Mamata Banerjee in danger of losing ‘honest’ image as Trinamool Congress struggles to shake off taint of corruption

With Ministers, MLAs, and key leaders of the ruling party in West Bengal behind bars for their alleged complicity in a string of scams, battling allegations of corruption has emerged as the biggest challenge for the CM in her third term

January 11, 2024 12:58 am | Updated 11:23 am IST - Kolkata

BJP MLAs raise slogans during a protest against West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her government over alleged scams during the winter session of the Assembly in Kolkata.

BJP MLAs raise slogans during a protest against West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her government over alleged scams during the winter session of the Assembly in Kolkata. | Photo Credit: File Photo

Participating in a debate during the winter session of the West Bengal Assembly last month, Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee made an observation about pickpockets in crowded buses in the State capital, Kolkata.

They never work alone and are the first ones to shout ‘chor chor (thief, thief)’ when caught in the act, helping them escape, she said. Ms. Banerjee’s remark left members of the treasury benches in splits, but it was meant to drive home the point that the Opposition’s allegations of corruption against her have no basis.

During the session, Opposition MLAs led by Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari, who had cut his teeth in the TMC before switching to the BJP in December 2020, accused the ruling party of corruption and pointed the finger at the Chief Minister.

Relentless attack

Mr. Adhikari, an accused in the Narada sting videos that surfaced in 2016 purportedly showing politicians accepting cash on camera, raised the slogan ‘Mamata chor’, continuing his relentless attack on Ms. Banerjee over the Saradha chit fund scam (2013), school recruitment scam (2014-2024), and the public distribution system scam (2023) that have rocked the State in the recent past.

The Enforcement Directorate, which is investigating the PDS scam, on Monday estimated it at “₹9,000-₹10,000 crore” and said out of this, ₹2,000 crore is suspected to have been “transferred to Dubai either directly or through Bangladesh”.

The agency also alleged that arrested Minister Jyoti Priya Mallick took a cut of ₹20 for every quintal of rice distributed through the PDS.

With Ministers, MLAs, and key TMC leaders behind bars for their alleged complicity in scams, battling allegations of corruption has emerged as the biggest challenge for Ms. Banerjee in her third term.

Till a few years ago, hoardings describing the Trinamool chief as a ‘satatar prateek (symbol of honesty)’ were a common sight in Kolkata. Ms. Banerjee’s image as a woman donning a simple cotton sari and rubber slippers had caught the imagination of the people of the State.

After assuming charge as the Chief Minister in 2011, Ms. Banerjee refused official accommodation and stayed at her modest home on Harish Chatterjee Street in the city.

She neither accepts her salary as Chief Minister nor the pension she is entitled to as a former MP, and claims to survive on the royalty received from the books she has authored.

Whenever allegations of corruption have surfaced during Trinamool’s 12-year rule and tried to eclipse its developmental and populist planks, the Chief Minister has urged voters to put their faith in her.

After the Narada sting videos came out ahead of the 2016 Assembly election, Ms. Banerjee sought votes in her name. Similarly, campaigning for the 2021 poll, she told voters that she was the contesting candidate in all seats.

On several occasions, the Chief Minister has assured the people of the State of taking strict action against ruling party leaders involved in corruption, but has done little to fulfil her promise.

Instead, the party has jumped to their defence and Ms. Banerjee has put her weight behind leaders like Partha Chatterjee, former Minister arrested in the school jobs scam, and Mr. Mallick, who continues to remain a Minister despite his arrest in October 2023 in the PDS scam, saying she does not believe they are “thieves”. No action has yet been taken against the MLAs put behind bars in connection with the school jobs scam.

Though the ruling party’s allegation that central probe agencies are resorting to “selective targeting” of its leaders may have some basis, it is struggling to shake off the taint of corruption that has stuck to it following the alleged involvement of its members in a string of scams.

Fresh ammunition

The corruption allegations have given the Opposition parties fresh ammunition to target the Trinamool in its third term in power.

The impression among people that though some leaders may be flawed, Ms. Banerjee remains honest and committed to their welfare also seems to be fading away with posters hailing her as a ‘symbol of honesty’ no longer visible across the State.

Ahead of the crucial Lok Sabha election, the allegations have cast a shadow on the image of the Trinamool chairperson even as she faces a challenge from the BJP, which has set itself a target of winning 35 out of the 42 seats in the State.

According to political observers, welfarism and populist measures may not work in the Trinamool’s favour as they have done in the past if it fails to take strict action on the allegations of corruption levelled against its rank and file.

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