Kolkata: The Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal is once again confronted with the ‘cut-money’ problem, nearly a year after it cracked down on the issue.
The latest trigger is the relief of Rs 20,000 per family that the state government has announced for those affected by Cyclone Amphan. Since 12 June, there have been at least 60 incidents of clashes, gheraos of block development and panchayat offices and attacks on panchayat members in at least seven districts, led by angry villagers who have not received the aid.
They are alleging that Trinamool Congress panchayat pradhans and members have been misappropriating the government aid money or have been demanding a percentage of the money in return for being added to the beneficiary list.
Even before this, the Trinamool was mired in allegations of corruption after lack of ration sparked riots in the state’s rural areas in April, after the nationeide lockdown was enforced. Dubbed ‘ration riots’, they were allegedly provoked by TMC functionaries hoarding government foodgrains meant for the poor.
Cut-money is a a colloquial term for extortion, which Trinamool Congress-ruled panchayat pradhans and members are accused of as they allegedly collect a percentage of government aid and relief from beneficiaries in return for including them in the beneficiary lists.
It first cropped up on 22 June last year and was cited as one of the reasons for the BJP gaining massive ground in the state — the party won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state earlier in the year.
It also forced Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to take her partymen to task, even threatening to send them to jail if they continued to demand ‘cut-money’. Since then, several TMC leaders at the district and block levels were hounded or attacked by locals demanding their money back. While several of them returned lakhs, some disappeared.
Cut-money, however, is not new to Bengal. The state has had a long history of political ‘extortion’.
Nothing new, part and parcel of Bengal politics: Experts
Political experts point out that ‘cut-money’ or extortion has been an intricate part of Bengal’s politics for the past four decades, and that it just changes in nomenclature, situations and modus operandi.
Samir Kumar Das, professor of political science in Calcutta University, told The Print that while the chief minister did attempt to address the issue, she has been unable to contain it.
“The chief minister’s cut money warning last year was well-timed and well-intentioned. It was also an acknowledgement of her party’s actions involving extortion,” Das said. “She took a step to cleanse the party and brought it to public knowledge. But what happened next? The cases started tumbling out again, people have started agitating everywhere and her comments have added to the BJP’s arsenal against her.”
Das added that it only raises questions on the chief minister’s leadership. “People are getting robbed in a different way and through different schemes. This is surely a reflection on her command,” he said. “It also raises questions on the earnestness of the leadership in stopping such a menace.”
Prof Biswanath Chakraborty, another Kolkata-based political observer, said even digitisation hasn’t been able to stop the problem. “DBT (Direct Benefit Transfer) or digitisation has also failed in stopping corruption here,” he said. “Even when the government opts for DBT, the list is prepared at the panchayat level. and one needs to pay a part of the benefit to be a beneficiary. You can trace everything — political violence, factional clashes and area capture — to cut money.”
A senior Trinamool Congress leader, meanwhile, explained the role cut-money plays in Bengal politics and why Trinamool needs this money.
“Cut money is cult money. The more one can collect ‘cut money’, the more one is treated like a cult figure. It brings political veneration,” he said.
“For this, one needs to understand our party structure. The previous CPI(M) used to run a subscription model of taking cut-money. People used to be forced to pay a subscription to the party,” he added. “We do not have such a model, but we need money to run the party. So from where do we get the money? The Trinamool Congress does not get donations from big industries or businesses like the BJP or Congress do. Party leaders are asked to contribute to the party fund. Here is where the cut-money comes into play.”
According to the 2018-19 political funding report by the Association For Democratic Reforms, the Trinamool Congress did not earn a single penny through sale of coupons, voluntary contributions or miscellaneous income. It only raised around Rs 97 crore through electoral bonds. In contrast, the BJP earned Rs 1,450 crore through electoral bonds that fiscal and the Congress Rs 383 crore.
‘Cut-money’ through the years
According to Prof Das of Calcutta University, the ‘cut-money’ is just an extension of the ‘subscription’ fee that the CPI(M), which ruled West Bengal for nearly 34 years, practised.
“The CPI(M) was a regimented party and it had a solid command over its structure up to its lowest level. It used to collect cut money through subscription. It was another form of extortion,” Das said. “But the process was centralised. One needs to pay money to one party unit and get a receipt for it. But the Trinamool has various factions, and all of them extort. There is no central command, perhaps because the party is not built properly. It reveals the party’s incapacity to control its cadres.”
The CPI(M)’s ‘subscription’ model had slabs that were different for businessmen and for the salaried.
“We used to have different slab-based subscriptions for people. It used to be calculated on the earnings of a particular person,” said Khagen Murmu, a BJP MP who had been with the CPI(M) for three decades.
“There is, however, no match for the Trinamool Congress’s form of extortion,” he added. “Now we get cases in which a beneficiary is forced to give at least 50 to 60 per cent of the central schemes, specially the big ones like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Even though it is a direct benefit transfer (DBT) scheme, the panchayat needs to send its report about the status of the construction (of homes). So local panchayats intimidate them about not sending the status report, if they do not get cuts.”
Senior CPI(M) leader Mohammad Salim said parties like the BJP were trying to build a narrative that the Trinamool inherited its ‘cut-money’ practice from his party even though that was not the case.
“From when did one start hearing this word ‘cut money’?” Salim asked. “Since 2018, when the Trinamool took over all panchayats forcefully. The control was gone as there was no Opposition anywhere in the system. The CPI(M) still runs on a subscription model but when we were in power we used to take immediate action if we received any complaints (of extortion or corruption).”
‘Mamata Banerjee has institutionalised it’
While all the clashes and the protests have now put the government on the backfoot, the opposition is alleging that the TMC has only graduated from cut-money to “complete embezzlement”.
“The genie is out of the bottle. The leader (Mamata) cannot bring them (panchayat members) down and she does not want to. Her party needs money to fight the election,” said Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Choudhury.
He alleged that the TMC panchayat members are running amok as there is no opposition at that level. “In 2018, the state witnessed unprecedented violence during the panchayat elections. Opposition candidates were not allowed to file nominations and the TMC won uncontested,” Choudhury said. “Since the panchayat system went opposition less, corruption got a free hand. With absolute power, her men have gotten absolutely corrupt.”
“Politics in Bengal has been running on corruption and violence for ages. It was introduced by the CPM but Mamata Banerjee has institutionalised it,” state BJP president Dilip Ghosh said. “What her party did in distributing Amphan relief packages or ration to people is shameful.”
For her part, the chief minister had said her government and party will not spare any of the culprits. Her government has also launched a helpline for those affected to register complaints.
Trinamool Congress leaders, however, sought to downplay the crisis.
Speaking to The Print, veteran MP Kalyan Banerjee said, “Why don’t you ask questions about the ventilator scam in Gujarat? Media needs to answer why no questions are raised there ? Why are you always after us?”
He added that the party was taking the necessary action. “We have taken all necessary action in the party and we will not spare anybody who is responsible for this (scam),” he said. “But one should also probe how a BJP MP is able to buy a Rs 4 crore worth house in Salt Lake (a posh area in Kolkata). There should be an investigation into it.”
Banerjee, however, had got a panchayat pradhan in Hooghly district dismissed on the grounds of corruption on 20 June.
ThePrint also reached out to TMC spokesperson Derek O’ Brien and MP Mahua Moitra but calls and texts went unanswered. A mail has been sent to the party’s media enquiry section for a response. This report will be updated if any of them responds.
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