As the 2024 Lok Sabha election approaches, the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal finds itself getting increasingly cornered by Central investigating agencies probing various scams and financial irregularities in the State. After the Saradha deposit collection scam, the Narada sting videos, and the school and the municipal recruitment scams, it is now the turn of the public distribution system (PDS) to come under the glare of the Central agencies.
With the Enforcement Directorate (ED) arresting heavyweight Cabinet Minister Jyoti Priya Mallick and some of the key suspects allegedly close to him, the ruling party’s already battered image is again being dragged through the mud. While Trinamool leaders have called it a ploy by the BJP to subdue it ahead of the election, the magnitude of the scam, as indicated by the ED, has put the Trinamool on the defensive. To make matters worse, a brutal attack on ED officials and the media by alleged supporters of Trinamool leader Shahjahan Sheikh, when the investigating agency had gone to search his residence at Sandeshkhali, sparked off widespread condemnation against both the party and the administration.
On January 5, the day on which three of its officials were bloodied and hospitalised at Sandeshkhali, in North 24 Parganas district, the ED issued a detailed press release, indicating the extent of the scam. “The investigation carried out so far indicates that the magnitude of the scam is enormous, and the proceeds of crime received and further transferred and layered by one suspected person itself are suspected to be at least to the tune of Rs.9,000-10,000 crore, and out of that, Rs.2,000 crore were also suspected to be transferred to Dubai either directly or through Bangladesh,” the release said.
The ED had initiated the probe on the basis of FIRs lodged by the West Bengal Police, dating back to 2020 and 2021. In 2020, West Bengal witnessed violent agitations at the rural level over irregularities in the distribution of COVID-19 relief and rations. Then Food and Supplies Minister Jyoti Priya Mallick, who is behind bars, denied wrongdoing and blamed the opposition for inciting the people.
The ED said that in the course of its investigation, “three important modus operandi” had come to the fore. Various rice mills had allegedly siphoned off foodgrain from the PDS in collusion with ration distributors and dealers. “As per the evidence collected, approximately 25.55 per cent of total atta [wheat flour] required to be delivered to the PDS distributors was siphoned off,” the ED said. “It was also found that rice mills were buying back the atta delivered to various dealers through various middlemen/agents and were mixing the same with fresh PDS atta and accordingly corresponding quantity of wheat was being allegedly siphoned off thereby generating proceeds of crime. This modus operandi not only generated proceeds of crime but also affected the quality of atta delivered.”
The agency described another modus operandi: “Proceeds of Crime (PoC) were generated under the garb of paddy procurement in the name of fake farmers,” the ED said. “It was found that various millers were controlling or were hand in glove with many cooperative societies and by using the names of their employees and relatives as ‘fake farmers’ in the muster rolls, they received payments at MSP [minimum support price] in the bank accounts of their employees and relatives.”
The money trail
The money trail led the ED to the rice mill owner Bakibur Rahaman, known to be a close associate of Mallick, who was the Food and Supplies Minister from 2011 to 2021 and later Minister for Forest Affairs and Non-Conventional and Renewable Energy Sources. According to the ED, Rahaman had received payments at MSP in the bank accounts of employees and relatives, whom he presented as “farmers”, and transferred a part of the PoC (which he had not laundered or invested in immovable properties) “to certain companies allegedly under the control and beneficial ownership of Jyoti Priya Mallick”. On October 14, 2023, the ED arrested Rahaman and on October 27 it arrested Mallick after a marathon 20-hour raid at his residence. The Trinamool strongman in North 24 Parganas, popular as Balu da and known as a trusted lieutenant of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, fainted in court when it ordered his ED custody. Mallick is the second Cabinet Minister to be arrested in connection with financial scams. In July 2022, senior Minister and party heavyweight Partha Chatterjee was arrested for his involvement in the school service commission recruitment scam.
On January 5, matters took a turn for the worse for the ruling party when Shahjahan Sheikh’s supporters attacked ED officials who had gone to conduct a search at his residence. A crowd of villagers, many of them women, gathered outside Sheikh’s house and, according to the ED’s statement, marched towards the ED officials “with an intention to cause death”. Three of the officers suffered “grievous injuries”. Even journalists were not spared. The miscreants, armed with sticks and stones, allegedly damaged ED vehicles and robbed the officials’ mobile phones, wallets, and laptops. While the attack demonstrated a decline in law and order in the State, it also seemed to betray a sense of desperation for the Trinamool.
The ED said that, on the same day, it faced a similar attack at Simultala Bongaon in North 24 Parganas while conducting a search at the residence of Shankar Adhya, former Chairperson of the Bongaon Municipality and Mallick’s close aide. Adhya, who owns a number of Full Fledged Money Changer companies, is suspected to have played a key role in transferring crores from the scam out of the country. While Sheikh went missing, the ED arrested Adhya following the raid.
- As the 2024 Lok Sabha election approaches, West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress faces heightened scrutiny from Central investigating agencies probing various scams and financial irregularities in the State.
- The Enforcement Directorate’s arrest of heavyweight Cabinet Minister Jyoti Priya Mallick and associates linked to him in the PDS scam case further tarnishes the ruling party’s already damaged reputation.
- Matters took a more ominous turn on January 5 when supporters of Trinamool leader Shahjahan Sheikh attacked ED officials searching his residence, prompting Mamata Banerjee to accuse the Centre of “clearing the field” of local leaders ahead of the Lok Sabha election.
“A spontaneous reaction” of people
The Trinamool claimed that the attack on the ED at Sandeshkhali was a spontaneous reaction of the local people. Shashi Panja, Cabinet Minister for Industries, Commerce & Enterprises, said: “These selective raids have misled and incited people, leading to mass protests…. The Trinamool does not defend, encourage, or support violence. Let the ED and the CBI do their job… but their intent is questionable.”
However, what the opposition parties and the ED also found “questionable” was the role of the police in failing to apprehend Sheikh for allegedly inciting the mob against the Central agency. In fact, for more than 11 days after the attack (as of January 17), the local Trinamool strongman remained at large, though several others were arrested. While there were rumours of Sheikh having fled to Bangladesh, many in the Trinamool went on record to say that he had never moved out of Sandeshkhali. The situation caused considerable embarrassment to the police, particularly since newly appointed DGP Rajeev Kumar gave an assurance on January 8 that the guilty would not be spared. Finally, the ED approached the Calcutta High Court and said that the police were not taking adequate steps in the case. It demanded that the investigation be handed over to a Central agency. On January 17, the High Court directed a joint Special Investigation Team of the CBI and the West Bengal Police to probe the attack on ED officials at Sandeshkhali.
The ruling party’s reactions to the arrests and raids have been diverse. Initially, Mamata Banerjee appeared to wash her hands of Mallick, saying he would have to fight his legal battles on his own. Later, following the Sandeshkhali episode, her mood turned more belligerent as she accused the Centre of “clearing the field” of local leaders before the Lok Sabha election. “Actually, they are scared of Trinamool Congress,” she said. “That is why they are staging this drama, arresting people by going house to house. They think that by emptying areas in this fashion, the BJP will get an open field, but we will not give up an inch without a fight.”
On another occasion, Mamata appeared defensive about the corruption charges levelled against top leaders in her party. “Among my five fingers, one can have a cut. One small incident does not make all bad.... I have only one meal a day. I do not even have rice or roti. I am happy that I have a cot to sleep in,” she said.
While the arrests and the raids have given the BJP, the Left, and the Congress a platform to attack the ruling party and the government, it remains to be seen how much the PDS scam will ultimately affect the Trinamool in the parliamentary election. The scam had broken out ahead of the 2021 Assembly election, and in spite of protests and outrage of the deprived PDS beneficiaries, the Trinamool romped back to power for its third consecutive term, winning 215 of the 294 seats. In the last few elections, corruption as an issue has not been found to impact election results in any significant way, as identity and dole politics dominate the scene. However, with Mamata trying to assert her presence in the INDIA grouping that will be taking on the BJP in the upcoming election, the ongoing developments will make her vulnerable to uncomfortable questions.