Even before the still unverified but widely believed to be authentic footage by Narada showing top Trinamool leaders, including some very senior ministers and MPs, accepting bundles of hard cash and talking indiscreetly about various deals and fixings, the Trinamool did not exactly enjoy a public perception of being an incorruptible party. Though the Trinamool banks heavily on its supremo Mamata Banerjee's personal honesty (Shototar protik or the symbol of honesty, very common in Trinamool election propaganda graffiti in West Bengal's walls and banners), the same cannot be said about the functionaries of the party itself. All across the Indian Union, kickbacks and fixings are the everyday norm. While that doesn't make it right by any account, it is not unique. What is probably unique is the sheer breadth of the party leadership that appears to be indulging on camera in activities that many of them were believed to be indulging in anyways.
The Narada 'expose' is not the first corruption charge that has put Trinamool in the dock. Before that, came the Sarada scam and a sustained media campaign of the syndicate-raj of the Trinamool. The Sarada scam that affected a huge number of people with many losing their life's savings is only one of the several such ponzi schemes that have affected West Bengal in recent times. What sets Sarada apart is the very public bonhomie that the Trinamool leadership shared with the Sarada chief Sudipto Sen and also the West Bengal government patronage of some its media ventures.
However, the emergence and popularity of Sarada like small-savings scheme have to be seen in the context of the systematic attack unleashed by the Central government on the traditional small savings schemes like Post Office by decreasing agent commissions and making return rates unattractive in order to extract these savings of the poor and channelize that into big corporate economy. This drove millions of poor people to such ponzi schemes in West Bengal and many other states. Even after the Sarada implosion and a sustained media attention on the issue, Trinamool's electoral fortunes did not diminish – as was evident in the municipal elections, the panchayat elections and in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the last one being conducted with assistance of central forces and hence less tainted by the allegations of partisan policing and election monitoring that has plagued local body elections in West Bengal for the past 4 decades. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Trinamool reduced every other party of West Bengal to low single digits in terms of seats, itself winning more than 75 percent of the seats.
And that brings us back to politics and at the root of it all, the people. Outside the upper-middle class silos of urban citizenry who do not have to interact with the political class for anything and the only kind of corruption that really gets on their nerves in small bribes they need to pay to get work done fast, both politics and corruption have very different meanings. Firstly, politics is not what people watch on TV and politicians are not those who appear in newspapers or TV shows but they are local leaders and those higher-up whose presence is crucial in their lives, to get a bed in a public hospital, to get ration cards or NREGA wages or basic infrastructure like roads and sanitation. That many of their political leaders, across the political spectrum, take money regularly is not an open secret. It is open knowledge. Hence it does not come with the same sense of shock. The sense of outrage on the loot of funds, especially public funds, is directly proportional to the stake and power an individual has in the workings of the government. Neither the Central government nor the state governments have given the people any such stake. Hence, corruption is a fact of life and while not irrelevant, does not have the same priority as an election issue as more basic and life-relevant issues like food security, livelihood, personal and family security (in case of minorities of various kinds), access to government schemes, rural health infrastructure, rural road situation, daily police atrocities, government support to small farmers for agriculture and various other issues have. It is not that Narada or Sarada does not matter. It does and the Trinamool might not be able to repeat its 2011 assembly election performance.
The majority has seen both CPM and Trinamool functionaries get very rich over the years, in front of their eyes. So, even if the Narada footage is sensational, it is not exactly new knowledge. That knowledge about corruption and the corrupt has largely been factored into the voting patterns of the people. This is true for Sarada. The effect of Narada is yet to be seen. However, till now, no opinion poll, including those taken after the Narada 'expose' was public, has the Trinamool losing this elections. Things can change rapidly, but that's where we are now.
Trinamool Congress has a particular problem. Through its rise to political power, it has been able to alienate much of the big corporates who typically bless electoral politics and politicians with 'favours'. Thats how all major parties are run. Political leaders and their governments that have alienated big corporates still have a party to run and hence they have no choice but to lean towards small volume 'donations' from much smaller sized players. The greater are the instances of money exchange, the greater is the chance of getting caught.
Big corporates 'donate' for big stakes – in rivers, oceans, mines, forests, etc. Small players play for medium size government contracts and such. If the Trinamool had relented on its stance on land acquisition and allowed forcible acquisition of peasant land by government for the “greater public good” of giving it up to big corporates, it wouldnt have found itself in the soup that it is presently in. A party that has faced the Sarada and Narada combo would have been written off long ago. But that's not true for Trinamool and that says as much about the political culture and reality of West Bengal as it does about the image of the Trinamool and the CPM at the grassroots, where the majority is. If the Trinamool loses to the CPM-led alliance, one of the things it will signify is that grassroot level corruption in the Trinamool era affected the majority more than in the CPM era – not that the Trinamool is some uniquely corrupt entity.
First Published On : Apr 5, 2016 16:06 IST