Saradha, Narada don't matter: Benefits outweigh corruption in West Bengal
Corruption in West Bengal becomes a major issue only when there are no redeeming features to offset these charges
Even this huge Mamata Banerjee wave could not save Madan Mitra. One of Didi’s favourite bros, Mitra continued to be transport minister even as he languished in jail on charges of being implicated in the Saradha ponzy scheme. He lost his ministership only because the CBI used this against him — that he was “an influential person” — to deny him bail. He also figures prominently in the Narada tapes. Didi still refused to drop him. He fought the elections from his prison cell, and lost.
Corruption, it seems, does matter.
But then, that is not the fate of other Trinamool Congress candidates tarred with the same brush. Firhad Hakim, the urban development minister, Kolkata mayor Sovon Chatterjee, panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee, for instance, are also seen accepting bundles of cash in the Narada tapes. They have all won handsomely. As has Smita Bakshi, in whose constituency that ill-fated bridge collapsed and whose family runs the ‘syndicate’ that is accused of supplying sub-standard material for its construction. As also Sabyasachi Datta who revealed the syndicates’ generosity to his campaign in a Times Now sting operation.
Corruption, it seems, does not matter.
Corruption, it is said, is a middle class issue, an urban concern. According to conventional wisdom, AAP could succeed on a corruption plank because Delhi is basically a city. Rural people are not bothered with such issues. Well, the Trinamool candidates shown in the Narada tapes or known to be associated with syndicates almost all stood from seats in and around Kolkata. And won, mostly. Like the rest of the Trinamool candidates, in cities, towns, villages all across Bengal, even though the primary thrust of the Opposition campaign was corruption, corruption, corruption. It cut little ice with voters.
The chief minister was quick to use this opportunity to clear her party and her state. There is, she insisted in her first press conference after the results, “no corruption here. Bengal is corruption-free.” One hopes she can make it so. But the Narada tapes did show money changing hands, and not for any altruistic purpose either. Even Mamata was swayed by the buzz those visuals created.
“Ask me to do anything, I’ll even go and wash the dishes in your home, but don’t call me chor, that hurts,” she pleaded in one election rally, almost in tears. In another, she even said she might have considered changing candidates if she’d known about this earlier. Hence her appeal, “Don’t look at anyone else, vote for me, I am the candidate in all 294 constituencies.” Voters believed her.
Evidently they had also been persuaded by her declarations that she had nothing to with the Saradha scheme, it began its operations during the Left regime and it’s all their fault. Something Trinamool leaders never hesitate to point out. And also by her dismissal of the Narada tapes as a deliberate ploy to make mischief, mainly by the BJP — why are they now showing something that is supposed to have happened in 2014, she demanded and her loyalists echoed.
Incorruptible still remains her biggest USP, her image remains unsullied. And this is something in which she takes great pride and nurtures assiduously, from what she wears to where she lives to what she likes to eat — muri or puffed rice, the staple of the common Bengali. So corruption is not a non-issue, for her or for her state.
But, as everywhere else, it is not the overriding issue. Not when there are many other things going for her, in addition to her personal integrity. Her many populist schemes, her developmental works, from roads to rural electrification, her freebies like grants to clubs, her subsidies to imams etc have been welcomed with open arms. Even the much-maligned syndicate raj is accepted with equanimity. In a state where jobs are scarce, it is a means of earning an income and few can afford to turn up their noses at the stink it carries.
Actually, corruption becomes a major issue only when there are no redeeming features to offset these charges. Bofors became such a huge issue because the Rajiv Gandhi government had failed on many other counts and the challenge came from within his own party, from his finance minister in fact. So “gali gali mein shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai” stuck and VP Singh’s Mr Clean image appeared whiter than white.
Voters obviously make a cost-benefit analysis where corruption is pitted against the gains they may be making from the government. This accounting doesn’t happen at the end of its term, it takes place every day, 365 days a year, for five years and, if the same party is voted back to power, carried over to the next term. If, over time, voters find that the column showing bribery, extortion, corruption is longer than the benefits column, it’s curtains for that government. As happened with the Left in 2011.
The benefits column is still weighted heavily in favour of the Trinamool.
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