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Corruption Becomes Major Issue for TMC in Bengal; Mamata Sheds Combative Stance

Rampant cases of corruption and halt in MGNREGA funds have become a huge concern for the ruling TMC as the next rural polls are due in a matter of months.
WB: As Mamata Goes on Defensive, Non-BJP Opposition Taps Into Discontent

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Image Courtesy: PTI

Kolkata: Ahead of the Panchayat polls next year, the Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal government is looking to redeem its image. The TMC government, which is in its third term, battled serious allegations of malpractices, nepotism and corruption throughout 2022. Adding to the embarrassment of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the party’s top brass are the adverse findings by central probe agencies – Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate – in a number of cases. The inquiries are ongoing, as well as the Calcutta High Court proceedings. 

Circumstances forced the party to remove from the ministry Partha Chatterjee, who ranked next only to the chief minister. Chatterjee was also number two in the party hierarchy as its secretary-general and ‘ironically’ headed the TMC’s disciplinary committee. 

The net result, as assessed by political watchers who spoke to NewsClick, is that the end of 2022 finds the aggressive Banerjee subdued, and volunteering to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and even having a 15-minute one-to-one meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah at the recently held eastern states’ conference at Nabanna. The state administration also cooperated with the Centre when it drafted teams of officials for on-the-spot inspections of implementation format and progress of schemes usually funded by the Centre to the extent of 60%.  This contrasts with her not making it to meetings convened even by the Prime Minister and instead deputing senior officials and her practice of derisively referring to the Home Minister.

Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, a Lok Sabha member formally tasked by the party chief to run the youth wing and create a base for the party outside West Bengal, is maintaining a low profile these days. In effect, however, he is second-in-command for everything. In recent days, he has been talking about a ‘Natun Trinamool’ – a new TMC that matches the party from back in 2011, when it grabbed power by dislodging the Left Front.

In this unusually low profile of the chief minister cum party supremo and the second-in-command, political observers see a tacit admission that things have gone wrong administratively and politically. 

Junior Banerjee is often seen holding meetings in politically sensitive areas a day after Suvendu Adhikari’s meetings. Adhikari who, much to Mamata’s embarrassment, quit TMC and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before the 2021 Assembly elections, apparently has been assigned by the top brass a key role in state politics. It was perhaps done keeping in view his long association with the TMC and experience as a former minister with important portfolios.

For the TMC government, the start of 2022 did not auger well as the Union Rural Development ministry put a brake on funds for the  100-day job scheme under MGNREGA with effect from December 26, 2021. The Centre cited poor implementation and malpractices, including the use of poor quality materials and fund embezzlement by panchayat office-bearers in collusion with contractors. Aside from saying that the Centre is discriminating against the state, CM Banerjee was unable to deny the malpractices and the involvement of TMC functionaries because, in the 2018 rural polls, the party had manoeuvred control of a vast majority of the three-tier system.

The leadership, therefore, found itself in a piquant situation. Circumstances compelled the administration to take corrective measures suggested by inspection teams. But they are still finding compliance with one directive difficult – that of recovering the embezzled funds. Certain gram panchayats have been penalised by  MoRD. A recent report by non-profit organisation LibTech India has estimated workers’ outstanding dues at Rs 2,744 crore for work done since December 26, 2021. The impasse caused a drop in the number of households who depended on the livelihood supporting scheme – from 77 lakh during the Covid years to 16 lakh this fiscal year. The low of 16 lakh also marks a glaring contrast with 49.25 lakh households under the scheme in the pre-Covid year. The consequence – much more than usual migration – has proved to be a significant concern for the party as the next rural polls are due in a matter of months. 

In July this year, the Mamata Banerjee government was cornered again as irregularities of huge proportions surfaced in the recruitment of Group C and Group D staff, and teachers in government-sponsored and government-aided schools. The irregularities pertained to a period between mid-2014 and TMC’s second term in power when Partha Chatterjee was the education minister. 

Subsequently, a Calcutta High Court-directed investigation by central agencies led to the recovery of stacks of cash worth nearly Rs 50 crore and a sizeable weight of gold jewellery from a flat purportedly owned by one Arpita Mukherjee, considered a close associate of Chatterjee. The episode led to the arrest of Chatterjee and several high postholders of the education department, including a vice-chancellor and a former board chairman. As part of the investigation, all of them are currently in jail. This issue came to light when the central probe agencies were busy deciphering the allegations of cattle and sand smuggling against Banerjee’s confidante Anubrata Mondol, the Birbhum district party president who is politically influential and a major fundraiser. 

The last four months of 2022 saw coming to the fore a large number of instances of malpractice in the PM Grameen Awas Yojana. In place of people entitled to financial assistance for building housing units under the norms laid down by the Centre, the lists prepared by the state government officials had the names of TMC activists and panchayat postholders who do not qualify for the same. This has happened in district after district; many of those who manoeuvred to get their names enlisted were found to be owning pucca houses, two and even three-storied ones. As the news of manipulation spread, discomfiture grew in the administration. The chief minister ordered detailed scrutiny of the lists to delete names surreptitiously included at the cost of deserving people. ICDS and ASHA workers were drafted to verify the lists, which according to recent information, had names of nearly 46 lakh people. The verification so far has resulted in the deletion of 5.5 lakh names. 

However, the job has been far from smooth. Vested interests made the task of ICDS and ASHA workers difficult; they were threatened, and as a result, were afraid of proceeding. In many places, it became a law and order issue. Aggrieved villagers vandalised panchayat offices in some places. On getting these reports and inputs from state BJP leaders, for whom upcoming panchayat polls will offer a chance to activate rural party units, the MoRD has now appropriated a role that administratively belongs to the state – that of prioritising the categories of deserving people. This appropriation has been synchronised with the resumption of fund release after a considerable gap.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Rajya Sabha member and eminent lawyer Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya told NewsClick that the Awas manipulation has already become a massive issue in rural areas. “We were aware of it much before it became a talking point in the public domain and the reason for widespread discontent. We identified several offenders, but organisationally we were not equipped to use this to the hilt. Now we are in a better position; our people are explaining why and how things have come to this.” 

Asked if he proposes to take the matter to courts as Bhattacharya has done in the case of the teaching and non-teaching staff recruitment scam, the Left leader said the Awas matter resulted from a Centre-state administrative conflict. With the Centre having the upper hand, the situation has become hugely embarrassing for the state government and TMC, he said. Therefore, there is no need to go to court over the Awas matter, Bhattacharya added.

Kaninika Ghosh, General secretary of the West Bengal unit of All India Democratic Women’s Association, told NewsClick, “It was highly improper for the state government to deploy ICDS and ASHA workers for verification. They could not discharge their assigned duties; moreover, they were threatened and humiliated while they verified  Awas lists.” The organisation will take up their cause with the authorities, she said, adding that it will also hold agitations, either on its own or in association with CPIM’s other frontal outfits, against the corrupt practices. The aim is to see that those deprived are able to build their dwelling units, Ghosh added. 

Communist Party of India state secretary Swapan Banerjee believes that the situation has become delicate for the TMC in the rural areas because of the inoperative MGNREGA and large-scale Awas irregularities. “The TMC government is a habitual offender when it comes to submission of utilisation certificates for schemes for which the Centre has to pay a higher share of funds,” he said. Programmes for agitation on these and other matters of public concern are to figure at the Left Front meeting on January 3, Banerjee told NewsClick. 

Political watchers feel a scope is emerging for the non-BJP Opposition to become an influential factor in the rural polls. However, serious efforts have to be made by them to get the support of rural voters. They noted that the opposition cannot wish away the impact of TMC’s dole-based politics, particularly the Lakshmi’s Bhandar cash disbursal scheme for women.

The writer is a Kolkata-based senior freelance journalist. The views are personal.

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