The BJP’s rise in Bengal as a major power and its formidable challenge to the ruling party could yield unexpected dividends—a possible repreive and recompense for those at the receiving end of TMC officials’ monetary demands. Mamata reportedly berated her party apparatchiks for taking cuts from beneficiaries of welfare programmes and asked them to return the ‘cut-money’. To mobilise her party before the municipal elections, Mamata had called a meeting in Calcutta on June 18. Addressing her councillors, who had come from all over the state, she vented her rage at the allegations that her party fostered an extortionist culture. During the election campaign, Modi had repeatedly levelled the charge that TMC supported extortion.
Angry people gheraoed TMC leaders and elected representatives of panchayats and municipalities in Birbhum, Malda, Cooch Behar, Purulia and Bankura districts. They demanded that the money taken from them to provide benefits for various schemes of the government be returned. A panchayat pradhan from Birbhum district reportedly returned the Rs 2.28 lakh that he had earlier taken from villagers.
Mamata’s comments come at a time when many TMC members have defected to the BJP. Six TMC MLAs have already switched their allegiance to the party. A majority of the members of the South Dinajpur zilla parishad, the highest body in the three-tier panchayat, has joined BJP, giving the party control of a zilla parishad for the first time.
In 2020, around 80 municipalities, including the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, will go to polls. Before the defections, TMC presided over 125 of the 127 municipalities in the state, and Left and Congress controlled one each, Siliguri and Jaynagar respectively. With TMC councillors moving to BJP, the party has lost its majority in seven municipalities, including Bhatpara and Darjeeling.
“This is the first wave of defection,” warned BJP national secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya. “There will be seven such waves.” BJP leaders in Bengal claim that by the last phase, there would hardly be anyone left in TMC. A desperate Mamata is now trying her best to salvage the situation.
Faced with questions from media persons at Parliament complex, Satabdi Roy, a three-time TMC MP from Birbhum, said that while those who took one to two percent would be compelled to return the money, she questioned if it would have an impact on the “big fish”—those who took a bigger cut. She explained that extortion works in a “chain”—people at the bottom of the rung get a meagre share, while those at the top get a larger portion. If just the former return their collections, the higher-ups could possibly corner an even larger percentage of funds. Mamata should ensure that whatever was taken “chain-wise” be refunded “chain-wise”, Roy declared. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh and other leaders pounced on Roy’s comment and made it an issue to beat the TMC with.
Sources close to TMC leaders say that party members are furious after Mamata’s comment as it has made them the target of people’s ire. Seeing the reaction it has provoked amongst the public as well as within the party, the top brass is trying to minimise its impact. Partha Chatterjee, a senior leader and spokesperson of TMC, claimed that Mamata’s message had been misinterpreted by the media and stressed that “99.99 per cent” of the people in the party were honest and hardworking.
Though the anger against the TMC is widespread, it is yet to assume proportions that could unsettle the government. In fact, by openly admitting that some of her party’s elected representatives and functionaries are corrupt and minting money by pilfering from the government’s development projects, Mamata is trying to distance herself from the electorate’s ire. Her undermining of her party leaders and workers is reminiscent of former Chinese premier Mao Zedong. In order to corner his opponents within the Chinese Communist Party, such as Deng Xiaoping, Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution and raised the slogan ‘Bombard the headquarters’. In Bengal, Mamata has invoked public wrath against her own party workers to marginalise her foremost adversary, BJP. It remains to be seen, however, if this move will bestow upon Mamata a cleaner, transparent and trustworthy image in the coming days.
By Rajat Roy in Calcutta