Mamata Banerjee’s corruption crackdown: Calculated move or genuine reform?

In an attempt to win back urban votes, the Chief Minister openly admitted to systemic corruption and malpractice across various sectors.

Published : Jul 08, 2024 18:41 IST - 7 MINS READ

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addresses a review meeting regarding hawkers and encroachment, at Nabanna in Howrah district on June 27.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addresses a review meeting regarding hawkers and encroachment, at Nabanna in Howrah district on June 27. | Photo Credit: PTI

On June 24, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sprang a surprise, when, in an open meeting with Ministers, elected heads of municipalities, bureaucrats, and the police, she launched a scathing attack against her own party and administration on the rampant corruption and mismanagement in the municipalities and urban centres.

While this was the first time that the Trinamool leader practically admitted to systemic corruption in the running of municipal bodies, her outburst, which took place less than three weeks after her massive victory in the Lok Sabha election, is seen as a calculated move to not just address the long-standing issue of corruption but also win back urban voters, while distancing herself from various allegations against her party.

It was not simply a stern rebuke or harsh criticism; the Chief Minister’s lengthy tirade against her own party members and her administration was something that one might expect from her political opponents. She addressed every aspect of corruption and malpractice in the municipal bodies across the State, sparing neither her party leaders and Ministers nor the bureaucrats and the police.

Raising numerous issues

One after another she took up issues that have been plaguing the people, including land grab, illegal construction, extortion, the land mafia menace, harassment of people in obtaining basic municipal facilities, encroachments on public spaces, illegal occupation of government land, inefficiency of departments in dealing with urban matters, the deplorable condition of roads, wastage of electricity and water, and improper waste management.

Also Read | Can Trinamool’s welfare schemes counter Sandeshkhali scandal impact in West Bengal?

Even MLAs and Ministers were not spared. “Howrah has no municipality; it is under the SDO [Sub-Divisional Officer]. As a result, four MLAs are taking full advantage of this.... MLAs are taking advantage of the absence of councillors. I do not need to spell out what I mean by advantage,” the Chief Minister said.

She accused Bidhannagar MLA Sujit Bose, who is also the Fire and Emergency Services Minister, of facilitating encroachments, much to the discomfort of the Minister, who attended the meeting. “Sujit Bose is allowing encroachers to set up shop. Why should that happen? If I show you the pictures, you will feel ashamed. How much money was paid for this? Who took the money?” she said.

She also directed her anger at the elected councillors, saying they did not work. “Do I need to go and sweep the streets now? These people do not look after roads, lights, water supply, people’s problems. I had made this city so beautiful.... How much more can I fight?” she said.

Accusing the administration and the police of making money during their tenures in particular posts, she said: “Enough is enough. Now it is glaring to the eye.” She condemned the administration and the police for turning a blind eye to the rise in the number of hawkers and encroachments into public spaces.

‘Mafia jungle’

Talking of illegal construction and a nexus between the land mafia and members of her own party, Mamata Banerjee said: “They are doing as they please, filling up canals and ponds, grabbing land and building houses. There is a mafia jungle: a promoter-contractor raj, which started during the time of the CPI(M). Those who are doing this within the party will not be spared.”

She drew attention to a “land mafia group” in the Dabgram-Phulbari Assembly constituency in Jalpaiguri district, which was seizing government land and selling it. “The police and the land department are also involved in this,” she said.

The issue of corruption has been a thorn in the side of the Trinamool ever since it came to power in 2011. A number of its top leaders, Ministers, MPs, and MLAs have been put behind bars for their alleged involvement in various scams. The latest School Service Commission recruitment scam and the ration scam have further damaged the party’s reputation and credibility.

  • The Trinamool leader talked about issues such as land grab, illegal construction, extortion, and the land mafia menace.
  • Mamata’s crackdown on corruption may be a timely step to protect her own image and distance herself from the corruption within her party.
  • The Chief Minister has set off on a path of rectification, with an eye on the Assembly election due in 2026.

Although the party’s welfare schemes won it 29 of the State’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, the victory could not remove the stain of corruption, and Mamata, once hailed as the most honest Chief Minister in the country, became the target of the opposition’s attacks. For a long time, she appeared to be in a state of denial. “In a big party one or two people may be corrupt, but that does not make the whole party bad,” was a statement often heard over the years.

Mamata’s crackdown on corruption at this point in time may be a timely step to protect her own image and distance herself from the corruption within her party. “I don’t want masters of extortion. I want those who can serve the people,” she said at the meeting. She also took away the right of municipalities to float tenders or increase taxes independently.

The public rebuke of her party leaders and public servants also served to address a specific political fallout because of the issue of corruption, namely, the disenchantment of urban voters, as evident in the Lok Sabha election.

While rural West Bengal voted overwhelmingly for Mamata in the Lok Sabha, the urban electorate, considered one of Trinamool’s strongest support bases, showed clear signs of drifting away from the party.

At an eviction drive in Birbhum on June 27 after Mamata Banerjee issued a stern warning against encroachments.

At an eviction drive in Birbhum on June 27 after Mamata Banerjee issued a stern warning against encroachments. | Photo Credit: SHYAMAL MAITRA/ANI

According to the psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, the Trinamool was trailing in as many as 77 of the 128 municipal bodies in the State. The BJP also made inroads into north and south Kolkata, where the Trinamool is supposed to be the strongest, securing a lead in more than 44 of 119 wards.

Eye on urban voters

Speaking to Frontline, the veteran political observer Biswajit Bhattacharya said: “This is a point of concern for Mamata. This is the first time the Trinamool is trailing in the wards in Kolkata after winning the Kolkata municipal election in 2010. Today we see the Trinamool trailing in the very wards of the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, mainly due to corruption and misrule.”

The Chief Minister’s crackdown may indicate that she has already set off on a path of rectification, with an eye on the Assembly election due in 2026. Chakraborty said: “ We can see urban voters moving away from the Trinamool. This is clearly a move to win back those votes. Almost immediately after the results, we see her analysing where her party failed to perform and going about repairing the damage, with the 2026 Assembly election in mind.”

Interestingly, Mamata also talked about West Bengal losing its identity. She said: “Every State has its own identity and culture. We respect other cultures, but I am warning those who are trying to destroy Bengal’s culture.”

It was a subtle reiteration of the 2021 election campaign that the BJP’s culture was alien to West Bengal and that the State “wanted its own daughter”. The fact that the BJP secured more seats than the Trinamool in the municipal regions is being projected as a threat to the very identity of West Bengal. “Bengal’s identity is being sold for money,” she said at the meeting.

Also Read | Trinamool’s resounding comeback in Dhupguri

Following her outburst, the police, administration, and local leaders went into overdrive, clearing the pavements of hawkers and encroachers, using force and bulldozers. As the plight of the poor hawkers (who have already paid for their place on the streets) led to a public outcry, Mamata Banerjee held another meeting, on June 27, announcing a pause in the operation for a month. Once again, coming down heavily on her own party and the police, she said: “Politicians and the police think they can give away roads and collect bribes. This will not do. Control your greed. Local politicians and the police are the most to blame.”

Rural terror

Even as she was cracking down on corruption and misrule in urban areas, reports of terror perpetrated by a section of her party in rural areas continue to surface and shock.

On July 1, a video surfaced of influential Trinamool leader Tajimul Islam, aka JCB, brutally beating up a man and a woman for being in an extramarital relationship, in a kangaroo court at Chopra, a town in Uttar Dinajpur district. To make matters worse, the local Trinamool MLA, Hamidul Islam, tried to justify the action.

It now remains to be seen whether the Chief Minister, after addressing the problems in urban areas, will turn her attention to rural areas.

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