Friday, February 5, 2010
West Bengal’s “Communist” Leaders Amass Huge Fortunes
This very revealing article appeared in The Week on February 7, 2010. It gives some perspective on why the adivasis of the Lalgarh region, the farmers of Nandigram and Singur, and increasing numbers of the oppressed in West Bengal are targeting the ruling party, the Communist Party (Marxist) as an exploiting and repressive force.
Comrade bourgeois: Many communist leaders in West Bengal amass huge fortunes
Himangshu Das is the zonal committee secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Khejuri, Nandigram. A member of local zilla parishad, he gets a salary of Rs 1,500 a month. As district committee member of the party in East Midnapore he earns another Rs 1,500. These are his only known sources of income.
But, people of Nandigram say Das is a crorepati [one crore = 10 million]. He has a palatial house with air-conditioned rooms in Khejuri, and owns a car and a bike. Villagers allege that he siphoned off funds meant for the local civic bodies. In August 2009, they attacked his house, dragged him out and beat him up in public. Das fled the village with family and is yet to return. “How could a communist leader amass such huge wealth? He had become a crorepati and behaved like an industrialist,” said Manik Maity, a villager.
Not long ago, communist leaders in West Bengal were known for their simple lifestyle. Today, three decades after the Left Front started ruling the state, they live in palatial houses, drive expensive SUVs, own shopping malls and factories, and wear branded clothes. Ironically, they are still driven by the same philosophy—uplift the proletariat.
Anuj Pandey, a Marxist leader from Lalgarh, was jobless before joining the party. As the Lalgarh zonal committee secretary, he earns Rs 1,500 a month, his only known source of income. A couple of years ago, Pandey built a sprawling house on 20 acres—the only big house in the tribal-dominated Lalgarh. In the tribal upsurge in August 2009, the villagers raided the house and destroyed everything including air-conditioners, LCD television, refrigerator and expensive furniture.
“He did not think twice before building such a huge house in the middle of thatched huts. Is he really a communist? No way,” said Chunibala Hansda, local legislator. Pandey and family are yet to return to Lalgarh, which is now known as a Maoist-controlled territory. “Had people like Pandey not been there, Lalgarh would have never seen such massive tribal movements. Tribes got united seeing these communists looting government properties,” said Haripada Hansda, a local tribal leader.
But how did Das and Pandey, who are just district-level leaders, amass such wealth? Some local CPI(M) leaders said they were closely associated with the Central government -sponsored projects in the areas. The projects to improve rural employment and alleviate poverty had huge funds. The leaders allegedly took advantage of lack of monitoring by the government.
“Pandey minted money the way he liked,” said a former panchayat officer in West Midnapore. According to him, the leaders’ lavish lifestyle is just a reflection of the vast fortune they made. “Where will they put the money in? All cannot trust their relatives and deposit it in their names. So they have to spend money on their lavish lifestyle,” he said.
If leaders in Lalgarh and Nandi-gram flourished on the Central funds, in Haldia township, about 40 km away, the labour movement made many comrades millionaires.
S.K. Muzaffar, CPI(M) councillor in the Haldia municipality, controls the workers’ union of the Haldia dock and allegedly runs the dock’s labour market. He has a godown, a cargo trading agency and a logistic agency in the dock. About 1,500 labourers work under him.
A school dropout, Muzaffar was a worker in the dock in the 1970s. Later he became an employee of Haldia municipality which he left to become a CPI(M) leader. “For him, becoming a communist was more profitable than being a worker in the municipality,” said a local Congress leader.
After the CPI(M) rose to power in the state, Muzaffar started getting more and more contracts, and became a councillor in the municipality. His one son is studying in London and another helps him in business. Another son has a fascination for car racing. Muzaffar does not see anything wrong in being a communist and a businessman at the same time. “Tell me where it is written that communists cannot become businessmen and become rich. It’s the propaganda of frustrated people,” he said.
Ashok Patnaik and Ananta Bera, two other Marxist bigwigs in Haldia, also have thriving businesses. Patnaik quit his job as a primary schoolteacher and joined the party. He soon became chairman of a cooperative society which gave him direct contact with the business community. As the chairman of a council in the Haldia Development Authority, he looked after the major land deals in the Haldia township, which was a pet project of former chief minister Jyoti Basu.
“Basu wanted to make Haldia an industrial hub and spent crores for its development. Leaders like Patnaik benefited from it,” said a local CPI(M) leader. When the Haldia port was upgraded, Patnaik, like Muzaffar, seized the opportunity. Now, he is one of the richest contractors in the Haldia dock. “He drives almost all cars available in the market. He is one of the richest communists in India,” said a local CPI(M) leader.
Bera also made it big with the port. Hailing from a poor family in Contai, East Midnapore, he moved to Haldia with his wife, also a CPI(M) member, in the late 1970s. He hugely benefited from the party’s decision to make Haldia an industrial hub for car and petrochemicals.
“They are successful businessmen and CPI(M) leaders as well. They have changed the meaning of communism,” said a senior CPI(M) leader on condition of anonymity. These leaders, however, are unfazed. Said Muzaffar: “Not only are we successful businessmen, but we have also given employment to a lot of poor people. We are the true communists. Let the jealous be jealous.”
Many other communist leaders have relied on muscle power to amass wealth. Tapan Ghosh and Sukur Ali from Garbeta are CPI(M) district committee members in West Midnapore. The CBI arrested them after 11 Trinamool Congress workers were burnt alive in Chotoangaria, Birbhum, 10 years ago. But the CBI failed to establish their links with the carnage and they walked free. They still remain powerful and even ministers are not sure of winning elections without their help. “That is the only reason why the CPI(M) has not taken any action against them despite numerous allegations against them,” said a local CPI(M) leader.
Ghosh was a schoolteacher and Ali a small-time farmer. After joining the party, they started making lucrative business deals as potato growers. “In Garbeta, they control the cold storage and agro businesses,” said Aurobinda Sain, a local Congress leader.
These creamy layers in the CPI(M) have led to an identity crisis in the party, especially when a good number of its leaders still remain committed to the ideology. “After coming to power, the Left Front government did many things to empower the underprivileged. After a few years, leaders began asking people to pay them back. This is unfortunate for a party which talks of class struggle,” said Abhirup Sarkar, economist at Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He said the party no longer had the strength to take action against these leaders.
CPI(M) state secretary Biman Bose, a leader known for his austerity, recently wrote in a party note: “The biggest challenge for the party today is to prevent a good number of leaders from becoming non-communist. They should withdraw from all non-communist activities.”
But it is easier said than done. The leadership is well aware how idealistic young leaders have become fat cats over the decades. Former MPs, Lakshman Seth of Haldia and Mainul Hasan of Murshidabad, drive SUVs that cost around Rs 17 lakh each, though Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee lives in a one-room apartment. Both Seth and Hasan are the blue-eyed boys of the chief minister and the party.
Many ordinary partymen also take pride in their leaders’ ‘achievements’. Balai Sabui and Dibakar Koley of Singur are neighbours and used to roll bidis together. Sabui is now chief of the Hooghly district’s Krishak Sabha, the peasant wing of the CPI(M). He is also a district transport secretary, who issues permits to vehicles. He played a lead role in submitting reports on land acquisitions in Singur. Though he struggled to make ends meet earlier, Sabui is a rich man now. He has a two-storey house at Singur and a Bolero jeep.
Koley, still a poor bidi roller, is proud of his neighbour. “He has become a success story for poor men like us. We are proud to know that even a former bidi worker could have a car or a big house,” he said. But what Koley does not realise is that Sabui’s legitimate income is less than what he earns as bidi worker.