First, full disclosure: Saugata Roy, the Trinamool MP seen to be nonchalantly pocketing bundles of cash, reportedly amounting to Rs 5 lakh, in the videos released by Narada News, is a friend. A friend from college days, Presidency College, Kolkata, 1964 batch, a friend still.
Saugata was Physics Honours, commanding the highest cut-off marks for admission, I, Political Science, way down the scale. We could well have remained strangers, except that we soon became part of an in-group, a band of twenty odd, studying different subjects but having one thing in common: we were all from English-medium schools, something that was still unusual enough in Presidency College to earn us the derisive sobriquet of the English Speaking Union.
This language barrier may have walled some of us off from the majority of the students, but not Saugata. With his gift of the gab and biting wit, his phenomenal recall of Tagore songs and modern Bengali poetry, the way he ad libbed limericks, he was equally at ease and equally welcome in all circles, English-medium and Bengali-medium, science students and arts students, city slickers and provincial hicks, scions of the wealthy and scholarship holders, Leftists and non-Leftists. As he remained in later life, moving easily between slum-dwellers and captains of industry, intellectuals and illiterates, public rallies and exclusive cocktails.
Those were the turbulent 60s, we were still in college when the first non-Congress government came to power in Bengal with CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu as the deputy chief minister. Presidency College was ruddier, a hotbed of Naxalite activities. Saugata opposed them all, the organised Left fighting elections and the ultra-Left in college. Yet, then as later, even dyed in the wool, fire-breathing, “I am a communist, not a gentleman” like former finance minister Ashok Mitra enjoyed his company, coveted his views, lamenting he was “the right man in the wrong party”.
It is this cache of being a “bhadralok”, i.e. a cut above the hoodlums masquerading as politicians that surrounded him, first in Congress then in Trinamool, of being in politics by choice and not because he could do no better, a throwback to the pre-Independence days when politics was not putrid and radioactive to men of means, of being “one of us” that has made Saugata’s fall from grace so devastating to the Bengali middle class. Narada has shot at least fourteen Trinamool leaders with their hidden camera, including Kolkata’s mayor, ministers in the West Bengal government, other MPs, all accepting thick wads of rupees as their due, but eyebrows are being raised about only one. Et tu Saugata, wisecracked a political opponent. Oh no, not Saugata, these videos must be doctored, wailed a friend.
Confusion has been compounded by his demented behaviour since. Screaming “you thief, you thief” at CPI(M)’s Mohammad Salim in Parliament, “strongly protesting” the Speaker’s decision to send the matter to the Lok Sabha Ethics Committee, snapping at a journalist for reminding him about the fate of former CPI MLA Muhammad Iliyas. Iliyas, then MLA from Nandigram, had been forced to resign from the Bengal assembly in 2008, following a similar sting operation. Saugata, then an MLA, had taken the lead in forcing Iliyas’s hand. “Don’t insult the people,” is Saugata’s angry retort now. All so very undignified, so unseemly.
Nonetheless, will Saugata now be a social pariah, will we stop inviting him to our events and parties? Not really. Sure we were mortified by those bytes, they’ll haunt us for ages, but what we are really feeling is deep chagrin. To be caught with the hand in the till, what shame. No one can be shocked, after all politicians being on the take is old hat. True, suspecting someone of wrongdoing and seeing hard evidence with your own eyes are wholly different. But then, no one really believes political graft is so reprehensible that it should lead to a social boycott of the perpetrator. In a society which lauds success at all costs, ridicules the virtues of simple living, it is, at best, on par with crimes like, say, tax evasion, insurance fraud, real estate jugglery – accepted as part of life. We, the hedonistic bourgeois voter would like things to change but only if it can be done through fun, low-energy engagement. No surprises then that politics continues to remain the “dirty business” it is.
First-time Trinamool MP and yesteryear filmstar Moon Moon Sen is sure to find this, as she has been reported as saying, hugely “embarrassing” while Harvard professor Sugata Bose is bound to squirm at being lumped with such “tainted” people, but then they’ve never had to dip a toe in the muddied waters of day-to-day politics – manning unruly party workers, keeping them loyal through judicious uses of carrot and stick, keeping thugs on a leash, doing favours, calling in favours, all for the greater good of the party. Such tasks, essential for electoral victory, have been and will continue to be taken care of by the professionals, career politicians like Saugata. For which they need moolah, loads of it.
As RBI governor Raghuram Rajan pointed out so succinctly in a 2014 speech, “the system tolerates corruption because the street smart politician is better at making the wheels of the bureaucracy creak, however slowly, in favour of his constituents. An idealist who is unwilling to ‘work’ the system can promise to reform it, but the voters know there is little one person can do. Moreover, who will provide the patronage while the idealist is fighting the system? So why not stay with the fixer you know even if it means the reformist loses his deposit? So the circle is complete. The poor and the under-privileged need the politician to help them get jobs and public services. The crooked politician needs the businessman to provide the funds that allow him to supply patronage to the poor and fight elections. The corrupt businessman needs the crooked politician to get public resources and contracts cheaply. And the politician needs the votes of the poor and the underprivileged.”
This is all the more critical in a disorganised party like the Trinamool Congress run for the gratification of one highly strung woman hellbent on using a “clean image” as political capital but equally determined to stay in power any which way. No wonder Matthew Samuel of Narada News could find as many as fourteen leaders of this party to grab his handouts. He could easily have got many more. Politics under Mamata Banerjee is an uninspiring, unintelligent and, often, humiliating business. It is risky, too, quite arbitrary and involves enormous stress and unceasing conflict. It stands to reason the compensation has to be commensurate.
Of course I wish Saugata was not so flawed. I wish more he had been smarter. As smart as many others in his party and in rival camps, as canny as many businessmen we may or may not know, as wily as many bureaucrats our college has produced. If Parliament punishes him it’ll probably end his political career. We’ll be sad but will also nod our heads sagely and say, this is as it should be. But nothing will change because we the middle class voters won’t.