Politics Has Failed Bengal; Only The Court Offers Any Hope

by Pratim Ranjan Bose - Aug 1, 2022 03:15 PM +05:30 IST
Politics Has Failed Bengal; Only The Court Offers Any Hope Abhishek Banerjee and Partha Chatterjee (Facebook)
  • For all the coverage of the SSC scam, almost every common Bengali knows the script that will follow next.

    With all political parties having skeletons in the cupboard, the issue should die its natural death sooner or later. The hope, if any, lies with the Court.

As a rule, ill-gotten money is rarely stored in cash. It is parked in real estate, bullion etc. Politicians know it all. They handle cash in limited quantities — either as a fresh collection or for regular expenses or distribution.

If that is true, the huge stash of cash recovered by India’s federal investigative agency, Enforcement Directorate (ED), from West Bengal’s just-sacked high-profile minister Partha Chatterjee’s close connection, should be the tip of the iceberg.

Apart from holding top portfolios, Chatterjee was the second most important leader in the ruling Trinamool Congress, after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. He was removed from all positions, a week after the arrest.

Corruption Is Normalised

The probe was ordered by Calcutta High Court in connection with alleged malpractices in the recruitment of teachers and non-teaching staff in schools — popularly referred to as the SSC scam. The recovery is dubbed as one of the largest in the history of ED.

That corruption is rampant was long feared. The TV visuals of the pile of currency notes strengthened that perception. Most importantly, it helped burst some myths about the prevalence of honesty and austerity in Bengal politics.

And, that’s all.

It would be naive to expect that corruption will be a critical election issue at any time in the foreseeable future. The reason lies in Bengal’s changing political-economic fundamentals that help trivialise, if not legitimise, corruption.

The proof is available in abundance. The multi-billion dollar Saradha chit-fund (Ponzi) scam in 2013 and the visuals of top leaders taking money in the Narada sting operation (2016) failed to make any impact whatsoever in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 assembly elections.

The job-for-cash SSC scam was in the making since 2012 and many of the court cases about malpractices belong to a panel created in 2016. It started making headlines in 2017. Victims had been demonstrating across the state for the last two years. Trinamool won the 2021 assembly election by a record margin.

In a recent order related to the SSC scam, the Calcutta High Court struck down the appointment of the daughter of the junior education minister. She was forced to quit and return the salaries. The position was given to a deserving candidate. The minister remained untouched.

Evidently, corruption is normalised in Bengal and politics has little reason to break the status quo. Nearly half a dozen top ministers and prominent Trinamool MPs are under the scanner of federal investigative agencies in multiple cases related to financial irregularities.

Ask Trinamool and they will either blame victimisation by the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP-run government in the Centre or will raise fingers at scam-accused leaders, who switched to BJP or will take refuge under lack of evidence.

Indeed, in the 2021 election, BJP nominated a turncoat who had been in the news for allegedly ensuring school jobs for over a dozen of family members. The slow progress of the CBI probe in the Saradha and Narada cases added sting to Trinamool’s argument.

Legacy Of The Left

Beyond the peripheries of TV debates, the Left and Congress are spent forces in Bengal. Their credibility, as opposition, is questionable as both directly or indirectly side with TMC in the national politics in the garb of resisting the BJP.

During its heydays in Bengal, before the rise of Trinamool, the Left was friends with Congress in Delhi and rivals in the state. The formula was in practice till 2008 when the Left opted out of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in Delhi and Trinamool joined the coalition.

Left, in particular, will always be at the receiving end in any political debate. Whatever ills that Bengal is synonymous with today were mostly their creation. Under the cover of ideology and exclusivity, they created a wide ecosystem to normalise corruption and injustice in the state.

From ‘syndicate’ (colloquial for politically-supported extortion rackets) to chit fund, the illegal toll on road cargo, strong interference in recruitment of teaching staff to police constables — name it and, the 34-year Left rule was the mother of all malpractices in West Bengal.

Partha Chatterjee is now facing trial, prima facie for denying jobs to the meritorious for narrow gains. But the practice is barely new. From permanent to even contractual employment, everything was controlled by the Left. Even the cash-for-job was not unheard of.

Leave alone unskilled or semi-skilled opportunities in central and state undertakings in the state; low-level jobs even in the private sector had to pass the double filter of allegiance to the party and/or money. Even promotions and transfers were part of this game. The same formula was at work in Tripura.

Having said that, there have been some fundamental changes over the decades. First, the explosion in the number of educated youth vis-a-vis steady and sustained decline in the state’s industrial fortune widened the demand-supply gap of ‘decent’ job opportunities.

This gap is more pronounced in Bengal due to its historical achievements (partly credited to the Left) in the areas of education and women empowerment.

The 2011 census data for Kolkata clearly shows that urban youth (apparently from better-off sections) are moving out of the state even for a college degree. The portable ration cards, which can be used anywhere in India, may give quality data on the migration of the poor.

Add to that its legacy as the first service class in India, coupled with the risk-averse nature (as reflected in its stable political choices) of common Bengalis, and the demand for ‘Sarkari Naukri' is at an all-time high.

Educated youth and their parents can do anything for getting extremely low-paying opportunities as civic volunteers or cook in the ICDS (integrated child development service) centres in the villages.

Retail Corruption

This coupled with the spiralling cost of elections and limited options for politics in the state to secure corporate funding made a deadly combination. Corruption is retail and scalable. Politics was the biggest employment generator in the past. Its importance had grown manifold with time.

Society has become more transactional. People have learnt to accept corruption as a way of life. The ecosystem of compromised intellectuals helps people justify their guilt by referring to tall ideologies, which very few believe.

Corruption has taken deeper roots with a large support base of prospective job-seekers, and aspirants. As the more energetic and resourceful are getting out of the state, the mass is filled by those who will not risk a change in the status quo.

They know that competition is getting more intense and are ready to compromise. From the Left to Trinamool — all governments could see through this problem. But no one dared to change the status quo. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee did try and suffered the backlash, even from his party cadres.

Almost every common Bengali knows the script that will follow next. The topic of corruption will become a 'political football' both in and outside the Trinamool. The Mamata Banerjee government will pass the buck to individuals like Chatterjee. A faction of Trinamool, reportedly led by Mamata’s nephew Abhishek, should capitalise on the moment as part of the power game.

With all political parties having skeletons in the cupboard, the issue should die its natural death sooner or later. The hope, if any, lies with the court.

Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay of the Calcutta High Court should be credited for single-handedly stirring the hornet's nest. The political future of West Bengal rests on the insistence of the court to force the central agencies to get to the bottom of the corruption.

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