Kolkata: Allegations of corruption are building up within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal, with party workers complaining of being duped by top district and state leaders who promised them distributorships of LPG (liquid petroleum gas) in exchange for bribes.
Some of the complaints are against state BJP leaders and officials who are allegedly close to oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan.
Leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) within the state are also believed to be involved.
“These people who collected money and duped our workers should be first thrashed publicly for tarnishing the party’s image. Then there should be a CBI inquiry along with our internal probe,” Biswajit Mondal, newly-elected BJP panchayat samiti member from the state’s Murshidabad district told The Wire.
“We are in the forefront battling against all odds to expand the party. These leaders who collected funds violating all procedures should be exposed and both party and CBI should take action against them,” he said.
Mondal, who recorded his phone conversation with a district BJP leader about the LPG scam, added, “The men who had paid the money are now scared as they have been threatened with dire consequences after they vent their ire for not getting the distributorships. They are BJP workers and expected a fair deal. Now the people should know the truth.”
The Wire understands that over the last month, a number of BJP workers and party activists have approached West Bengal BJP president with complaints.
In recent weeks, audio clippings – like the one Mondal recorded, which allegedly contain conversations between workers that have been cheated and senior BJP leaders in the state – have made their way into the public domain.
When contacted, West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh admitted: “Such allegations have come to me. We are probing.”
“Those who paid that kind of money are the real culprits,” he added, refusing to comment on whether the matter required a CBI probe. “This is an inside matter of the party and why should there be a CBI probe?”
When asked about the allegation made by a state leader with regards to Ghosh’s signature being used to forward recommendations on allotment of LPG distributorships, he replied, “Let them show me such a receipt. This is our internal party matter and you have no right to ask questions.”
Housing scheme allegations
In West Bengal, the BJP has never managed to successfully contest elections and come to power. But over the last few years, with it coming to power at the Centre, a number of controversies involving its state unit in West Bengal have made their way into the public domain. These usually involve local leaders making money in the name of the Modi government’s Central schemes or various Union ministers.
For instance, last year, BJP workers and activists complained that some of the state’s leaders had cheated people by taking money from them and promising housing under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) scheme. In December 2017, The Times of India reported that over 150 workers gheraoed president Ghosh over his apparent inaction over the PMAY controversy.
This time around though, the allegations involve the promise of LPG distributorships, with some BJP and RSS leaders apparently cheating their own workers.
According to party sources, several BJP and RSS cadres had applied for getting the distributorships and some had even paid around Rs 5 lakhs per person for that purpose.
They were allegedly told that the usual rate was around Rs 20 lakh, but being party workers, they were being given a concession. But when the lottery results for LPG distributorships were declared, they did not find their names in it. They then confronted the state leaders, leading to an uproar within the party’s unit in West Bengal.
A share broker in the spotlight
The man at the centre of this storm, the complaints allege, is one Ranajit Majumdar. Some of the complainants say that Majumdar, who used to be the West Bengal convenor for the “good governance cell” of the Union government, used his Facebook page in the past to ask people to approach him for the prime minister’s housing project.
In this LPG scam, some workers have charged that Majumdar bragged about his proximity to petroleum minister Pradhan and collected crores of rupees from various persons.
Majumdar, on his part, has denied the allegations. “There are factions within the BJP which are trying to malign me. I know nothing about this scam,” said Majumdar, who is currently share sub-broker with Kotak Securities.
State BJP general secretary Sayantan Basu, who is alleged to also be connected to this controversy because of his close proximity to Pradhan since his ABVP days, said, “He (Ranajit) was the convenor but (was) removed recently. I have known the minister since my college days and have discussed several things, but never about allotting petrol pumps or gas agencies.”
Basu, whose wife works as a commercial tax officer in the West Bengal government, is also known to be close to be the ruling Trinamool Congress. “People do approach me for jobs or about problems they faced with the government but then I had always referred it to Ranajit,” Basu remarked.
In one audio clipping, a name which frequently came up was of Raju Banerjee, state BJP secretary and a former clerk of Port Trust of India here.
Raju, who is in-charge of Murshidabad district where the scam first started, said, “I know nothing at all. Yes, my president [Dilip Ghosh] admitted but I am unaware of anyone taking money from our workers promising LPG distributorships. But yes, some people did come to our state office with such complaints.”
The fact that such problems are taking place is evident from another audio clip where Tushar Mondal, a district BJP leader, is allegedly heard complaining to an office bearer and, in fact, threatening him, “This has severely affected our image and those who handed over money will not spare the leaders like Dilipda and Bidyutda.”
Bidyut Mukherjee is the “pranta pracharak” of the RSS in South Bengal and the Andamans zone. When contacted by The Wire, Mukherjee refused to answer questions and instead threatened legal action if any story is “published as paid news” through text messages to this reporter.
But those who allegedly paid money claim that both Ghosh and Mukherjee had forwarded their applications for LPG distributorship to the petroleum ministry and had assured them that Pradhan would do the job.
According to party sources, various BJP leaders are currently trying to quickly paper over the worker’s complaints, as it comes at a time when they are undertaking a PR blitzkrieg in the state and trying to garner support from public intellectuals.
Former West Bengal BJP president and now national secretary Rahul Sinha said, “I know nothing about it. I am busy with my mass connect programme.”
Sinha, a known adversary of president Ghosh, remarked, “Don’t call me about such scams. I am busy to oust the TMC and do not know what is happening here.”
In the 2011 assembly poll, the party got only 4% of the votes, which rose to a significant 18% in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In the municipal elections, the votes came down to 7% and the party failed to capture even a single municipality. In the 2016 assembly polls, the BJP got 11% votes and in the subsequent by-elections, it came second in many seats, ousting the alliance of Congress-Left and emerging as the main opposition party to the Trinamool Congress.
In the recently held panchayat elections, which were ridden with violence, the BJP managed to get 10.12% votes.
With this upswing, it remains to be seen if the LPG controversy will have an impact on the morale of party workers. In one audio clip, the newly-elected panchayat samiti member, Mondal, threatened, “We have paid money and our names did not come in the lottery. We will see to the last and will not spare the leaders who have cheated us.”
The audio recordings also reportedly show such affected BJP workers further alleging that Raju and Sayantan had collected the funds claiming close proximity to the petroleum minister and that the point man was Majumdar who allegedly handed over crores of rupees to the OSD to the minister.
Tushar Mondal, a district BJP leader, who can be heard allegedly discussing the issue with a BJP district general secretary Tapan Chandra in an audio clip, said, “Our workers have handed over money but did not find their names. This has affected our image. We will not let this go. The money once given is gone but what do we tell our workers? Where did the money actually go? We doubt whether it actually reached Delhi.”
Majumdar said, “My job was to facilitate housing for the people. And as such, I urged people to approach me. But no one has ever approached me about obtaining LPG distributorships.”
One state BJP leader, who declined to be identified, remarked: “When people are joining our party and we are on the rise such a scam involving a Central government department calls for a CBI inquiry. We will organise a petition to our national president Amit Shah and ask him to get the government to order a formal CBI probe.”
Shades of Vajpayee scam
The current controversy, some say, is reminiscent of the ‘petrol pump scandal’ of the NDA-I government in 2003, where nearly 300 petrol pumps were found to be allocated by the Vajpayee administration against stipulated norms.
According to reports from the time, hundreds of petrol pumps, LPG distributorships and kerosene dealerships were allotted to BJP MPs, MLAs and RSS members or their relatives.
After the political controversy, with the opposition calling for the resignation of the-then petroleum minister Ram Naik, the Vajpayee government cancelled the allotment of 1,144 petrol, 1,788 LPG and 236 kerosene dealerships that were allocated by the oil ministry over a three-year period.
Arup Chanda is a senior journalist based in Kolkata.