In a jolt to West Bengal's ruling Trinamool Congress, the Calcutta High Court on Friday ordered a CBI preliminary inquiry into the Narada sting footage case, wherein prominent TMC leaders were seen taking currency notes.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee described the order as "unfortunate" and said it would be challenged in the Supreme Court.
The opposition parties, on the other hand, went hammer and tongs at the Trinamool and Banerjee, and demanded dismissal of the accused ministers.
Delivering the order in a packed courtroom, a Division Bench of acting Chief Justice Nishita Mhatre and Justice T. Chakraborty asked the CBI to take within 24 hours the custody of devices used during the sting operation and reports of the Central Forensic Science Laboratory lying in court custody.
The judges said the inquiry will be concluded within 72 hours thereafter, and directed the central agency to register an FIR depending on inquiry result.
"The CBI must act promptly since persons with doubtful integrity, and who commit crimes affecting society at large, must be brought to book swiftly," the court said in its 58-page judgment on three public interest litigations that sought inquiry by an independent agency.
Calling it a cognisable offence, the High Court said the matter involved influential ministers, public representatives and a high-ranking state police officer, and so a probe by an independent agency was needed.
The court came down heavily on the police inquiry. "The state police are, at best, unfortunately, puppets on a string, the end of which is with the respondents."
The judges also ordered suspension and initiation of disciplinary proceedings against senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer S.M.H. Mirza within a week.
Mirza was seen in the sting footage and the website claimed that he described himself as a "key person who collects funds for the Trinamool Congress".
The controversy erupted in March last year when Narada News portal uploaded a series of video footage purportedly showing a number of high-proifle Trinamool leaders, including former and present ministers, MPs and state lawmakers, receiving money in exchange of favours to a fictitious company.
Within hours of the court verdict, a furious Banerjee told the media that the state government and Trinamool will move the Supreme Court "for justice".
As for the order's timing, she said: "You also understand; I also understand the game."
Claiming political vendetta, she attacked the Bharatiya Janata Party for the "planned" controversy.
"It was planned. It was planted. The sting was published from the BJP office at the time of assembly elections," she said, adding that the West Bengal Police was not allowed to conduct an investigation as to why the footage was released before the polls.
Banerjee also claimed those seen in the video footage had only taken donations.
The state opposition, however, was quick to assail Banerjee.
"We welcome the Calcutta High Court verdict. The Chief Minister should show due respect to the High Court and sack all accused ministers. She should also suspend from her party all Trinamool lawmakers seen taking money in the footage," Leader of the Opposition Abdul Mannan said.
Communist Party of India-Marxist state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra said: "I cannot say the Chief Minister's hands are clean, or that she is above suspicion with regard to Saradha (multi-billion rupee Saradha chit fund scam) or Narada."
BJP National Secretary Rahul Sinha made a veiled reference to Banerjee. "Wherever there is some whiff of corruption, the link to Kalighat (south Kolkata area where Banerjee resides) is always there."
Narada News CEO Mathew Samuel called the order a "fair decision" and alleged that the Banerjee administration had "misused" the state machinery in an effort to nail him.
The Narada News footage became a big issue during the 2016 West Bengal assembly polls, but the Trinamool Congress managed to retain power despite a vigorous anti-corruption campaign by the opposition.
Soon after, in June, Banerjee ordered a probe headed by the city Police Commissioner to find out the "conspiracy" angle to the sting.
Police booked Samuel, who had conducted the sting, on several charges and issued him summons for personal appearance.
However, in August, the Calcutta High Court ordered an interim stay on the police probe while hearing the three PILs.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)