Bengal showdown is a Centre driven constitutional crisis

Manner and timing of the CBI action in West Bengal reeks of political vendetta. The graceless spectacle in Kolkata captures a drama that officers, landing up allegedly unannounced and warrantless, at the residence of the state police chief. Leave the common man; if a top police officer has to be interrogated, the minimum requirement is prior information and a warrant. Also rules provide that the state government has to be informed the purpose of the CBI visit.

A face-off between the state police and CBI was inevitable. Arrest and roughing of the CBI officers by the state police when they attempted to force in police chief’s residence looks a little awkward but state police has no other option. The CBI officers were later let off. On one side, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sitting on a dharna against Centre’s “coup” attempt, daring it to impose President’s Rule, her top cop by her side, and on the other side, the state projecting West Bengal as a “state of anarchy” looks strange.

The war of images and words has almost completely overtaken the issue ostensibly at the heart of all—the investigation into Saradha and other chit fund issues in which thousands of small investors were cheated, and which allegedly involved politicians in the ruling TMC even as some prominent accused have since crossed over to BJP. But then, the Saradha probe may not be at the heart of the showdown politics in West Bengal at all. Behind the loud invocation of Corruption, Constitution, Democracy and Federalism by both sides, may lie no higher scruple or principle—only narrow, short-term electoral calculus.

With general elections due in a couple of months, it may be that images from last Sunday are related to earlier photo-op from West Bengal—the show of strength from a Kolkata stage of 23 Opposition parties under the aegis of TMC in January. If that be the case, both the ruling parties at the Centre and West Bengal, have much to answer for. And, in this bid to misuse state resources to launch their respective electoral campaign in a state where TMC is dominant and the BJP is on the rise, the BJP-led-centre seems more to blame.

The BJP government at the Centre must know that both the manner and timing of the CBI action in West Bengal reek of a politics of vendetta against a political opponent. In the short-term, the party may even make electoral gains from the riveting show down in Kolkota—as may Mamata Banerjee, who is clearly reveling in her return to the street politics and waiting this moment to rally behind her potential allies in the opposition. But in long-term, the Kolkata event carries troubling consequences in a constitutional democracy. In its visible undermining of due process, it threats to deepen distrust and strengthen cynicism. It is now up to the judiciary— the CBI has gone to court.

Putting an end to West Bengal Government’s aggressiveness resistance to CBI’s efforts to interrogate Kolkata Police chief Rajeev Kumar in connection with the chit fund scam, the Supreme Court asked the IPS officer to appear before the agency for questioning in Shillong and “faithfully cooperate with the agency all the time” but restrain CBI from arresting him or taking any coercive action against him. The order was welcomed both by Mamata Banerjee and the BJP who claimed victory.
Critics also point to CBI’s abated Saradha probe against two top leaders in Bengal and Assam after they joined the BJP.

In short, CBI’s poor record in investigation and its reputation as a caged parrot is hurting. In similar circumstances, Arvind Kejriwal had alleged that CM office was raided and sealed when CBI was gunning for his principal secretary Rajender Kumar. Recently, Andhra Pradesh and Bengal had revoked the general consensus to CBI to undertake probes claiming loss of faith. AP and Bengal’s moves offer impunity to corrupt. But CBI also has itself to blame.

The close association that many IPS (there are honourable exceptions) have with their political officers is well-known and this unveils the depth of the crisis facing the force. The police functions as the police of the ruling party and not the people’s police.

Upright officers, with spine, are asked to cool their heels in inconsequential postings—politician has snapped the chain of command, corroded discipline, and made the police leaders beholden to politician of the ruling party. Given the state of officers, it’s hardly a surprise that many officers are also in the dock on corruption charges.

Harihar Swarup is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.

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