Mamata's Historic 211-Seat Mandate Might Derail Action On Corruption

20/05/2016 1:27 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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The wrapper ad with the morning newspaper in Kolkata makes the party line clear in Mamata Banerjee’s favoured blue and white lettering.

The people have spoken. Development has been chosen.

The people have certainly spoken. Thumpingly.

Trinamool – a bulldozing 211, a historic single party majority in the West Bengal Assembly.

The CPM reduced to 26 seats. The “honour” of being Bengal’s principal opposition party now goes to the Congress with 44 seats. While Narendra Modi goes for a Congress-mukt Bharat, Mamata Banerjee is well on the way to a CPM-mukt Bengal.

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Yes, the people have certainly spoken. But whether they chose development is another issue altogether.

Six Trinamool leaders who popped up in the Narada sting tapes shown apparently accepting crash from an “industrialist” contested the election. Only Madan Mitra, already behind bars for the Saradha scam, lost his seat. As the tea shop post mortem in my neighbourhood in Kolkata went “Madan winning from jail would have been just too much.”

One of the stung leaders Subhendu Adhikari won by 81,320 votes. Several ministers did fall but they were ironically ministers with fairly clean reputations like former chief secretary Manish Gupta. Even Smita Bakshi, the MLA in whose constituency the flyover collapsed, and whose relative was linked to the syndicate that was involved in building the flyover, pulled through.

Before the elections Mamata Banerjee had sounded different notes on the Narada sting. At one meeting she had said had she known earlier she might have acted differently. At other meetings she had been defiant calling it a conspiracy hatched to defame her, “kutsa” as she called it.

At her post-victory press conference she singled out Rajdeep Sardesai for praise for his channel’s exit polls calling the results right. But the newly empowered Didi also made it clear that that feeling of goodwill had its limits. When Sardesai asked her about corruption allegations she retorted “What do you think? Today, do you have your answer?”

It was an open question whether post-elections she would act on it. The size of the mandate pretty much answered that question.

At her post-victory press conference she singled out Rajdeep Sardesai for praise for his channel’s exit polls calling the results right. But the newly empowered Didi also made it clear that that feeling of goodwill had its limits. When Sardesai asked her about corruption allegations she retorted “What do you think? Today, do you have your answer?”

She was answering a question about apples with a statement about oranges. Ruchir Joshi writes in The Telegraph “Sardesai is trapped in politeness, and he doesn’t say what he should – the fact that you’ve won a landslide is no proof that your ministers and regime aren’t corrupt.”

Likewise even if the Narada sting was a conspiracy with nefarious intentions to try and blackmail and target the Trinamool, it does not prove money was not offered and money was not taken. One has nothing to do with the other. Narada might have dirty origins. That does not mean those caught in its web did not have dirty hands.

But a 211-seat mandate is like washing powder Nirma bringing about “doodh si safedi” for everyone in its wake.

As Mamata said categorically “The campaign on corruption was false and the people defeated it.”

The people, mind you, not the courts or the CBI or even the CID.

There are different Monday morning quarterbacking theories being put out there. The Narada sting involved petty change, a few lakhs here and there, compared to the big scams that rocked the country nationally from 2G to Coalgate. The timing of its release, long after the sting actually happened, made it look more like vindictive than fearless journalism. While syndicates are a known problem in the state, the other parties have all played their part in building them up. It’s not a Trinamool creation. Mamata’s many handouts from bicycles to rice to Kanyashree schemes pulled through in the end.

But a 211-seat mandate is like washing powder Nirma bringing about “doodh si safedi” for everyone in its wake.

But voters in Bengal cannot escape one glaring conclusion. By handily increasing Mamata’s mandate, as opposed to tempering it, this looks like an election that turned a blind eye to corruption. It showed that no matter what we editorialize, corruption does not have to be a vote-killer.

Yes, there was a dampening affect. As The Times of India points out in Kolkata, Trinamool swept all the seats but the margin of victory slid sharply. Powerful Trinamool leader Arup Biswas won by 27,860 votes in 2011. His margin shrunk to 9,896. Education minister Partha Chatterjee won by over 59,000 votes in 2011. This time he won by just under 9,000. But those are just crumbs of comfort for the losers who lost big.

As someone reading the CPM newspaper Ganashakti in front of the tea stall in the neighbourhood said “There’s losing and then there’s losing like this.” That same person shook his head ruefully and said “Look corruption is rewarded everywhere. Isn’t Jayalalithaa involved in a corruption scandal? Did it stop her?”

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Cynics would say the election results show that corruption or allegations of corruption can, in fact, reap rich rewards. But psychologist Varsha Singh says in The Telegraph there is corruption and there is corruption. “People love Robin Hoods,” says Singh. “For many voters the decision may be to choose between politicians who are corrupt for themselves and corrupt for the public, and they choose the latter.” Corruption that only lines a leader’s pockets is different, it seems, from corruption where rewards trickle down to the masses.

A Firhad Hakim or someone who looks like him might be seen in the Narada sting tape. But Firhad Hakim also pours money into his neighbourhood clubs. The Durga Puja in his neighbourhood, thanks to the beneficence of Hakim, draws visitors from far and wide. At a rally in Tollygunge during the Lok Sabha elections a young local Trinamool worker told me “Didi is winning elections with carom boards. Go to small districts that were ignored by everyone. They now have a club house, a carom board, a football. There’s electricity. There’s paved roads. People care about these things, you know, not what your newspapers say.”

That was proved yesterday to the chagrin of many editorial-writers.

Industrialist Harshavardhan Neotia, head the Ambuja Neotia group congratulated Mamata and called her victory a “strong endorsement for development.” But his greetings, couched in sweet words about Bengal shining also came with some advice.

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“Mamata Banerjee now has the political manoeuvrability to discipline her cadre and push ahead on an aggressive agenda for development.”

But it’s anyone’s guess if that is the message Didi got from the elections yesterday.

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