The first coordination committee meeting of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc at Sharad Pawar’s Delhi residence on Wednesday had 12 politicians and an empty chair in attendance. The empty chair was kept as a reminder that it was earmarked for Abhishek Banerjee, MP, nephew and heir apparent to Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress supremo. He spent the day facing the Enforcement Directorate’s grilling in Kolkata for his alleged role in a cash-for-jobs scam.
While the agenda at Sharad Pawar’s residence was to discuss seat-sharing among the I.N.D.I.A. constituents whose only cementing factor is to somehow come together to block the BJP from returning to power, it was the empty seat that grabbed all the eyeballs.
At the end of the meeting, K.C. Venugopal of the Congress read out the official statement which began by stating that Abhishek Banerjee, the national generalsecretary of the All India Trinamool Congress could not attend the meeting since he had to meet the ED due to the “vendetta politics of the BJP and the Prime Minister”. At that time, Abhishek Banerjee’s grilling was still going on in Kolkata.
The CPI(M), an I.N.D.I.A. bloc member, mocked the decision of the coordination committee to keep a chair empty. CPI(M) state secretary and Politburo member Mohd Salim said the “paduka” (footwear) of Abhishek Banerjee could have been kept, when told by reporters that Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) leader Sanjay Raut said a chair was kept empty at Wednesday’s coordination committee meeting in New Delhi to mark the absence of the TMC MP who was summoned by the ED.
“They could have kept the paduka. There is such an instance in Ramayana,” he said, referring to Lord Ram’s “padukas” being kept on the throne by his younger brother Bharat when he went on a 14-year exile to the forests. Abhishek emerged from a nine-hour grilling and addressed the media for about 40 minutes from outside the gates of the CGO complex which houses the ED offices.
He pugnaciously took on the Enforcement Directorate and the Central government. “The ED summons was sent so that I can’t attend the I.N.D.I.A bloc meeting. It is testimony of the vital role the TMC is playing in forging the Opposition unity,” he said, because “PM Narendra Modi was frightened by the role that the Trinamool Congress would play in the I.N.D.I.A. bloc”.
However, the devil was in the details that he let slip. During the interrogation and afterwards in public, Abhishek was forced to admit that he is still the CEO of Leaps and Bounds Private Limited, a firm he had set up before he joined politics and whose COO (Chief Operating Officer) was a man called Sujay Krishna Bhadra. Bhadra, 65, seems to have played a pivotal role in the cash for jobs scam in the state and was arrested by the ED and is currently in jail for more than six months.
Abhishek Banerjee’s wife Rujira Banerjee was also a director in the firm. Currently, the directors are Abhishek Banerjee’s parents Amit and Lata Banerjee. Amit Banerjee is Mamata Banerjee’s elder brother.
The very next day, Justice Amrita Sinha of Calcutta High Court, under whose monitoring the ED is probing the case, went through all the submissions that the ED gave about Abhishek Banerjee, and ordered the ED to submit all documents related to the firm. She also directed that the ED should submit details of all assets owned by the firm since its inception in 2011 and of all its directors to the court by 21 September. For Abhishek Banerjee, the troubles might just be beginning.
Abhishek Banerjee never revealed his continuing role at Leaps and Bounds in either of the affidavits he filed before contesting and winning the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha seat from Diamond Harbour constituency in south Bengal. It was the ED which put out a press release stating that “Abhishek Banerje is the CEO of the firm”.
Now, the state BJP is planning to use this to demand that Abhishek be disqualified for infringing the Representation of Peoples Act not once but twice over by glossing over his continuing role at Leaps and Bounds. They are also planning to corner the I.N.D.I.A bloc on this matter by saying that the bloc condones corruption by having such leaders.
“Abhishek Banerjee’s acts are an indication of the criminality that is a hallmark of all the I.N.D.I.A. bloc parties. All these parties and their leaders are steeped in corruption. Rahul and Sonia, Mamata and Abhishek, Chandrababu Naidu, KCR and his daughter. You cannot name one leader in the I.N.D.I.A. bloc who is honest,” says Suvendu Adhikari, the BJP’s Leader of the Opposition in West Bengal.
The state Congress, too, is deeply concerned by the bonhomie displayed by its central leadership with the Trinamool Congress. West Bengal Congress leader Kaustav Bagchi wrote to K.C. Venugopal questioning the party’s support for Trinamool Congress’ Abhishek Banerjee. Without directly naming the Trinamool Congress leader, Kaustav Bagchi referred to him as “the uncrowned prince”.
Bagchi raised questions over this and asked why the party was supporting “tyrants and scamsters”. Bagchi said that the show of solidarity was an insult to party workers. “Thousands of Congress workers in the State of West Bengal have been relentlessly fighting against this tyrannical regime. Standing in solidarity with the tyrants and scamsters is an insult to the party workers in the state of West Bengal,” Bagchi wrote in his email to Venugopal.
“Our Central leadership is unable to understand that ED is carrying out a court-monitored investigation into the cash for jobs scams in schools and municipal bodies across the State,” Bagchi told The Sunday Guardian. “There is enough evidence of criminality of the TMC leaders which has forced the courts to take cognisance. Our central leaders will have nowhere to hide if the ED, prodded by the courts, takes some harsh steps. Our leaders’ bonhomie is sounding the death-knell of the Congress party in West Bengal. We survived in the state despite being out of power for almost 50 years but this is the biggest threat we are facing,” he added.
Meanwhile, sources close to Abhishek Banerjee deny all the charges against him and claim he is absolutely innocent.