Inside a saw mill at Chanok village in Bardhaman district, Subrata Mondol is poring over a pile of “declaration forms” with personal details of residents and their signatures. Each form names the recipient of a government scheme and the “cut money” allegedly paid to local TMC leaders to avail the benefit.
Mondol is the BJP’s booth committee chief in the village. “We have printed forms for various schemes, mostly for housing and toilets. So far, 180 people have filled the forms. We will send the forms with complaint letters to the administration and police. We are with the people,” he says.
On June 18, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked her party leaders to return the “cut money”, or illegal commissions, they had allegedly collected from people to “facilitate” various government schemes. This led to angry gatherings across rural Bengal, with many assaulting the TMC’s local representatives and forcing them either promise in writing to pay up or flee their homes.
It has also opened up a new political front in the state between the TMC and the BJP, which surged to 18 seats in the Lok Sabha elections with around 40 per cent of the vote share.
Soon after Banerjee’s call, State Minister and senior TMC leader Firhad Hakim accused the BJP of instigating the violence “to create unrest in Bengal”. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh responded by calling for “a gherao of TMC representatives to get back the cut money with interest”.
The Indian Express travelled through 12 villages in Hooghly, Bardhaman and Birbhum to map the political faultlines beneath the wave of anger against “cut money”. And found that while local TMC leaders are on the run, residents are turning to a well-oiled support system put in place by the BJP — from “declaration forms” under its letterhead to “public hearings”.
“We are with the people’s legitimate demand for cut money refunds. We are just streamlining the agitation,” says Mondol in Chanok village.
At Boinchi in Hooghly, the BJP is at the forefront of planning protests, drawing up lists, lodging mass complaints and organising gheraos outside the houses of local TMC leaders.
“We have prepared a list of 32 residents who have come on record to say that they have given cut money to TMC leaders for LPG connections under the Ujjwala scheme. We have submitted a complaint to the police station and the office of the Block Development Officer along with signatures,” says Saranika Mondal, who is the BJP’s district secretary in Hooghly.
The complaint reads: “We, the undersigned residents of Nuniadanga village in Hooghly district, inform you that local TMC leaders Subhas Biswas and Sikha Majumdar have taken Rs 500 from us to help us get LPG connections through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. Recently, we came to know that no money is needed to get such connections. It was a conspiracy to take Rs 500 from each one of us. We request you to take action against the culprits and ensure that we get our money back.”
Biswas and Majumdar have “gone missing”, say residents. Saranika says the BJP is preparing a list of “corrupt TMC leaders”. “Soon, the people will gherao their houses. We will make them return the money,” she says.
The other Opposition parties, Congress and Left, failed to make any impact in the Lok Sabha polls but have registered their presence in the agitation against “cut money”. On June 24 and 25, their MLAs staged a walkout from the state assembly. Apart from the RSS-backed ABVP, SFI activists too held a rally on July 2 to protest against commissions allegedly taken by the TMC’s students wing for benefits in state colleges.
Listen to Express Audio: TMC’s ‘cut money’ blowback
Cornered in its own backyard, the TMC has started organising rallies in various districts to improve its “public relations”. “It (the agitation) is a planned conspiracy by the BJP to attack our leaders. We are already campaigning for our party’s Martyrs Day rally on July 21. We are also focusing on public relations and taking out processions,” says TMC’s Hooghly district leader Prabir Ghosal.
On June 10, the ruling party set up a special cell, a toll-free number and an email ID for people to air their grievances. On June 25, the state government created a new post to curb economic offences by public representatives, with IPS officer Tanmay Ray Chaudhuri being appointed as Deputy Director, Directorate of Economic Offences.
Speaking to The Indian Express, a senior police says the government may also charge elected public representatives and government functionaries who accept “cut money” under a tough law that provides for life imprisonment.
“The corrupt officials will be charged under Section 409 of the IPC, which relates to criminal breach of trust by a public servant, banker, merchant or agent. A person convicted under the law is liable to be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, besides fine,” says the officer. SPs of all districts have also been asked to take action as soon as they receive formal complaints.
On the ground, meanwhile, the political tussle continues. “The party has asked us to collect signatures of people who gave cut money after applying for the Banglar Bari (housing) scheme. Some people have signed, but the others are scared that they will land in trouble. We are trying to convince them,” says Tarak Dhar, a BJP worker at Berela village in Hooghly.