Bengal protests against Chidambaram: Legal battles of another kind for Congress

Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram found himself the subject of protests by the party’s legal cell in Kolkata on Wednesday over a case in the Calcutta High Court where he appeared in his capacity as a lawyer.

Questioning Chidambaram for defending Keventers in the sale of shares of public sector Metro Dairy to it by the West Bengal government, pro-Congress lawyer Kaustav Bagchi said: “In West Bengal, thousands of Congress workers have been attacked by the Trinamool Congress. At the same time we saw a Congress leader is standing for TMC in that state!… The Congress is in this condition today because of leaders with double standards like you. From today onwards, we will no longer recognise Chidambaram as a Congress leader.”

One of the protesters called him “an agent of Mamata Banerjee”.

The case against the sale was filed in the high court by Congress West Bengal chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. While Chidambaram made his way through the protesting party men at court without a comment, it’s not the first time the Congress has found itself on the wrong foot over the briefs taken up by its prominent lawyer leaders.

In 2017, Chidambaram himself had agreed to appear for the Congress’s arch-rival Aam Aadmi Party’s government in Delhi against the Center in the Supreme Court.

Rajya Sabha MP and Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi is also often in the news over taking up briefs in issues in which party units are backing the opposite side.

In 2010, Singhvi pleaded for Megha Distributors in the Kerala High Court against a state government ordinance proposing higher taxes for lottery promoters. Megha Distributors, owned by the controversial Santiago Martin, was the promoter of Sikkim and Bhutan lotteries in Kerala. The Congress state leadership felt Singhvi’s move blunted its fight against the “unlawful business” of other state lotteries in Kerala and approached the high command. The latter stepped in to order that there should be no media briefings till it took a decision.

Singhvi finally withdrew from the case, saying “I respect the sentiments of the Congress workers in Kerala. I had come only to argue in favor of the Central Lottery Regulation Act.”

A year later, he triggered more consternation in the party after he appeared in the Supreme Court against the ban on Endosulfan. Again, the Kerala leadership was angry, as it was demanding a ban on the pesticide, which was linked by some to health disorders in the state. They even demanded that Singhvi be removed from the post of spokesperson.

In 2018, it was the turn of the West Bengal Congress unit to take umbrage over Singhvi’s appearance for the Trinamool Congress government in the Supreme Court, during a hearing of the BJP’s petition over panchayat elections in the state. That controversy erupted less than two weeks after Singhvi was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Bengal with the support of the TMC.

One of the protesters called Chidambaram “an agent of Mamata Banerjee”. (Express photo)

At the time, the Bengal Congress led by its chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was vociferously attacking the TMC government over the violence. In fact, the Congress too was then demanding deployment of central forces during the panchayat elections and had approached the Calcutta High Court.

Singhvi also appeared for the TMC in the Saradha chit fund scam and the Narada sting case, both cases in which the Congress was attacking the TMC government. In 2019, he appeared for the former Kolkata Commissioner of Police Rajeev Kumar in the Saradha scam. Last year he appeared for ministers Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee, who were arrested in connection with the Narada case.

In 2017, when it became known that the Kejriwal government had approached Chidambaram to appear for it in the Supreme Court in a case to determine the administrative powers of the elected government of Delhi visà-vis the lieutenant governor, among those who couldn’t resist taking a swipe was Ajay Maken, the Delhi Congress chief. In a tweet, he criticized Chidambaram saying, “You have been exonerated by your one-time Arvind Kejriwal and AAP”, and asked whether the AAP would now “apologise”.

Another senior Congress leader and noted lawyer, Kapil Sibal, found himself at the center of a controversy in 2017 when, appearing for one of the Muslim litigants, he sought deferment of hearing in the Ramjanmabhoumi-Babri Masjid dispute case till after July 2019 – presumably seeking a postponement till after the Lok Sabha elections.

The controversy came in the midst of the Assembly elections in Gujarat, and the BJP seized on Sibal’s appeal, with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then BJP president Amit Shah joining in. “Yesterday in the Supreme Court, Congress MP Kapil Sibal was arguing for the Babri Masjid. He is entitled to do that, but is it right for him to say postpone the hearing till 2019? Now, the Congress is linking Ram Mandir with elections. They are least bothered about the nation,” Modi said at a rally.

In 2018, there were reports that Sibal, who was the counsel for Iqbal Ansari, the legal heir of the oldest litigant in the case, had withdrawn from the case.

Singhvi refused to comment on the matter.

In the Keventers case, Chowdhury has questioned the sale of more than 46% stake in Metro Dairy, a state-controlled company, to the private firm, saying there was lack of transparency over the deal and question marks over the price fixed for the deal . He also contends that Keventers further sold the shares to another company at a higher price.

Choudhury told The Indian Express that he doesn’t blame Chidambaram for taking up the case. “There is a difference between one’s politics and profession. But it becomes difficult to make the ordinary worker understand that,” he said. “They become emotional. They say we are fighting the battle on the ground but when one of our senior leader comes and defends our opponent… how can that be?”

Chowdhuri also said the protest by some Congress legal cell members against Chidambaram was not pre planned or premeditated. “It could be an emotional outburst.”

On his PIL in court on the matter, Chowdhuri said he will continue the legal battle. “I believe it is a scam.”

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