For nearly two years running, the Central government’s decision to withhold funds for several rural welfare schemes, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), has been a major political issue in in West Bengal. After a lull, the issue has once again taken centre stage, with the ruling Trinamool Congress upping the ante. The party took the protest to Delhi under the leadership of Abhishek Banerjee, general secretary and Lok Sabha MP, and also staged a dharna for four days outside the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata. The party called off the agitation in Kolkata after Governor C.V. Ananda Bose promised to take up the matter with the Centre.
The protest has been viewed as a shrewd and effective strategy to divert attention from the investigations by Central agencies in connection with several corruption cases and scams.
On September 30, after being refused a special train by Eastern Railway, hundreds of Trinamool supporters and MGNREGS card holders left for Delhi in buses. Earlier this year, on Trinamool’s martyr’s day rally on July 21, Abhishek had promised to take the protest against non-payment of MGNREGS funds to Delhi on October 2; and true to his words, he landed in the capital armed with signatures of around 20 lakh MGNREGS workers who claimed they had been denied their wages by the Centre. On the day of the protest, October 3, he was summoned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which he ignored with a defiant “Stop me if you can” post on social media.
On October 2, the police broke up a gathering at Rajghat while Abhishek was addressing a press conference. “We were disturbed by the Delhi Police all through our peaceful protest, where not a single political slogan was raised.... The way women, including reporters, were assaulted at Rajghat was shameful,” he said. The following day, after a day-long sit-in at Jantar Mantar, Abhishek, accompanied by 40 Trinamool leaders and workers, including MPs and legislators, walked to Krishi Bhawan, and sought the appointment of Niranjan Jyoti, Minister of State for Rural Development. The Trinamool delegation was informed that the Minister would not meet them. They staged a dharna inside Krishi Bhawan for three hours before they were forcibly evicted by the police.
An outraged Mamata Banerjee, who was convalescing in Kolkata, lashed out on social media, saying: “Today is a dark, sinister day for democracy, a day when @BJP4India revealed their disdain for the people of Bengal, their disregard for the rights of the poor and a complete abandonment of democratic values....” The same night, Abhishek announced a dharna outside the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata.
Protest at Raj Bhavan
Addressing a crowd of supporters at the Raj Bhavan gate, Abhishek demanded that the Centre pay up Rs.5,217 crore to the State. “The Centre must pay 0.05 per cent interest daily. So, for this two-year delay, it must release Rs.5,217 crore.... We are not begging for anything. We are asking exactly what we deserve,” he said. Although the Governor was not in town when the dharna began, Abhishek was resolute that the protest would not be lifted until Bose met the Trinamool delegation. On October 9, Bose finally met a 30-member delegation led by Abhishek and promised to take up the matter with the Centre. The Trinamool Congress ended its agitation, but warned of a more prolonged stir from November 1 if the Centre did not respond to its demand.
The protest ignited a fresh political battle between the BJP and the Trinamool, both in Bengal and in Delhi. The Central government maintained that West Bengal had received Rs.2 lakh crore in the last nine years for rural welfare schemes and alleged rampant corruption and misutilisation of these funds by the Trinamool government. Union Rural Development Minister Giriraj Singh alleged that the Trinamool used 25 lakh fake job cards to “loot” Central funds. Calling Mamata Banerjee’s government as one that “robs the poor of their rights and their money”, Singh said: “Where has the money from the 25 lakh fake cards gone? The time has come for the CBI to begin an investigation in the matter.”
Abhishek accused the BJP of indulging in discrimination. He said: “In Yogi Adityanath-ruled Uttar Pradesh, 24 per cent of the job cards were found to be fake. Will the BJP speak on that? Even if, for the sake of argument, I accept there are discrepancies in four districts [in West Bengal], what is the explanation behind depriving the other 17 districts?”
As the Trinamool staged its agitation in Delhi, the BJP in West Bengal raised the pitch on the issue of corruption, and planned parallel protests in the State. Suvendu Adhikari, BJP MLA and Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, met Niranjan Jyoti in Delhi and handed over a four-page letter containing details of corruption in the disbursal of MGNREGS funds. “We are stopping corruption. Not the money to the people of Bengal,” he told mediapersons in Delhi.
Amid the Trinamool’s protest, the ED issued summons to Abhishek, his wife Rujira Banerjee, his father Amit Banerjee, and his mother Lata Banerjee, in connection with the School Service Commission recruitment scam. Even as Abhishek and other Trinamool leaders and activists sat in dharna outside the Raj Bhavan on October 8, the CBI raided the residences of Firhad Hakim, the influential Cabinet Minister and Mayor of Kolkata, and Madan Mitra, MLA and former Minister, in connection with the municipality recruitment scam. While the Trinamool claimed that it was the usual ploy of the BJP at the Centre to use Central agencies to scuttle political movements of the opposition, the BJP accused the Trinamool of using the protest to divert public attention from its misdeeds.
The BJP’s decision to withhold funds came within a year of its defeat in the State Assembly elections in 2021. The move was perceived as a long-term strategy to stifle the Trinamool’s modus operandi of creating beneficiaries across rural West Bengal through the disbursal of Central funds and, at the same time, highlight the extent of corruption at the grassroots level in the State.
- For nearly two years, the Central government’s decision to withhold funds for vital rural welfare schemes, particularly the MGNREGS, has ignited a political firestorm in West Bengal.
- Recently, the ruling Trinamool Congress took their fight to the heart of Delhi, led by Abhishek Banerjee, making it clear that they won’t back down until the Centre releases Rs. 5,217 crore owed to the State.
- This contentious battle, characterised by protests, allegations of corruption, and strategic maneuvers, has implications not only for Bengal but also for India’s political landscape.
However, many political observers are of the view that this strategy is likely to backfire. The Trinamool swept the panchayat elections held earlier this year, when the lack of Central funds ought to have hurt it the most. It won 79 per cent of the gram panchayats, 92 per cent of the panchayat samities, and all the zilla parishads. Although the elections were mired in controversy, the Trinamool nevertheless displayed an organisational strength that remained untouched by allegations of corruption.
According to the well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, in this contest between “allegation of corruption” and “protest against deprivation”, the odds weigh heavily in favour of the latter, as it connects with the emotion of the masses. He pointed out that a study of Bengal’s politics over the years reveals that the issue of corruption never played a major role in overthrowing a government. The Personal Ledger Accounts (PLA) scam, the land allotment scam, and the infamous Bengal Lamps scandal during the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front rule did nothing to diminish the CPI(M)’s support among the masses. It was only when Mamata Banerjee launched an attack from an emotional angle on the forcible land acquisition in Singur that the seemingly invincible Left started collapsing like a house of cards.
“During the present Trinamool rule also, we have seen repeated scams and scandals rock the government—the Saradha scam, the Narada sting, the School Service Commission recruitment scam, and so on—but none of them has impacted the ruling party electorally. Like the Left, the Trinamool has also put deprivation at the forefront of its politics and this has yielded it rich dividend,” Chakraborty pointed out.
The fact that the Trinamool chose to hit the streets in protest rather than move the Supreme Court maybe an indication that the party would prefer to draw as much political mileage out of the situation as possible ahead of the Lok Sabha election. “If things continue to roll in the same direction, it would not be surprising to see the BJP’s seats in Bengal coming down to five from 18 in the Lok Sabha election,” said Chakraborty.
Interestingly, this was also the first time that Abhishek shouldered the entire responsibility of carrying out a movement independently without the shadow of his aunt Mamata Banerjee looming in the background. With Mamata constrained by health issues, the entire protest proved that the Trinamool’s next generation is ready to don the mantle of leadership. “The latest developments have shown that Abhishek is the de facto number one in the party,” said Biswanath Chakraborty.