West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been steadfast in maintaining that she and the Trinamool Congress are not involved in corrupt practices. But the reaction to the recent arrest of heavyweight leaders like Partha Chatterjee and Anubrata Mondal signals a change in people’s perceptions. Initially, voters had bought heart and soul into the TMC’s vision of ‘Maa, Mati, Manush (Mother, Motherland, People)’, but over the years, they have come to see the truth. Perhaps, that’s why the news of the leaders’ arrests on corruption charges did not come as a shock to people and there was spontaneous jubilation in various parts of the state.
Partha Chatterjee and Anubrata Mondal, along with some of their associates, have been arrested by the ED and CBI respectively on charges of money laundering and amassing huge wealth disproportionate to their income. Before these arrests, nowhere in the state would people dare to attack Mamata and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee in public forums. Now they are. Several political parties are taking out processions and shouting slogans claiming both Mamata and Abhishek are ‘thieves’. That TMC leaders were allegedly involved in extracting “cut money” from various pro-poor welfare schemes often became a subject of public debate in Bengal, especially during post-Amphan cyclone relief work in 2020. But for the first time, the TMC is on the defensive.
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TMC on the back foot
Goutam Ghosh, a CPI(M) state committee member from Birbhum, has observed certain changes taking place in rural Bengal. Ghosh was brutally assaulted by TMC supporters in 2018 when he tried to file his nomination for panchayat elections in Birbhum. According to him, the people of Birbhum had no voice earlier and the police were at the beck and call of Anubrata Mondal. A few years ago, when the Left parties gave a call for protest in the district demanding the immediate arrest of Mondal for threatening a senior police officer in public, the police did not allow it. Now, after the arrest of Mondal, the Left Front decided to send a deputation to the district administration for an appointment. To the surprise of opposition leaders, pat came a reply saying the leaders can come whenever they want to. Earlier, the district magistrate and the police super would never meet opposition deputations and only junior officers would receive their memorandum. Also, the fact that protest marches brought out by the Left, Congress and BJP could roam the area in Bolpur where Mondal’s residence and party building are, without any deterrence from the TMC or police, is itself a new development.
Earlier, at the slightest provocation, TMC would unleash their musclemen or local police to disrupt demonstrations against its leaders. But ever since the arrest of Chatterjee and Mondal, party members are keeping a low profile. Interestingly, the demonstrations against TMC leaders and their supremo are not confined to one or two districts, they have spread throughout south Bengal. Senior TMC leader Saugata Roy has noted this development and told a local TV channel that some people (the opposition) are busy fishing in troubled water.
The TMC took a few days to decide on Partha Chatterjee after his arrest and then removed him from party posts and the cabinet. With various statements issued by senior leaders criticising Chatterjee, the party is trying its level best to distance itself from him. A similar tendency is being seen in the case of Anubrata Mondal, though the party is yet to take a concrete position on that. Mamata Banerjee is also silent on the accusations that are being hurled against her and her nephew, though she did warn that she would retaliate if any attempts are made to tarnish her image. Five MLAs, led by minister Firhad Hakim, held a press conference a few days ago. Their tone was defensive and they said not everybody in the TMC was a thief.
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A message has gone out
Three more developments have put the TMC on the back foot. One, the Calcutta High Court has ordered ED to look into the records of 19 TMC leaders, including five ministers, to find out if they have acquired disproportionate assets. A few opposition leaders’ names have also been added to the list later. Two, some IPS officers posted in Bengal have been called to the CBI in Delhi in August in the coal smuggling case. All of them were posted in coal mining areas of West Bengal at some point or the other. Three, the way the Calcutta High Court has refrained government hospitals from shielding TMC senior leaders from CBI or ED interrogation, and the way the CBI arrested Mondal from his Bolpur residence with the help of a big CRPF contingent, sends a chilling message to other leaders.
Social media is full of jokes and unsparing comments about TMC leaders, including Mamata Banerjee. In her initial years in power, she did not hesitate to arrest a Jadavpur University professor for merely mailing a critical cartoon. This time, there are so many memes doing the rounds on social media, but the police and party leaders are silent. Evidently, the ruling TMC is losing its grip over people and fast becoming unpopular.
Public perception is changing, and fast. Both the BJP and the Left are trying to take advantage of the changing wind. But the situation is still fluid – Saugata Roy said that the opposition should try their luck in the next elections. If the situation remains the same as now, then, with the IPS and IAS contingent playing a relatively bipartisan role, opposition becoming more aggressive, and the senior leaders of TMC busy trying to extricate themselves from ED/CBI investigations, the party’s electoral outcome might be impacted. In 2023, the three-tier state panchayat will go to poll, and in absence of people like Anubrata Mondal, who used to forcibly keep opposition candidates away, the election could turn out to be a keenly contested one. It is to be seen if that gathers strength and develops into a storm that could impact the political equations in the state.
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.