Kolkata: With four of the Trinamool Congress leaders "caught" accepting "illegal money" in the purported Narada sting operation contesting the fifth phase of assembly polls on Saturday, it is seemingly a litmus test for West Bengal's ruling party which has been battling corruption charges levelled by the opposition.
One of the most crucial phases which is to decide the fate of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the fifth stage has in fray, state ministers and party heavyweights Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, city mayor Sovon Chatterjee and Iqbal Ahmed - four of those allegedly seen in the footage.
The sting operation purportedly showed over a dozen Trinamool leaders including MPs, state ministers and former ministers accepting bundles of cash in return for doling out favours to a fictitious company. Released barely weeks before the staggered assembly polls began, it set afire the already charged-up political atmosphere in the state, though all those shown in the video footage have vehemently denied any wrongdoing on their part.
Contesting from Kolkata Port constituency, state urban development minister Hakim was described in the sting as a "tough negotiator, who was not interested in peanuts and took nothing less than Rs.5 lakh".
State Panchayat Minister Mukherjee and Chatterjee - defending Ballygunge and Behala East respectively - are also alleged to have taken Rs. 5 lakh each.
Ahmed, re-contesting from Hogghly's Khanakul and described in the sting as the "go to man" is also alleged to have received Rs. 5 lakh.
Having initially dismissed the sting as "doctored" and a "political conspiracy", the subsequent flip-flops and damaging comments by several leaders including Banerjee has only intensified the opposition attack against the Trinamool with some seeing the changing stands as an indication of acceptance of the allegations.
If party MP Saugata Roy addressing a public meet, admitted of being "saddened and ashamed" over his name getting involved in the scandal, Banerjee publicly claimed she would have given "a thought to changing the candidates" caught in the tapes, had the videotapes been released before the announcement of her party's candidate list for the assembly polls.
Her Wednesday's comments "slap me if I have committed mistakes, I won't mind. But I'm hurt when called a thief", are being seen some as an indication of her nervousness over the issue.
"With each passing day, she is making comments which are damaging and are indicative of her nervousness. The sting issue is expected to play a crucial role in this phase as it involves a fair section of urban voters," said political analyst A.K. Jana.
Incidentally, just a day before 53 constituencies spread across the districts of South 24 Parganas, Kolkata and Hooghly go for the polls, the Calcutta High Court on Friday will hear a public interest litigations seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the matter.
The court has also indicated the tapes may be sent for a forensic test to ascertain their authenticity. Despite calling them as "doctored" and "manufactured" the Trinamool has refrained from agreeing to the opposition's collective demand for scientific examination of the videotapes.