New Delhi: “Corruption”, “cut-money” and “tolabazi” have become the major issues in Bengal elections and may dampen the prospects of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress to return to power in the state for a third term.

The Sunday Guardian reached out to multiple people from across the state on account of the ongoing elections and every person that this newspaper spoke to mentioned “corruption” to be the biggest poll issue this election.

“The TMC in Bengal is neck-deep in corruption. Here, for everything, you need to pay a cut-money to the local TMC leaders. Even for getting the Sabuj Sathi cycle, one has to pay a cut-money to local TMC leaders. We are just tired of this kind of politics. Even the CPM was not this bad,” Brindaban Das, a small-time farmer from North 24 parganas district, told this correspondent.

Another resident of Bagdah Vidhan Sabha constituency, who did not wish to be named, said that to get benefits of all the schemes that have been launched by this government (TMC government), “cut money” is a must.

“In the whole of Bengal, TMC is synonymous with corruption. Here the mighty rules. If you are close to the ruling party, you will get every benefit. If you are known to be close either to the BJP or the Left, all schemes will not be implemented on you,” the Bagdah resident said.

On the other hand, the Trinamool Congress has been patting its back for the “remarkable” implementation of the Sabuj Sathi and Kanyashree schemes. Both of these schemes were implemented by the TMC-led West Bengal government to benefit women from the marginalised sections of society. People from Bengal have also alleged about how deep-rooted corruption happened during the distribution of Amphaan relief material and in the distribution of ration during the lockdown which was implemented due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. This correspondent spoke to people near the Sundarbans and parts of south 24 parganas which was most affected by the Amphaan super cyclone. All the people from here said that they had not received any help from the government.  “All the money that came from the government was pocketed by the TMC leaders. We have not got anything. I know a lot of families who slept under open skies for months since their houses were damaged. Netas come, assure us and then nothing happens. We had to go begging to the local leaders and Panchayat Pradhans to help us, they all assured, ‘chole jaan sob hoye jabey’ (go now, everything will be done), but now, a year has almost passed, but not even a tripal came to us. In the last 10 years, only the TMC leaders grew rich,” Sudip Karmakar, a resident from Sundarbans, said.

Karmakar further added that the Amphaan had ravaged their fields and broken river banks, which had led to saline waters entering their fields and, therefore, damaging their crops.

“Almost all the cultivable fields were flooded with saline water. River banks were broken, but the government did little to help us. Come here and see for yourself how we live. I know a lot of money had some, but very little reached the public,” Karmakar added.

Sunderbans is one of the most underdeveloped regions in Bengal. It is located on the Indo-gangetic delta and most of the lands here are marshy and very fertile. Here, most people depend on farming, fishery and honey bee cultivation.

Similar stories echo from different parts of Bengal with regards to distribution of ration during the lockdown period last year. People complained that they were not given rations by the local ration dealers, and alleged widespread corruption as local TMC leaders allegedly siphoned off tonnes and tonnes of rice and wheat meant for the poor people and sold it off in the black market.

The Union government, as well as the state government, had said that rations would be available to all the poor people in India free of cost for at least three months. Even for Amphaan relief, the Central government had announced Rs 1,000 crore relief package and this was above the Rs 7,000 crore package that was announced by the West Bengal government.

The complaints of “corruption”, “cut-money” and “tolabazi” do not just stop here, voters from Bengal have also complained about how throughout the year, they have to pay some sort of “cut money” to the local TMC leaders to get any of their work done. For instance, buying a land, selling a land, construction of house, permission for business, etc all require a “cut money” and “blessings” from local TMC leaders.

Locals say, even the poor are not spared. “There is corruption even in 100 days works (MNREGA). The panchayat Pradhan gives work only to TMC people, they know who the TMC’s supporters are; so their money is released first after the work, while the others who they think do not support the TMC, their money comes much later and sometimes for months, the payment is not released,” a local resident of Haridaspur in Bongaon North Assembly seat told this correspondent.

The Trinamool Congress is also aware of this kind of corruption and this has been acknowledged at the highest level of the party. Soon after a poor performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, party supremo Mamata Banerjee had instructed all her party members to return the “cut money” they had taken from the poor people. This had led to a huge backlash at the local level where houses of TMC leaders were gheraoed by locals demanding their money back.

While Mamata Banerjee has several times reprimanded and warned her local leaders of corruption from public platforms, she has often been seen during the election campaign acknowledging that “small amount” corruption has happened and there is nothing wrong.

Banerjee had, on several occasions during her election rally, said, “If our men have taken small amounts of money like Rs 100 or Rs 500 from people, you (BJP) find huge fault in it.”

However, owing to the widespread discontentment against a large number of TMC leaders, the TMC chief had changed at least 57 of its sitting MLAs to arrest the anti-incumbency against them and the party.