Kolkata: The raging issue of cut money has triggered large-scale protests against Trinamool Congress’ elected representatives and leaders across West Bengal, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee bringing the issue to the fore as part of a political strategy aimed at an image makeover after the party’s setback in the Lok Sabha polls.
But analysts say there is high probability that the move may backfire.
However, there is also a section of commentators who feel the Trinamool supremo’s “disruptive tactics” may give dividends to the party in the long run if it can initiate corrective measures, with the recent unrest acting as a ‘safety valve’ to bring out people’s frustrations and grievances centering government functioning over a number of issues.
It all began on June 10 — about two-and-a-half weeks after the Lok Sabha results which saw the BJP’s tally in the state go up to an unprecedented 18 from 2 in 2014, while the Trinamool’s seat count dropped to 22 from 34 five years back — amid rampant allegations of corruption and fleecing of poor people against the functionaries of the ruling party.
The Chief Minister opened a monitoring cell under her for “programme implementation of government schemes and redressal of grievances/complaints”, and made public a toll-free number for registering the allegations.
The cell in-charge Colonel (retired) Diptangshu Chowdhury along with his team members was asked to visit the districts and interact with the beneficiaries who have been “denied government welfare scheme benefits or harassed against receiving such benefits”.
The cell has received close to 1,500 complaints so far.
Then at a party councillors’ meeting on June 18, Banerjee lashed out against a section of party functionaries for taking cut money (read bribe or commission) from people for implementing government welfare schemes, and asked them to return such amount to those who they have fleeced.
Within days, the protests started, as locals staged demonstrations or laid siege outside the houses of Trinamool leaders, councillors and panchayat functionaries, accusing them of taking cut money and demanding return of those amounts.
Over 40 such protests have been held so far. Facing such unprecedented public wrath, some of the accused have either returned the money or given written undertakings promising to return the amounts they had taken from beneficiaries for schemes such as the ‘Banglar Bari Awas Yojana’.
Gauging the public mood, the government tightened the screws, asking the police superintendents to initiate cases on complaints of accepting cut money under Section 409 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) dealing with criminal breach of trust by any public servant. The maximum punishment under the section is life imprisonment.
So far, 18 of the accused have been arrested and 50-100 more could land in jail soon, said a source connected to the developments.
However, contrary to some reports, political strategist Prashant Kishor — roped in by the Trinamool to help the party after the electoral setback — is not the brain behind the party’s cut money game-plan. The strategy was discussed and approved by Banerjee much before Kishor’s arrival in the state.
“Banerjee is the architect of the strategy, and no one else,” said Chowdhury, who is believed to have played a prime part in devising the game-plan.
In fact, sources claim that Kishor has reservations about the way the party supremo has dived headlong to take on rampant corruption.
However, Chowdhury said the impact on the public has already been stupendous. “We are daily receiving hundreds of congratulatory messages. There is an overwhelming public acknowledgement that for the first time in India, a lady, a Chief Minister, is standing up against corruption,” the former army man told IANS.
“Wherever the monitoring cell team members are going, it is sending shivers down the spine of corrupt administrative officials and public representatives,” he added.
Political analyst Udayan Bandopadhyay shared Chowdhury’s optimism.
“Because it rigged the panchayat polls last year, Trinamool had no idea about the issues which have turned people against it.
“The cut-money unrest has been fanned in a calculated way, so as to provide a safety valve to the people’s grievances on multiple issues like appeasement or attitude of Trinamool leaders or the torture they have inflicted on the masses.
“This will help the party better understand the public pulse and adopt strategies accordingly in rebuilding its support base,” Bandopadhyay told IANS.
However, political commentators Anil Kumar Jana and Bimal Shankar Nanda had a different take.
“The way Trinamool’s political graph was coming down, it had to desperately take this path to save itself from oblivion. The question is why didn’t the party take some action on corruption prior to its electoral setback. Moreover, the allegations are not only against the lower levels of the party, but also against the top leadership,” Nanda told IANS.
“I think the cut money issue will backfire against the Trinamool. In fact, it has robbed the political class of all public respect. And I’m not sure that eminent people will in future agree to contest polls,” he said.
Jana said the state’s scenario reminded him of the last days of the Left Front government, from 2009-2011.
“History repeats itself, that is the only way the present political situation in the state can be analysed. The cut money issue will have a bearing on the polls, because an alternative force, a formidable force (BJP), has come up,” he told IANS.
BJP national Secretary Rahul Sinha said there was now a virtual civil war in Trinamool over the cut money issue.
“The Chief Minister wants to project that she is honest, the senior Trinamool leaders, many of whom were involved in the Saradha ponzi scam and Narada sting footage scandal, are honest. And only the councillors, panchayat functionaries and local level party leaders are dishonest. This attempt on her part has pushed the party towards a civil war,” Sinha told IANS.
“The party will soon crumble like cookies,” Sinha added.
Criticising Banerjee for trying to protect her image at the cost of Trinamool, state Congress president Somen Mitra referred to the late Siddhartha Shankar Roy — the state’s last Congress Chief Minister, who ruled from 1972-77.
“He formed the Wanchoo Commission (to investigate corruption charges against some of his cabinet colleagues). We had won 218 seats in 1972. In 1977, the numbers came down to 20. We will see a repetition this time, and the BJP may gain,” Mitra told IANS.
CPI-M politburo member Mohammad Salim said the cut money issue was an “open acceptance” that Trinamool was “neck-deep in corruption”.
“For getting any government service — from hospital admission, college admission to civil construction — one had to bribe the Triamool guys. But now, people are asserting themselves by overcoming the fear psychosis created by the Trinamool.
“Whenever the tables turn against her, Banerjee tries to turn it to her advantage. She is trying her old trick by projecting herself as a sage. But she will not succeed,” Salim told IANS.