The country's political opposition say they are losing faith in federal institutions, especially the investigating agency CBI, and accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP of using them for political vendetta.
NEW DELHI — On February 3, the local government of India's eastern state West Bengal detained several officials from the federal investigations agency the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The move kicked up a political storm. The politicians of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) criticised its regional opposition and ruling party in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress Party (TMC), describing the arrests of federal investigators as the "murder of democracy”.
Many BJP members argued that India's President Ram Nath Kovind should dissolve the TMC government in West Bengal state and impose his rule until a new election is held.
Prior to their detention, the CBI officials attempted to raid the house of Rajeev Kumar, the police chief of West Bengal's capital city Kolkata, who has been facing accusations of colluding in a massive financial scandal. The Ponzi scheme, named Saradha, lured millions of people to invest for high returns and collected close to four to six billion dollars before its collapse in 2013.
But the moment CBI officials arrived at Kumar's front door, they were detained by the Kolkata police, triggering a conflict between the state and the centre.
In her defence, Chief Minister of West Bengal and TMC founder Mamata Banerjee said the officials were arrested to prevent the central government from staging a "constitutional coup" against its federal state, and rejected CBI's claim that Kumar was involved in the money grubbing scam. Banerjee said Kumar headed the investigation into the multi-billion dollar fraud.
The continuing state versus centre saga once again triggered a nationwide debate on whether the ruling BJP is wrongfully deploying India's top-tier public institutions in a political vendetta.
For the past few months, opposition parties from the north, east and the south of India have been organising meetings, holding rallies and have often made public appearances together in a show of solidarity, seemingly putting their ideological differences on the back burner to confront the BJP ahead of the upcoming elections.
In January, pictures of Banerjee serving food to the other opposition party leaders were shared widely across social media, generating disdain from the trolls espousing Hindu nationalist thoughts.
West Bengal is one of the two states that withdrew CBI’s ‘general consent’ late last year. General consent allows the CBI to conduct investigations or raids in states that are outside the ambit of India's capital Delhi and other union territories.
The move was interpreted by many as the opposition party losing faith in the investigative agency.
Banerjee, at present, is on an indefinite protest sit-in against what she calls the central government’s “deliberate attempt to harass opposition parties”.
Many commentators believe that the CBI raids have come at a time when various opposition parties are considering a united front to challenge the BJP in this year’s general elections.
“The timing of the raids does look politically motivated, especially since this case had been pending for over three years," Monobina Gupta, the author of Mamata Banerjee’s political biography, told TRT World.
Gupta, who is also Managing Editor of India's news website The Wire, said the West Bengal government and the centre have been at loggerheads for a long time. But when Banerjee hosted a massive rally in Kolkata, roping in the leading politicians who oppose Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, the hostilities reached a tipping point.
"A deepening of such a confrontation was on the cards in the run-up to the 2019 elections,” Gupta said.
This is also not the first time the BJP has been accused of using national agencies to settle political scores. Last month, the CBI raided officers and ministers who worked under the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state Akhilesh Yadav, of the Samajwadi Party, before he lost the elections in 2017.
The investigating agency said some of Yadav's former colleagues were involved in an illegal mining scam. Soon after, the Enforcement Directorate, which investigates money laundering, cast its web on another former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Kumar Mayawati, one of the leading politicians who represents India's outcast community called Dalits. The directorate raided several locations in the state, accusing some officials who had worked under Mayawati of financial embezzlement.
Irrespective of the legitimacy of the allegations, the timings of the raids are being questioned. They happened soon after Yadav and Mayawati announced their alliance for the general elections. With both the former chief ministers’ strong voter base, the alliance seems to have rung alarm bells in the BJP headquarters.
“We all know that corruption is endemic across the country and according to the Association of Democratic Reforms' report, almost all political parties have members with corruption charges against them," Gupta said. "But the manner in which the state government’s autonomy is being violated in the West Bengal case, targeting one of the most well-known and well-established political adversaries, casts a shadow on the whole exercise, even if there are legitimate reasons. It raises questions.”
The CBI probe into two other politicians for the Saradha scam went cold after they joined the BJP.
The raids give credence to the allegations that the BJP does not respect democratic institutions and is using them for political gains.
“This is an attack on federalism. When the state government has not given the permission, how can the CBI land at the house of the commissioner?” Gupta said.
That the raid on Kumar’s house come on the heels of a report which revealed India’s unemployment rate to be at a 45-year high, contrary to the prime minister’s claims, may not be a coincidence.
As the so-called ‘invincibility’ of Modi and his party fades, the BJP is trying all kinds of tricks to either distract the public from the important issues or to weaken the opposition, which can pose a real threat to the party in the upcoming general elections.