About a hundred villagers assembled in a temple in Sainthia, a sleepy town in Bengal’s Birbhum district, on 20 June. Their objective was unusual. They were waiting for the local councillor to arrive and pay back the bribe money he had taken from them for grant of benefits from various welfare schemes over the past few years. A day earlier, the same demand caused a clash between members of Bengal’s ruling party, Trinamool Congress, and locals at Ilambazar, in another part of the same district. Five people, including one woman, were injured in the clash.
The councillor in Sainthia, as expected, did not show up. But the locals were determined to get their money back, forcing him to announce that he would pay the money later.
Birbhum is not the only district in Bengal where such a demand is being raised. Bankura, Purulia and Malda districts have seen similar calls. The trend is spreading day by day. Incidents are being reported from Nadia, Jhargram, West Medinipur and Bardhaman too. There are instances of locals gheraoing panchayat offices or the houses of local panchayat members and municipal councillors or the ruling party’s offices. Some have lodged complaints with the Block Development Officer. Others are planning to write to the chief minister. A former head of the Mahanandatola gram panchyat in Malda district was arrested in a two-year-old case of extortion.
Politicians giving back 'cut money' to the people! What exactly is happening in Bengal? And what has emboldened common people enough to combat the mighty local party bosses?
To find answers to these questions, we must go back to 23 May, 2019, the day Lok Sabha election results were announced. A tectonic shift in Bengal’s polity became evident that day. The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) managed to get 22 out of 42 seats and 43 per cent of the vote share. But decimating the TMC’s old rivals – the Left and the Congress – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took control of large swathes of the state by winning 18 seats and 40 per cent of the votes.
Since then, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been trying an assortment of tricks and tactics to win back the voters. Her latest: An announcement that she was aware that her party’s corrupt lower level leaders were taking bribes from the people for granting benefits due to them. Her directive to them first was to leave the party. Shortly later, she commanded the corrupt leaders still in the party to pay back the cut money extorted from the people. This latter pronouncement was made at a public meeting no less. Not surprisingly, the floodgates opened. The situation is serious enough to snowball into a law and order crisis.
If that were to happen, it would be a nightmare for the state government that had received two advisories from the Centre on post-poll violence and killings. Even as recently as 20 June, two people died in Bhatpara (North 24 Parganas) in police firing.
Why is Mamata Banerjee, the astute and experienced politician that she is, having to resort to such exceptional measures? The short answer is that nothing seems to be working for her. The ‘Didi’ of Bengal first relied on her honest image and planned to start an anti-corruption movement of a different type. But it failed to take off.
Earlier, during the election campaign, she played the ‘secular card’ to the hilt. But it could nothing to stop the Modi-wave from reaching the shores of Bengal. After the election, she decided to play the Muslim card openly, as in this election – according to TMC insiders – Muslim voters (about 30 per cent of the total voters of Bengal) overwhelming voted for the party.
“I’m ready to tolerate the kick of the cow that gives milk,” declared the CM soon after the election. And then, as TMC and BJP workers clashed in the South and North 24 Parganas districts and the post-poll death toll touched double-digit figures, the BJP accused the government of going soft against Muslim TMC workers.
At around the same time, the doctors of NRS Medical College were attacked by truckloads of hooligans after an aged patient, the father of a nearby locality’s Imam, died. In light of such developments, some prominent Muslims of the state wrote a letter to the CM, urging her to take action against all Muslim criminals. This is where things now stand.
But this is not end of Mamata Banerjee’s troubles. The CM’s angry reaction to ‘Jai Shri Ram’ chants have helped the slogan gain popularity in Bengal. Her not talking to the agitating doctors too did not help her, though in the end she managed the situation satisfactorily. Her diktat that ‘everybody living in Bengal will have to speak Bengali’ also did not go down well with either the non-Bengalis in the state or the Bengalis whose family members work elsewhere.
It appears that Banerjee is trying to take a leaf out of the Left Front’s book of confrontation with the Centre and its ruling party. Things are not going to plan in these changed times for the CM. However, it is unlikely this will force the ‘tigress’ to abandon her attitude during the war. The single largest chunk of population is still with her. They believe the ‘cut money’ crisis will die down, and she will be able to win over Bengal. Time will tell if she can tide over this acute political crisis.
(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of books including, A Naxal Story. He is a deputy editor at the Bengali daily, Aajkal)
The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.