The closing line of Mamata Banerjee’s theme song for the ongoing assembly elections is: “Trinamool means I am fine, you will be fine too.” Zahiruddin Fakir, 34, a syndicate boss supplying men and materials to big-ticket construction projects in and around Kolkata could well be the poster boy for this lilting lyric. Fakir, posing proudly for The Telegraph newspaper in his Nike singlet and fat gold chain and a TMC flag in the background, is equally unabashed in the interview that accompanies this photograph.
The owner of two syndicates and the driving force behind nine others held by cousins, nephews and other close relatives has no hesitation in admitting “you have to flex muscle” to browbeat companies to accept his terms and sub-standard materials. And sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. “I am like Robin Hood,” says Fakir. Robbing the rich by another means to provide a source of income to young men with nothing else to look forward to. A Robin Hood who however is not shy of advertising his proximity to the police – “I know the length of their moustaches,” he smiles – notwithstanding the charges of three murders, multiple cases of assault, extortion and forcible stoppage of work at construction sites lodged against him. Life is fine for him indeed. And will continue to be so in the days to come.
The rot that the all-pervading syndicate raj symbolises has spread deep and wide in West Bengal and will not be easily uprooted whatever the top bosses may say. The system of forcing builders to buy their materials from local suppliers whatever the price and quality of the stuff has become so institutionalised that even the judiciary has not been able to avoid its fell hand.
“Ask your police to take strong measures against such syndicate raj,” Justice Dipankar Dutta of the Kolkata High Court told the state government’s lawyer this February. “The situation is so alarming that members of syndicates are not even sparing the courts. Kolkata High Court has been facing similar problems while constructing court buildings at Salt Lake and Asansol. The situation will go beyond control if the state administration does not immediately intervene,” he added. Nothing much has changed since.
Ironically, it had all begun innocently enough when the Rajarhat New Town was conceived and the eastern part of Kolkata began to be developed. The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) formed 47 “land-losers’ cooperatives” to allot work to the farmers who lost their land to these projects. However, it was not long before the cooperatives disappeared, 'syndicates', controlled by gangsters, took over and spread their tentacles across the entire city and now across the whole state.
As long as the CPM, with its more rigid control over the party machinery, was around, there was some check on the syndicates, they could not become the law unto themselves that they are today. The 'syndicate raj' is very much a creation of the TMC, made worse with the constant internecine warfare of Trinamool leaders spilling over into the syndicate business or maybe it’s vice versa, whatever. Take the Cossipore-Belgachhia seat in north Kolkata which the Trinamool owns. It witnessed a one-sided battle in the 2015 civic polls with allegations of booth jamming and violence against TMC leaders who have powerful syndicates prospering from the construction boom along both sides of the BT road at their beck and call. But the area is also plagued by constant warfare between the supply syndicates there blessed by opposing TMC leaders, the sitting TMC MLA and the TMC councillor and has even cast a shadow over the party’s prospects in the elections to be held here on 25 April. It has even led to the arrest of one syndicate member despite the support of his dada. Apparently, the order for the arrest came from the CM herself.
It could be true. The chief minister is certainly aware of the malignancy and kicked off her election campaign with a warning to those who “do syndicates”. The party doesn’t want them within its fold, she declared, an empty fulmination as she must well have known. It doesn’t matter whether the syndicate bosses are themselves card-holding members of the TMC as long as the party bosses are with them.
That they are very much with them has been laid bare by the Times Now sting on Sabyasachi Dutta, Trinamool’s candidate from the Rajarhat New Town constituency, who is also the mayor of the six-month old Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation formed by the merger of Bidhannagar aka Salt Lake and Rajarhat-Gopalpur municipalities, thereby expanding the operations of the syndicates in those areas manifold. Dutta had won the Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation polls last October amid complaints of booth capturing by his syndicate army.
To give the devil his due, Dutta has not denied having said what he did, that the syndicates bear the bulk of his electoral expenses and provide the manpower needed. The thousands who accompanied him to the election office when he filed his nomination papers a few days ago were his syndicate admirers who had provided the 200 plus buses too, he revealed. They do all this for him not out of love, as he frankly concedes, but because, “they know that they have to pay for one day to be able to do business peacefully for the next four and a half years.” Dutta later explained, “I am not saying I have encouraged any syndicate but have only patronised youths who earn their livelihood by dealing in building materials.”
As do many of his fellow members in the TMC. In fact, it is a moot question who needs the other more, the syndicates or their political masters. The syndicates certainly won’t bat an eyelid throwing the TMC party banners into the nearest landfill and changing colours if the political situation so demands.
Mamata Banerjee knows this reality all too well and would have been content with pious homilies against the goons running these rackets if the flyover collapsed. The syndicate raj, with its catastrophic consequences, may well be an election issue, as part of the general atmosphere of lawlessness that has flourished under her guidance. But will she be able to do much more even if she wants to and gets another chance to do something about it? Unlikely.