On the face of it, West Bengal's political scene seems to have been thrown into a cauldron over the past two days. On Monday, Mausam Noor, the Congress MP from the Malda North constituency, joined the Trinamool Congress and on Tuesday, BJP president Amit Shah held a meeting in East Midnapore district that was both significant and tumultuous.
Let's begin with Shah's rally, after which violence between the BJP and TMC broke out. What seems to have happened is that TMC supporters attacked and set on fire vehicles being used by BJP supporters, while the latter vandalised a TMC office. Both sides also attacked the police. Each side accused the other of initiating these unsavoury proceedings. Later Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh called West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee seeking a report on the violence and was told he should ask party cadres not to indulge in hooliganism.
Which side cast the first stone cannot, obviously, be ascertained at this juncture, but it is clear that both parties were guilty of lawlessness. It is equally clear that the administration should have been better prepared to stamp out any attempt at disturbing the peace. As far as Singh's call is concerned it cannot be gainsaid that it is within his jurisdiction to make inquiries. It would be interesting to find out, however, how often and with what kind of alacrity, the Union home minister has made such inquiries when violence has broken out in states ruled by his party.
That said, politically, the more interesting part of the story is Shah's speech at the meeting. We can safely leave out the rhetorical parts of it and focus on one theme Shah took pains to belabour. His focus was on the raft of Ponzi schemes that had been uncovered in Bengal. Shah was bold in his declaration that while 2.5 million people in Bengal had lost their savings to the operators of theses schemes, Mamata had done nothing to put the unscrupulous people behind bars and return the lost money to defrauded investors. Only the BJP could do that, he claimed.
Along the way, he did not fail to mention the issue of Mamata's paintings, that he claimed had been bought by owners of 'chit funds' for crores and crores of rupees. Chandrima Bhattacharya, head of the TMC women's wing, promptly sent a defamation notice to Shah for the remarks about the paintings, challenging him to produce evidence, which he had not.
Let us examine these propositions. To begin with, it is true that Shah has never produced any evidence that Mamata's paintings were bought for crores and crores by operators of Ponzi schemes, nor has any other BJP leader. If BJP leaders had such evidence, it would be fair to assume that proceedings would have been initiated against her, just as cases have been launched against some of her party colleagues, and in myriad other cases, against a number of Opposition leaders.
If we dismiss the paintings issue as part of the standard hit-and-run political tactics of smear and hope, there remains the larger claim that only the BJP can put Ponzi scamsters in prison and return the money defrauded by them to millions of defrauded investors. Let us examine this. The Saradha scam broke in 2013. In its aftermath, the owner of the Saradha group, Sudipto Sen, who had run, was arrested from Srinagar, by the state police.
Mamata pledged to return the money to investors and set up a fund with that purpose in view. Part of it was raised by levying extra cess. A commission headed by a retired judge was set up in 2013 to oversee the process of the disbursal of monies, which was followed by a one-man committee comprising another retired judge, set up by a division bench that is overseeing the entire process of processing applications. According to people following the matter, progress is being made and disbursals will start soon.
Shah's contentions are, therefore, false, which, of course, is par for the course. The Bengal government started the ball rolling by tracking Sudipto Sen, apprehending him and putting him behind bars. It has also made arrangements for the compensation of defrauded investors.
In May 2014, the Supreme Court intervened. It transferred the investigation into the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), because the Ponzi issue had assumed interstate ramifications; issues of money laundering and other knock-on effects had also come into play. Since then, the CBI has made progress in its probe. A number of people, including political leaders, have been arrested and/or questioned. Many Ponzi schemes in various states have been unearthed. In recent months, reports say, a number of Mamata's paintings have been seized.
On 24 January, the CBI arrested an influential film producer and distributor based in Kolkata, for possible involvement in a Ponzi scheme engineered by a company called Rose Valley, also based in Kolkata. But it is nowhere near completing its investigations. And for sure, the Central government hasn’t fallen over itself setting up any machinery to even start returning money to poor, defrauded investors.
Shah's claims are, in other words, completely bogus. But that is not all. While Shah is stepping on the gas with respect to TMC corruption, the CBI has also suddenly become proactive again, which reminds us of 2014 and 2016, both election years in Bengal. It would not be far-fetched to argue that the election syndrome is doing the rounds again. The point, however, is that the BJP failed to achieve anything concrete in either year. Two Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and three Assembly seats in 2016 were all it could harvest.
Given the political realities of Bengal, 2019 is predominantly likely to produce the same kind of results: a couple of Lok Sabha seats perhaps, never mind Shah's brave but preposterous prognosis that his party will win 23 seats. Make that two or three.
Into this mix comes the Noor story. That the young MP would sooner or later move to the TMC was an expectation that had been in the air since the Bengal panchayat results were released. It was a question of when, not whether. BJP leaders are gloating for some inexplicable reason. Some state BJP leaders and some commentators have been suggesting that a split in the Muslim vote in Malda between the Congress and the TMC gives the party a good chance of picking up the two seats in the district. Muslims comprise over 50 percent of the population in the district.
Let us examine this expectation. First, the numbers. In the 2018 panchayat elections, the TMC won the Zilla Parishad comfortably. It also won nine Panchayat Samitis, the BJP two, the Congress one and others, not including the Left Front, three. It also swept the Gram Panchayats. Voting percentages are not available. Malda used to be a Congress bastion, but that is no longer true, especially because leaders and cadres have, like Noor, migrated from the Congress to the TMC in large numbers. Add to this the fact that the fact that the large Muslim electorate is unlikely to vote in a manner that will enable the BJP to pick up a Lok Sabha seat in the district.
The only thing that might constrain the TMC is the fact that the main political family of the district, that of ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury, is now a house divided. Ghani Khan's niece, Noor, is now with the TMC, while one of his brothers, Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury, the Malda South MP, is still with the Congress, as is his son, an MLA, who is likely to be the Malda North Congress nominee.
But the fact that the Congress does not have much heft left, clocking in third behind even the BJP, makes these calculations rather insignificant. The overwhelming likelihood is that the TMC will win both seats and the BJP will fail to make inroads that are significant enough. In other words, although it may appear that the Bengal political scene has been ruffled, not much has really changed.
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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 14:59:14 IST