West Bengal’s Syndicate Raj a Boon and Bane for Political Parties

While the Left-Congress alliance and the BJP bank on the undercurrent of anti-incumbency, the TMC relies on its wide syndicate network to drive it back to power.

Credit: PTI

With the real estate boom, syndicates became high revenue earners for every party.Credit: PTI

Soon after an under-construction flyover collapsed in north Kolkata on 31 March, the talks of ‘syndicate’ gained currency. As the state assembly polls were just around the corner, the middle class anger against the so-called syndicate started to reflect in both political campaigns and personal opinions alike. Now, the West Bengal elections draws to a close and most people would know that a common refrain of Left Front-Congress alliance, what is generally called as the Joat, against the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in West Bengal has been its alleged involvement in the ‘syndicate.’ Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi at an election rally promised to end what he called ‘the syndicate raj,’ if the alliance came to power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi while campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went one step further and expanded TMC as a party of ‘terror, maut (death) and corruption.’

‘Syndicate’ has become a marker of corruption in the state – a sort of politician-contractor nexus that has direct bearing on people who intend to build a house or buy a flat in Bengal. Syndicates are loose consortiums of people who operate as extortion agents in the real-estate industry. “Usually, if you want to build a house, you employ a promoter. The promoter – also the builder in most cases – is connected with the local syndicate which provides everything related to construction, from cement to bricks to even commission agents who register the house. Sometimes the transactions are business-as-usual, and sometimes it goes violently awry,” says Upal Chakrabarti, assistant professor in the sociology department of Presidency University, Kolkata.

The system works on a commission basis. The syndicate stems from the colony and allegedly goes up to state-level political honchos. The opposition has alleged that TMC leaders like Jaydeb Naskar, Shibu Bhandari, Shahnawaz Mondal and Prasenjit Sardar are linked to the syndicate directly or indirectly. In the last five years, the Left Front alleges that the syndicate has monopolised all construction-related activities. Many people in Kolkata contend that the syndicates are run by colony-level hooligans who have been emboldened by political patronage. The middle class started to feel the pressure of the syndicate as it also led to inflated costs of building because of commissions at each layer of the syndicate.

“It is an omnipresent phenomenon in Bengal,” says Debasish Chakraborty, state committee member of Communist Party of India (Marxist). “Many leaders of the TMC have directly benefitted from the syndicate,” he says. Recently, in a sting operation TMC MLA and mayor of the newly-constituted Bidhan Nagar Municipal Corporation Sabyasachi Dutta candidly admitted to a ‘flourishing syndicate raj’ and how the revenues of the syndicate are channeled towards election expenses.

On 31 March, the flyover collapse led to the outpouring of this accumulative anger against the TMC. Since the syndicate monopolises all construction in the state, questions relating to the quality of materials used in the construction industry were raised. Many doubted that they were being sold inferior materials at a premium.

The broader question, however, is whether the anger against the syndicate reflects in voting or not? Despite the middle class resentment, the syndicate has become one of the most important employers of poor youth in Bengal. The syndicate has benefitted from larger economic problems like lack of adequate employment, increasing destitution and years of agrarian crisis. In absence of any structural support from the government, the syndicates have become informal, although illegal, wealth redistribution channels. “The poor and semi-poor in both rural and urban areas of Bengal are directly or indirectly associated with the syndicate. At one level, they feel protected by associating with the syndicate, and another level it has become their primary source of earning,” says Ranabir Samaddar, director of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group.

The beginnings of a syndicate-like structure started during the Left Front government in 1995 when it planned to build a new town in Rajarhat near Kolkata to meet the increasing housing needs. It was estimated that around 250000 families, mostly landless farmers and fishermen, would be displaced by this project. The then urban development minister Gautam Deb, as a measure of relief, floated a co-operative of 2000 displaced people who would supply construction material for the development of the new town. Since then, many such informal co-operatives have emerged. Syndicate, as is being imagined, is not a centralised network. The local power brokers under the patronage of regional strongman form the mainstay of the syndicate. The regional strongman could be a political leader of any party, not just TMC’s. For instance, in Murshidabad the syndicate is run mostly by the regional leaders of the Congress where the party is strong.

With the real estate boom, syndicates became high revenue earners for every party. During the times of the Left Front, these informal co-operatives functioned in a more sophisticated manner. The monopoly of the Left Front at each and every level of the administrative machinery made transactions systematic. However, since the TMC came to power, the Left Front’s monopoly over the administrative apparatus was broken. Now, these informal co-operatives, depending upon the political patronage they enjoyed, competed against each other, transforming the co-operatives into a syndicate – a hydra-headed monster. The TMC strongmen asserted themselves, mostly by force, at both the district and village level against the existing system. This often led to violent clashes all over the state, precipitating an unprecedented political crisis. TMC’s power brokers enjoyed a sense of impunity while usurping power at every level of the state machinery.

In the last five years, it is alleged that TMC has almost monopolised the syndicates, and precisely for this reason it finds itself cornered in the election campaign. The impact of the syndicates is felt more brutally in Bengal’s cities and towns. These are the places which have seen most number of violent clashes between the TMC and the Left Front. These are also the places where a sizeable chunk of middle class lives. Naturally, the middle class – the principal driver of the real estate boom – has been particularly critical of TMC’s highhandedness and its monopoly over the real estate market.

However, the party’s monopoly over this extensively-layered network also means that a majority of unemployed youth is under its control. This section of youth, who come from under-privileged backgrounds, are the primary mobilisers of votes in every assembly seat. “The middle class may be vocal in its criticism but elections are not won with their support,” says Atig Ghosh, assistant professor of History in Visva Bharati University, Shantiniketan.

Notwithstanding these electoral dynamics, the immediate problem for the TMC is to wade off the demons that come with such monopolies. As the party has managed to corner the Left in the syndicates, the party leaders have started to compete among themselves now. Take for instance, the area under Bidhan Nagar Municipal Corporation which has seen the maximum real estate development has been witness to brutal fights between two camps within the TMC – one led by Sujit Bose and the other by Sabyasachi Dutta. Similarly, in many areas different camps within TMC have clashed against each other over syndicate matters.

This friction within the party has started to bother Mamata, according to a TMC leader who did not want to be named. “Mamata Banerjee has clearly warned party leaders not to engage in any syndicate-related activity. This, she feels may have an impact on poll results,” says the leader. Despite TMC’s success, it was reported that many TMC leaders acted against party candidates in local bodies’ polls and the last general elections. “It is believed the party lost the Asansol parliamentary constituency to BJP because Moloy Ghatak, a prominent party leader, mobilised his votes for the BJP.” Asansol figures among the top two cities in Bengal, second only to Rajarhat, to have witnessed large-scale real estate development. Ghatak is widely seen as the syndicate strongman there but the party had refused him a ticket after he lost in the previous two general elections.

For all parties in contest, syndicate raj is both a boon and a bane in these elections. Only after the poll result comes, one would know whether the syndicates proved to be an asset or a liability for the TMC.