Corruption issues will have little effect in the electoral outcomes in states

On 19 May, election results of four major states in India will be out. There could be some surprises; the eventual outcomes may be somewhat different from what the exit polls said or what the political analysts predicted. And there will be several post-election explanations about the nature of the electoral outcome. But one thing is certain: It will be difficult to explain any specific state result in terms of a fallout of the corruption crusade by the Opposition.

This assertion is borne out of the electoral experience of the past.

In the General Election (to the Lok Sabha), there were occasions when the electoral outcome was predicated, in popular perception, on corruption issues. The disastrous defeat of the Congress in 1989 — after the landslide victory in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi won a two-third majority — was clearly linked to the Bofors bribery issue, the Swedish revelation that Rajiv Gandhi was paid a bribe of Rs 64 crore for clinching the gun deal, a charge that could never be proved in a court of law.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Even the ignominious defeat of the Congress in 2014 elections — dropping to its lowest ever tally of 44 on the floor of the Lok Sabha, not even a tenth of the strength of the House to legitimately claim the Leader of the Opposition designation for itself — is perceived to be the direct outcome of a series of corruption scandals involving the Commonwealth Games, spectrum allocation and the coal block allotment.

But there are not many instances when a political party has lost an election roundly in a state on account of corruption charges. Take the case of Lalu Yadav. He was embroiled in the fodder scam in 1996, a year after winning his second term, and went to jail. Despite the jibe of the Opposition against him that a benefactor of the cowherds was implicated in the embezzlement of the fodder meant for the cows — nothing could be a bigger irony, Lalu’s party, with his wife Rabri Devi as chief minister, went on to win its third term.

The history of state electoral outcomes abounds in such examples. This trend is likely to be repeated in the current elections to four major states — Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Of all the four states, one heard the loudest noise about corruption in West Bengal, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) had to contend with two major corruption scandals — the Saradha scam and Narada sting operation.

In the first scam — that involved thousands of Bengalis being duped of their life’s savings, the transport minister Madan Mitra and MP Kunal Ghosh were arrested by the CBI, due to unimpeachable evidence against them in siphoning-off money in cahoots with the founders of the fraudulent Saradha group. Many other TMC leaders have been implicated with varying degrees of involvement in this scandal.

The second is a visual reaffirmation of the corruptibility of the TMC leaders: Eleven top functionaries of the party such as former Union ministers, sitting cabinet ministers, the mayor of Kolkata, MPs were shown accepting wads of notes in lieu of the promise to help a fictitious Chennai-based consultancy group to get contracts from the state government.

Nothing more could be a greater indictment of a party’s corrupt credentials. It should have been enough to write the obituary note for the party in the current elections. But the Saradha scandal did not affect the electoral fortunes of Mamata’s party in the past three years. The scam involving TMC leaders came to the public domain in 2012, a year after Mamata stormed to power. The Saradha group collapsed in April 2013 and its founders were sent to jail.  But in July 2013, the TMC went on to win 13 of the 17 zilla parishad elections.

Two years later, in April 2015, even after a minister and an MP were arrested by the CBI and several other top TMC leaders prosecuted, Mamata’s party won a sweeping victory in the civic polls — it captured 70 of 92 municipal corporations (including the coveted Kolkata Municipal Corporation). The extent of the victory can be gauged from the fact that the Left Front only managed six and the Congress five (there were no clear winners in 11 municipalities).

Some would try to explain this paradox by alluding to Mamata’s own teflon image; but then Manmohan Singh was also personally incorruptible; but that did not prevent the Congress from sinking in the anti-corruption tornado that engulfed the General Election.

Of course, there are some who believe that Mamata is no longer unassailable in the current state election. They predict that she would face defeat on 19 May, but then this prediction is not on account of the success of the corruption campaign against her, but because of the index of Opposition unity — strategic alliance in this election between the Congress and the Left Front, which together always polled more votes than TMC in the past five years but suffered defeat each time because they contested separately.

Tamil Nadu is one state where the contest is largely bipolar and both the parties have to seriously account for the corruption charges against them. J Jayalalithaa, the chief minister, went to jail in the disproportionate assets case last year, and was reinstated as chief minister only because of what has been widely panned as a dubious decision of the high court. The matter is in the Supreme Court and there is every possibility that she will be back in jail again. But her main rivals, M Karunanidhi and his son MK Stalin, have refused to make Jayalalithaa’s corruption an election issue, partly because there are corruption charges against many DMK leaders as well.

But the major reason that the DMK is silent about Jayalalithaa’s trips to jail and its likely repetitions in the days to come is because they surmise that it would be politically counter-productive to harp on them. The disproportionate assets case had surfaced in a big way before the 2011 state elections and Karunanidhi had played it to the hilt at every campaign stop. But that did not prevent Jayalalithaa from registering one of the most impressive victories in Tamil Nadu's history. If some believe that DMK will swing back to power in this election, it is on account of their firm belief that voters in Tamil Nadu will continue to opt for the musical chair tradition.

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Kerala is another state where the alternative musical chairs between the Congress and the Left Front is a standard electoral outcome for a long time. Going by that precedent, the Congress should give way to the Left Front there. But there is little evidence to suggest that this process would be pre-ordained because of the corruption charges (solar scam) against the chief minister, Oommen Chandy. Many believe that corruption issues will not stick in the voter’s mind as the charges have been levelled by someone who has herself spent time in jail on charges of fraud and loot of public money.

Assam is a classic case where Tarun Gogoi does not face any discernible corruption charge even after three terms as the Congress chief minister. If he wins, it will be on the strength of his delivery on the ground. If he is voted out this time, it will be only on account of the anti-incumbency fatigue. In that case, it will be one state where the BJP will come to power. The irony will be that the architect of the BJP’s victory will be a Congress minister — Himant Biswa Sarma — who defected to the BJP after he was implicated in the Saradha scam. (The BJP’s chief minister-designate, Sarbananda Sonowal, had even asked for Sarma’s resignation from Tarun Gogoi ministry as he had accused him of involvement in the Louis Berger bribery case as well. The irony is that both are on the same side of the fence now and campaigning for a corruption-free government!). A BJP victory in Assam will only reinforce the perception that the corruption issues would not hinder the prospect of a party or a leader in the state elections.


Published Date: May 16, 2016 10:25 am | Updated Date: May 18, 2016 04:30 pm


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