In Bengal polls, cut money remains an issue against TMC
Santosh Mahapatra, 35, a shopkeeper at Debra in West Midnapore district, was candid unlike his neighbours when asked whether allegations of extortion -- the payment of what is locally called cut money -- against local ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders is an issue ahead of the polls in their constituency on April 4.
“You cannot buy a piece of land, especially if it is in a prime location, or build a house, without meeting their demands,” Mahapatra said of an insidious aspect of doing business or closing transactions in the state -- one that chief minister Mamata Banerjee sought to put an end to in 2019.
Banerjee directed her party leaders and public representatives at all levels in June 2019 to return the money extorted since 2011 (when her party formed its first government).
She issued the directive a month after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the second biggest party in the state in the national polls by winning 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. Some party leaders actually returned the money amid protests over the issue.
TMC workers have been accused of taking cut money to help people avail benefits of state-run welfare schemes with rates ranging from between ₹200 to ₹25,000 depending upon the benefits. There also have been allegations that cut money was being charged for infrastructure projects, adding to their cost.
Banerjee’s immediate concern over cut money was the likely impact on the TMC’s prospects in 2020 civic and the 2021 assembly elections. The civic polls were withheld because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The assembly elections will be held in eight phases between March 27 and April 29.
Banerjee criticised her party leaders following the protests over cut money. She has since held grievance redressal camps across the state, which she called “the government at your doorstep” for public welfare to offset the damage the issue caused. But the problem appears to have persisted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah have repeatedly spoken about the cut money since the 2019 polls.
Modi again accused TMC leaders of corruption at his rally at Purulia on Thursday. He vowed that the Bharatiya Janata Party will end TMC’s cut money rule.
In February, BJP chief Jagat Prakash Nadda said: “People of West Bengal will need a vaccine against extortion, theft, and cut money.”
Mahapatra said his family has benefitted from TMC’s social welfare schemes, but added that cut money remains an issue.
Palash Singha Roy, 42, a TMC worker at Lalgarh, a former Maoist stronghold before Banerjee came to power, admitted the cut money issue has dented the party’s image. “I am a die-hard follower of Mamata Didi. It is true that some people get more than others when relief materials and doles are distributed. Some people are asked to give a share of the money they get from social welfare schemes. But one must see the bigger picture.”
Developmental projects have transformed Lalgarh over the last 10 years, he explained. People acknowledge the development. “Didi [Banerjee] never differentiates between the BJP, Left, and TMC supporters. All villagers benefit from the schemes,” Roy added.
Tapan Roy, a BJP worker, alleged everything the TMC has done is to make money. “Minuscule development has reached people. This election will expose the TMC in a big way. Just wait and watch.”
Around 80 kilometres away in Binpur, Anur Handsa, a resident, said Banerjee did try to change the party but the cut money culture still persists.
Ashok Pratihar, 65, a farmer, said corruption was an issue till mid-2020. “But after that TMC revamped its local organisations, and those facing charges were stripped of their positions. The anger is now less.”
BJP won the Jhargram Lok Sabha seat reserved for Scheduled Tribes in 2019. The BJP was ahead in six of the seven segments under the constituency.
Debnath Hansda, the TMC candidate from Binpur, said the party will recover the lost ground. “The BJP is spreading a lot of lies but nothing will work this time.”
TMC leader Saugata Roy said there were stray cut money cases reported about two years ago and the party has dealt with them. “Cut money is no more an election issue in Bengal. It is history. The fight is against the BJP’s lies,” he said.
Political analyst Suvashis Maitra said 90% of the election is being fought on the basis of the performance of the contesting parties. According to him the issue of cut money is unlikely to be significant across Bengal although it “may figure as an issue in some pockets.”