Kolkata: Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee assumed the office of the West Bengal chief minister on May 20, 2011. Banerjee and her council of ministers walked to Writers’ Building with a delirious, cheering crowd expecting a real poribartan’ (change). A new era has begun in the state, asserted veteran politics watchers, that will see a communist oligarchy bloated by power and corruption decimated.
While the oligarchy may have suffered a setback, the Saradha chit fund scam, which has so far caused 14 people to commit suicide because they lost their life’s savings, suggests corruption and greed for power continue to drive politics in West Bengal.
“What the Saradha scam has done is to mark a watershed for the party,” says a TMC old-timer. “Mamata’s USP was her honesty. That facade is now off.”
For TMC, whose ideology rests on the three pillars of Maa, Maati and Maanush’ (Mother, Soil and People), it is the third pillar that has been dealt a severe blow. “TMC is seen as a party that stands for the poor. Now, this poor section has been hit hard by the chit fund scam,” adds a former Union minister from TMC.
Rebel TMC Parliamentarian Kabir Sumon, who has publicly revolted against the party leadership, says: “TMC is not like other regimented parties. It started as a people’s movement to oust the Left Front rule. The party’s strength is the TMC worker. My rebellion is against the leadership, not against the party.” Sumon believes party supporters have got a serious jolt with the chit fund scam. “They have lost faith in their leader.”
Sumon’s is not a solitary voice, though all other critics are not ready to go public with their views. “The situation is such that Banerjee was surrounded by a coterie of non-political people such as Kunal Ghosh and Derek O' Brien (Rajya Sabha member), who have started wielding enormous influence on the party,” says another TMC leader.
The new Trinamool
“All the real TMC men who built the party, like Sisir Adhikari and Sovondeb Chattopadhyaya, have been sidelined and new entrants have captured the centre stage,” says an old-timer. Some time ago, Saugata Roy declared at a public rally there “should be a cut-off line” between those who were part of TMC prior to 2009 and the later entrants, indirectly referring to industrialist K D Singh and quiz master O’Brien.
Just like what happened during the later years of the Left Front rule, the lines between the government and party have been blurred now. Unlike the Left Front, which had a party system, in TMC, it is proximity to Banerjee that wields power.
The one who is calling shots in the party, say insiders, is Mukul Roy. The former Railway minister has been with Banerjee since TMC’s initial days and has become her most trusted lieutenant. That is a position Roy has leveraged to the hilt, allege insiders, pitting party leaders against each other. “There is not a single district or block in the state where Roy has not created a parallel power structure,” says another TMC leader. Party circles are abound with tales of how Roy was instrumental in working against TMC strongman in Haldia, Subhendu Adhikari, leading to the party’s defeat in the Haldia municipality polls in June last year.
Much against the advice of senior partymen, Banerjee encouraged pro-government media television channels and newspapers and patronised Sudipta Sen and his Saradha group. “Why should Saradha group sponsor bikes for Kolkata police and the CM flag these off?” says another TMC leader. The Saradha group-backed media outfits like Channel 10, Bengal Post and Sakalbela have all tanked with Saradha’s fortunes dipping, leaving thousands unemployed.
Intellectuals disown Banerjee
Sumon, who aligned himself with the party during the Nandigram and Singur movements and formally joined TMC in 2009, said: “That was the first time when writers, artists and intellectuals aligned themselves with TMC. I myself brought in scientists in 2008 like Samar Bagchi and Kalyan Rudra.” Gradually, intellectuals such as Mahashweta Devi, Samir Aich and others were sidelined and they chose to stay away. Only a few like artist Suvaprasanna stayed on. Sumon, himself a pioneer of Bangla protest music (Jibonmukhi gaan), says “the breach” with Banerjee occurred in 2011. Ascribing it to her “betrayal”, he says Banerjee, who had promised to turn out the security forces from Maoist strongholds like Lalgarh in the run up to the state polls, took a U-turn subsequently, describing them as “killers and cowards.” “That was enough for me,” says Sumon.
The Saradha links
Moidul Islam, a teacher at a government primary school in Kulpi in South 24 Parganas and the head of TMC’s Shiksha cell in Diamond Harbour, has long been raising the issue of chit fund firms. Over 130 such companies are functioning in the vicinity through his registered organisation, Goriber Taka Bachao’ (Save the money of the poor) committee.
“Despite lodging complaints with local party leaders, including the CM, no action was taken,” says Islam. He says the local MP and members of the legislative assembly would routinely attend events organised by chit fund companies. If this menace started during the Left regime, it flourished under TMC. “At least 45 teachers I know, who doubled up as chitfund agents, have now fled. They were all TMC workers,” says Islam.
Though Banerjee has said the government would set up a Rs 500-crore relief fund for the victims of the chit fund scam, Islam warns such “gimmicks” could backfire. “In my village of Saatmansha, among a population of 1,200, already Rs 35 lakh has been swindled. A single agent would carry the liability of Rs 1.5 crore alone; so, it is impossible to compensate lakhs of victims.” Saradha agents have, of late, been collecting certificates and papers from depositors on the “assurance” that it would be vital for the compensation that Didi’, as Banerjee is popularly known, had announced. “What will happen when the people don’t get their entire money back, what will be the fallout then?” questions Islam
The coming Panchayat polls
Grass root party workers like Islam are apprehensive of the Saradha scam fallout on the coming panchayat polls. Himself a prospective candidate at the block level, Islam says: “The loss that the party has suffered is immeasurable. It will be an uphill task to cover the lost ground.” The party’s latest directive is that no Saradha agents must be proposed as candidates.
Also, the 25 per cent minority votes, which went largely in favour of TMC in the last election, is in the danger of slipping away. Toha Siddiqui, the Peerzada of Furfuria Sharief in Hooghly district, (the dargah is believed to hold sway over at least 30 million Muslims in the state) says: “We backed Banerjee because she helped to throw out the Left.”
“I still have faith in Mamata, but I am gradually losing my belief as I find TMC is deluding us in the same manner that the Left Front used to,” Siddiqui says. When followers ask him whom they should cast their vote now, he says, “I tell them, vote for justice, whoever will give you justice.” Siddiqui adds that despite the CM being seen to be overtly embracing the minorities, “she, in fact, has not done anything for us.”
The only hope for TMC now seems to be a “course correction”, warns Sumon. If that’s not done, several of the old guards in TMC, who are essentially from the Congress gharana’, might find their way back there.”
Sumon, nonetheless, still retains “faith” in Didi. Describing her as a “phenomenal fighter”, he voices regret: “She has lost all directions and is totally cut off from the ground reality.” Unless there is change within the internal leadership, the movement could fritter away, says Islam. “For a party that got the biggest mandate in recent times, only two years on the scenario is such that the government is tottering. What a pity!” laments Islam.
When Mamata Stumbled
FEBRUARY 2012 Marwari community industrialists feel threatened after Banerjee commented “I want industry, but not killer industry” soon after the fire at AMRI hospital in Kolkata that killed 93 people
FEBRUARY 2012 Banerjee said the Park Street rape case was "cooked up to malign the state government"
MARCH 2012 Railway Minister & TMC MP Dinesh Trivedi sacked as he announced a marginal fare hike. Banerjee said Trivedi acted against her knowledge. Trusted aide Mukul Roy replaces him
MAY 2012 Banerjee storms out of a television studio interaction with students; calls a student "Maoist" for questioning her on law and order situation in the state
JUNE 2012 Singur Land Rehabilitation Act 2012 struck down by Calcutta High Court
APRIL 2012 Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mohapatra arrested for circulating Banerjee’s cartoon
OCTOBER 2012 In the Haldia port imbroglio, employees of ABG Infrastructure allegedly abducted. Banerjee claims “charges fabricated”. TMC politicians MP Srinjoy Bose and father Tutu Bose hold sway here
APRIL 2013 SFI student leader Sudipta Gupta dies in police custody. Outcry after Banerjee commented: “Any death is unfortunate. This is also unfortunate.”
APRIL 2013 Banerjee and her finance minister Amit Mitra heckled by SFI workers in front of the Planning Commission building. Banerjee cancels her meeting with the PM saying Delhi is “unsafe”
APRIL 2013 Presidency College/University’s historic Baker lab ransacked by Trinamool Congress student wing. The college is known for being a hub of SFI supporters
APRIL 2013 Banerjee announces Rs 500-crore relief fund for Saradha scam victims; announces additional 10 per cent tax on cigarettes to raise money for the fund