A youth from West Bengal’s Baharampur district cleared the West Bengal civil services examination more than two years ago but is yet to get his appointment letter. When he went to enquire about the delay in getting the letter, he was advised by an official of the West Bengal Public Services Commission that he could get the letter expedited by paying Rs 5 lakh to a Trinamool Congress leader.
In Konnagar not far away from Kolkata, a woman who works as a domestic help paid Rs 1 lakh to a local civic body chief, a Trinamool leader, who promised her a government-subsidised house. Many like her paid the money to the leader in return for the same promise which, of course remains unfulfilled. These are just two instances of what has now come to be known as “cut money” scam in West Bengal, posing a serious challenge to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with fresh assembly elections in the state just two years away and her Trinamool Congress steadily ceding ground to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
During the parliamentary election campaign in February this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, at a rally in West Bengal, described the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress symbolising three “T”s—Trinamool Tolabaji Tax. What in essence he was driving at is the allegation of pervasive corruption against ruling party leaders at various levels. Modi’s remarks had at that time triggered a barrage of denial and protests from Mamata and other Trinamool Congress leaders.
Ironically, four months down the line, Mamata, speaking at a recent party meeting of Trinamool leaders in the Kolkata municipal corporation on June 18, appeared to confirm what Modi had said in February. She warned her party leaders that those involved in taking “cut money” from people to avail the government’s social welfare schemes and other corrupt practices would be put behind bars and asked them to return the “cut money” they extorted from beneficiaries of welfare schemes since 2011. Thousands of people, ranging from landless farmers to domestic helps to businessmen are publicly naming Trinamool leaders who have taken money from them.
The “cut money” scam found its echo in the state legislative assembly on June 24 when legislators of opposition Congress and CPI(M) staged a walkout from the House flagging the issue and demanded inquiry into the incident. Trinamool leaders in urban and rural areas are facing mounting public anger against “cut money.” There have been almost daily reports of the people affected by “cut money” assaulting local Trinamool leaders, demonstrating in front of their houses and forcing some of them to give in writing that the money would be refunded.
Trinamool’s Rajya Sabha lawmaker Santanu Sen recently faced allegations of seeking “cut money” from a realtor in Kolkata. Sen has termed the charge as “baseless and politically-motivated” to malign his reputation. Allegations are pouring in and demonstrations are taking place across the state almost every day.
On Saturday last, Trinamool Congress removed Shanta Sarkar, the vice chairman of Rajpur-Sonarpur municipality in the southern fringes of Kolkata following allegations of corruption. But Sarkar maintained: “I only followed orders from the party. I don’t know why this was done but the post of the vice chairman has been done away with.”
Mamata’s instruction to Trinamool Congress functionaries to return to the public the “cut money” was followed by an announcement by her confidante and Kolkata Mayor Firhad Hakim about the launch of a toll-free number and a Whatsapp for people to file complaints about “cut money.” This has put Trinamool leaders in a quandary. The party is groping for a convincing response to acknowledgement of corruption implicit in Mamata’s “cut money” statement. This is best reflected in party lawmaker and actress Satabdi Roy’s comment that the chief minister’s remark may cause confusion and trouble in the party. Speaking to the media in Delhi, Roy said these measures should have been initiated to stop the practice much earlier.
“Didi has taken steps now, that’s fine. But there will be more chaos on returning ‘cut money’. Because a person who has taken it directly, he is only the front man. There are others who are behind the wings. They have also taken their share. So the money has to be returned as per this chain,” Roy said summing up well the plight in which Trinamool finds itself today. Also reflective of the predicament of Trinamool in the context of “cut money” was a song on the issue by popular Bengali singer Nachiketa Chakraborty, who is considered close to Mamata, going viral on social media.
Mamata’s “cut money” remark has given new ammo to her political rivals. “After institutionalising corruption, she now wants to portray herself as the only honest leader in Trinamool Congress. When her own party MP and popular singer Kabir Suman spoke out against extortion a few years ago, she took no action. It is common knowledge that everybody in the party gets a share of the booty,” Communist Party of India (Marxist) Politburo member Md Salim said. BJP Bengal unit president Dilip Ghosh said, “from getting admission in the college to set up a toilet, people have to give Trinamool leaders a share for everything. Sensing an opportunity to make political capital out of public resentment, the BJP has decided to launch a campaign to press the demand for returning the ‘cut money’.”
The “cut money” controversy is the latest issue that is bleeding Trinamool Congress politically at a time when the party has been hit by a series of defection in its ranks engineered by Mamata’s former trusted aide Mukul Roy, who is now a key strategist of the BJP in Bengal. The defections to the BJP are the result of the saffron party’s remarkable performance in the parliamentary polls.
As if the electoral setbacks and desertions in its ranks were not enough, Mamata faced another crisis in the form of a week-long strike by junior doctors who were protesting the assault of one of their colleagues by the relatives of a patient at a state-run hospital in Kolkata. Roughing up of doctors in West Bengal is not uncommon but the latest incident had snowballed into a pan-India agitation by doctors seldom seen.
The question is, why has Mamata warned about “cut money” now. Is she trying to take a moral high ground by flagging the issue before fresh civic body polls in 2020 and then assembly elections in 2021? Is it a damage-control exercise through a corrective step? Will it damage the party further? Only time will tell.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent forThe Daily Star.
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