HOURS before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 currency notes on November 8, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), deposited Rs.1 crore, all in Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes, in a nationalised bank in central Kolkata. In fact, in a span of just eight days before the demonetisation announcement, the BJP deposited a total of Rs.3 crore in its account in the Central Avenue branch of Indian Bank, raising questions of whether there was selective leaking of information and what the party was doing with such a large of amount of cash in high denominations.
Though the West Bengal unit of the BJP has dismissed all allegations and claimed that it did not act upon any prior intimation and that there were no financial irregularities in what it did, sources in the banking industry said the BJP’s rush to deposit such a large amount of money was unprecedented. The timing and the hurry in which the deposits were made has ignited suspicion in political and social circles.
According to a report in Ganashakti , the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), on the afternoon of November 8, Rs.60 lakh was deposited in the account of the BJP (account number 554510034) in the Central Avenue branch, Kolkata, of Indian Bank, all in Rs.1,000 notes. A few hours later, Rs.40 lakh more was deposited in the same account, but this time there were also a large number of Rs.500 notes. The PAN card number that was shown was that of the central BJP account. A week earlier, on November 1, Rs.75 lakh was deposited in a current account of the BJP in Indian Bank (account number 6365251388). Four days later, on November 5, in the same account, Rs.1.25 crore more was deposited, lending weight to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s allegation made on November 10: “There is evidence that their [BJP’s] friends and own people were informed a week before the decision was announced.” Sources in the banking industry confirmed the dates and the figures reported to be accurate. The BJP did not deny that the deposits were made but maintained that the dates on which they were made was just a coincidence. “What difference would it have made if we had deposited the money after November 8. We put the money in a nationalised bank account and gave our PAN. All of it is accounted for,” said Jaiprakash Majumdar, vice president of the West Bengal unit of the BJP.
But the question remains, why the unseemly rush to deposit such a large amount of money in denominations of Rs.1,000 and Rs.500, for banking sources have claimed that such depositing pattern as displayed by the BJP is both “unprecedented and abnormal”. “The way the BJP deposited the money, one can be certain that the information was leaked out. Whatever be the amount, what was the need to deposit the money on the 1st, 5th and 8th of a total of Rs.3crore? This is just one example; it may be that throughout the country more such examples are there. Moreover, if you analyse the statement of [BJP president] Amit Shah on [Chief Minister] Mamata Banerjee’s reaction to the demonetisation decision, you can draw certain conclusions. He said certain political parties are reacting because they have become poorer. In other words, it is not his party that has become poorer but others. In other words, the BJP protected itself and let the other parties become poorer,” Rajen Nagar, president of the All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA) and general secretary of the Bengal Provincial Bank Employees Association (BPBEA), told Frontline .
Surjya Kanta Mishra, State secretary and Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), challenged the central BJP leadership to come clean on the issue. “If the national president of the BJP has the courage let him say in what other bank accounts money has been deposited in this manner,” he said at a media conference. “Has money also been deposited in the accounts of party leaders or those close to the party?” he asked. Questioning the BJP’s claim that there was nothing suspicious in what it did, Mishra asked: “Does the BJP then deposit such an amount every week?”
With the prevalent chaos and the inconvenience faced by the people, the revelation came as an unexpected blow to the party, which is trying to carve out some political space for itself in the State. Even as the party’s leaders dismissed the allegations, its rank and file have been feeling the heat. “There is no denying that this has been a major embarrassment for us. At the grass-roots level our workers are worried. We will have to face the questions of the people and this may affect whatever little gain we have made in the State,” a BJP worker said.
There are a total of 10,460 ATMs all over West Bengal, and only around eight service providers. So, for the first week after the demonetisation announcement around 90 per cent of the ATMs were not functioning owing to a lack of Rs.100 notes in them. Moreover, there are 700 gram panchayats in the State which are unbanked and hence completely cash dependent. With the patience of the masses wearing thin with every passing day, business transactions slowing down, payment of wages getting delayed, and general panic and despair spreading, Mamata Banerjee has been most vocal in her criticism of the demonetisation programme. With her new battle-cry—“the suffering of the people”—she reached out to various opposition parties, including the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). For the first time she even made overtures to her arch enemy, the CPI(M). She made a call to CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, explaining to him the need for a united effort to oppose the Modi government. Earlier, she said in a media conference: “We are ready to work with all, including the CPI(M) with whom we have political and basic ideological differences.”
According to the noted social scientist and political observer Biswajit Chakraborty, this is a carefully calculated political move by Mamata Banerjee to further her aspirations at the national level. “Her all-out attack on Modi will consolidate her minority vote in the State on the one hand, while on the other her call for a united stand against the BJP at the Centre will create new space for her at the national level,” he told Frontline . The West Bengal unit of the CPI(M), though opposing Modi’s demonetisation, has made it clear that it will have no truck with the Trinamool Congress. “We have seen in the Narada sting case her party leaders accepting cash on camera. She is agitated because the daily functioning of her party is now hampered. A sizable per cent [of unaccounted-for money] has gone out [of the country]. But there are problems now getting money from extortion, syndicates, etc, and this in turn is causing problems for her in the upcoming byelections. We are protesting, but then again, anybody can protest, and if thieves are joining in the protest, we cannot help it,” Surjya Kanta Mishra told Frontline .
Mamata Banerjee also hit the streets, talked to the people in the queues and tried to garner support for her opposition to the scheme. However, while most people admit to being exasperated, few have actually been critical of the main plan. While the common people support the idea of what the Centre professes to achieve with its demonetisation, they are critical of its implementation.
Mamata Banerjee’s overzealous opposition also runs the risk of being counterproductive. Her actions are also being construed, not without smirks, by the same people standing in long queues under the midday sun as that of one who seems to have been personally hit hard by the demonetisation.