Kolkata: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s crackdown on “extortion” by members of her Trinamool Congress (TMC) has sparked scores of protests by beneficiaries looking to reclaim the money they have paid as “cuts” for welfare schemes since 2011.
In less than a month between 18 June and 14 July, at least 278 protests — roughly 10 a day — were reported in villages across the state, police sources told ThePrint. And there are no signs they will abate anytime soon.
Now, suspicion about a TMC MP’s involvement seem to be fanning the fire again, leading to suspicion that the racket may have been supported by senior leaders of the party.
The alleged extortion by TMC members was one of PM Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s chief poll pitches as they campaigned for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal.
The election concluded with the BJP pulling off its best performance in West Bengal, winning 18 of its 42 Lok Sabha seats, up from two in 2014.
Alarmed, Mamata announced at a party meeting on 18 June that TMC members who charge “cut-money” will be put behind bars, and ordered that the sums paid so far be returned to the beneficiaries.
Two years before an assembly election where the TMC is expected to go head-to-head against the BJP, the backlash triggered by Mamata’s call has left party members rattled.
The opposition has caught on to the issue to target her government, and the rural heartland is coming together to fight back.
The crackdown was aimed at showing that the TMC was cleaning up its act after the BJP’s Lok Sabha gains in the state, but the narrative may be slipping out of Mamata’s hand.
Cut-money is the cash political agents at the grassroots level allegedly take from beneficiaries to ensure the proper implementation of government schemes like MGNREGA and housing initiatives, even widow pensions and grants for funeral expenses.
In all, there are nearly 100 social welfare schemes run by the state government and the Centre in West Bengal: While rural residents avail of them through panchayats, urban dwellers have to approach civic bodies.
Suspicion of the cut-money racket enjoying the patronage of senior leaders has given a new twist as a Kolkata-based contractor accused TMC Rajya Sabha member Santanu Sen of extorting lakhs from him since 2012.
Sen, a doctor by profession, has denied the claims and sued the contractor for defamation, with the case scheduled to come up for hearing this Friday.
“I have already filed a civil and criminal defamation case of Rs 10 crore against the person. The next hearing is on 19 July,” he told ThePrint. “My fight is against such politically motivated people who are trying to sully the honest efforts of Mamata Banerjee by defaming some well-established people.”
‘Trinamool Tolabaji Tax’
On 16 July 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing a ‘BJP Kisan Kalyan Rally’ in Midnapore, said West Bengal was being run by Trinamool Congress-sponsored “syndicates”.
The Prime Minister added that it was almost impossible to do anything in Bengal without the permission of syndicates, be it getting admission to colleges or selling farm produce at local markets or building a house.
After that, senior leaders of the BJP made syndicates their main campaign plank, with the PM tapping his penchant for abbreviations to label the commissions “TTT –Trinamool Tolabaji Tax (Trinamool extortion tax)”.
This was perhaps the first time that the opposition made syndicates and cut-money a poll plank in West Bengal.
The TMC initially ignored this, but the Lok Sabha results jolted them into action.
On 18 June, less than a month after election results, Banerjee not only instructed her party members to return the cut-money they allegedly collected from beneficiaries, but also set up a public grievance cell under her office and ordered police to register cases against offenders.
Heartland on fire
Since then, according to police sources, around Rs 25 lakh has been returned to beneficiaries in 15 cases in several districts including East Burdwan, Birbhum, North 24 Parganas and Jalpaiguri.
On 8 July, for example, at a village in East Burdwan district, the panchayat pradhan and a TMC member returned close to Rs 4 lakh to 142 villagers, who were charged the sum as a cut from their wages for 100 days’ work.
Meanwhile, protests continue as other beneficiaries demand their money back, and look unlikely to abate anytime soon.
According to police sources, of the 278 protests between 18 June and 14 July, at least 50 were reported in East Burdwan and 42 in Hooghly. Bankura and Birbhum saw close to 30 such incidents, the sources added.
The issue of cut-money was also raised by Hooghly MP Locket Chatterjee of the BJP in Parliament, after which the Union Home Ministry sought a report on the matter from the West Bengal chief secretary.
Not new to Bengal
Opposition leaders in West Bengal said that while cut-money is not a TMC creation, the party had certainly “institutionalised it”.
“Left parties used to take cut-money in an organised manner. Syndicates existed during the Left regime too. But the Trinamool Congress institutionalised the stealing of people’s money,” said Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha.
“The party lost all control on its cadres. Now, Mamata Banerjee is trying to be a reformer. Had the results been in favour of the Trinamool Congress, there would have been no such fiery speech by the TMC supremo,” he added.
However, the Trinamool Congress says Mamata’s speech was an effort to address “rampant corruption” in the country.
“Our leader Mamata Banerjee had the guts to say this publicly and warn the corrupt people,” said Bengal Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Tapas Roy.
“Corruption is a disease and somebody needed to treat this. Didi diagnosed this and initiated the treatment. She did not care for anything while saying this,” he added. “It is a crusade against corruption. But some vindictive members of opposition parties are trying to gain undue advantage from this. The BJP also spent Rs 27,000 crore in elections. From where did that money come?”
The CPI(M), which ruled the state for 34 years before Mamata took office in 2011, said the allegations against the party were a bid to change the subject.
“To save Mamata Banerjee from this embarrassment and shame, some people are trying to turn the clock back,” said senior CPI(M) leader and former Kolkata mayor Bikash Bhattcharya.
“The Trinamool Congress is basically a party of thieves… During my tenure as mayor, I tried to impose tax on puja committees, which are controlled by Trinamool Congress,” he added. “It is a season of huge cash transactions, mostly illegal. So, the TMC councillors gheraoed me. In several cases, the councillors allowed the laying of cables without taking permission from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and took bribes for that. This was a regular practice for them.”
Will it backfire?
After the Lok Sabha elections, Mamata hired renowned political strategist Prashant Kishor to guide the party’s preparations for the 2021 assembly elections.
There are whispers in the party’s inner circles that Mamata had been advised to publicly acknowledge the cut-money racket to portray a clean image.
However, TMC cadres are far from pleased. Caught off-guard by the hostility they have been suffering at the hands of villagers, they say it would have been better if Mamata hadn’t painted them all with the same brush.
“Didi has shrugged off all responsibilities, and pushed us into massive trouble,” said a district leader from Burdwan.
“We organise people on the ground. Now, people do not trust us. They call us thieves,” the leader added.
“We respect her decision, but she could have done this in a different way,” said another leader from Hooghly. “It could have saved us from such public humiliation.”