha MP.

“It seems the party did not like the fact that she shared her parliamentary log-in credentials with an industrialist,” said a Bengal minister, requesting anonymity. “Office staff, interns or assistants knowing the credentials is one thing, and an industrialist knowing it is another. It is something that is hard for the party to publicly defend.”

Another state-level leader said that the party was taking measured steps because Moitra’s personal life – a “jilted ex” in Moitra’s words – is involved in the matter. “When a close person having knowledge of private life becomes a foe, things can get really dirty. The party is just taking time to figure out what evidence anyone has against her,” said the leader.

Not “soft” on Adani 

While addressing the media on November 1, Banerjee also alleged that an “artificial crisis” has been created in the coal sector to ensure India keeps importing coal for necessary power generation, especially from Indonesia.

Her mention of a “deal” for importing coal from Indonesia should be seen as her indirect reference to Adani, a TMC parliamentarian told The Wire, pointing out that a Financial Times report had said that the company had imported coal from Indonesia at inflated prices.

“From coal to defence, there is a deal in every sector,” Banerjee alleged, adding that the media does not have the “guts” to question such deals.

Defence is another sector where the Modi government has faced allegations of giving undue advantage to the Adani Group, with Congress general secretary  Jairam Ramesh accusing Prime Minister Modi of “handing over” parts of the India-Israel defence partnership to the Gujarat-based conglomerate.

Banerjee also mentioned the takeover of NDTV – though without naming Adani – to demonstrate that critical voices in the media were being silenced.

“If you read between the lines, the chief minister did not go overboard in targeting the Adani Group, but left enough hints for journalists and those who matter to make out what she was referring to,” the TMC leader claimed.

From left to right, file photos of PM Narendra Modi, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra, businessman Gautam Adani

The Congress and the Left have long been alleging that the TMC has been “going soft” on the Adani issue. Over the recent months, the TMC has blown hot and cold on the subject. Banerjee directly targeted the group a couple of times in February and March, but has not broached the matter again.

This has given rise to speculations over the party’s approach to the alleged Adani-Modi nexus. Among the reasons for such speculations are the prospect of the Adani Group’s investments in the West Bengal government’s planned coal mining project at Deucha Pachami and a deep sea port at Tajpur.

The Adani Group is already known to have been invited to the state’s annual business event, the Bengal Global Business Summit scheduled later this month.

A TMC leader, however, insisted that the party never tried to restrain Moitra or any other leader from raising questions against the alleged nexus between the BJP and the conglomerate.

In fact, just a day after the controversy involving Moitra broke out, TMC Rajya Sabha MP Jawhar Sircar wrote a letter to finance minister Nirmala Seetharaman, demanding enquiry into the allegations raised in the Financial Times report.

The party shared the contents of the letter from its official social media account, saying that Sircar “just fired a shot across the bow at @AdaniOnline, exposing their financial manipulations in coal imports.”

“It’s time to unmask the hidden puppeteers pulling the strings and lining the pockets of a corporate giant,” said the party’s tweet. Sircar has continued to tweet against the alleged nexus.

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