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Everyday politics and corruption in west bengal

  • Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Government College


Trinamool Congress's decisive second term in West Bengal in 2016, even after serious corruption charges were levied on the party, makes it clear that corruption is not as important as was thought by the opposition. It is argued that corruption is conceived as a "necessary evil," linked with quick and tangible delivery of public services. The recent rise of Bharatiya Janata Party, parallel to religious polarisation in the state, indicates a shrinking political space for non-BJP opposition in West Bengal.
MAY 27, 2017 vol lIi no 21 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
Everyday Politics and
Corruption in West Bengal
Suman Nath
Trinamool Congress’s decisive
second term in West Bengal in
2016, even after serious corruption
charges were levied on the party,
makes it clear that corruption is
not as important as was thought
by the opposition. It is argued
that corruption is conceived as
a “necessar y evil,” linked with
quick and tangible delivery of
public services. The recent rise of
Bharatiya Janata Party, parallel to
religious polarisation in the state,
indicates a shrinking political
space for non-BJP opposition in
West Bengal.
A fortnight before the 2016 assembly
elections in West Bengal, Narada
News brought forth video clip-
pings of 12 key Trinamool Congress (TMC)
leaders, purportedly accepting bribes
from an unidentifi ed person. The impact
of this sting operation made the TMC
supremo Mamata Banerjee to acknow-
ledge making a mistake in selecting can-
didates for the election (Hindustan Times
2016). The Central Bureau of Investigation
(CBI) will continue its probe on the Narada
News case following a Calcutta High
Court directive of 17 March 2017 (Hindu-
stan Times 2017). Will this bring corrup-
tion issues of the state to the forefront?
Will it affect the public sphere and state’s
political practices?
We have seen that despite serious cor-
ruption charges against the party just
before the 2016 assembly elections, TMC
won a second term with a decisive victory.
TMCs election victory is phenomenal,
primarily because of three reasons. First,
the party has single-handedly won in 211
constituencies, securing 45% of the total
votes polled. Second, it has penetrated
effectively in reserved constituencies—
traditional Left Front bastions—and
also in some of the constituencies of
north Bengal which have been ruled by
the Indian National Congress even dur-
ing the Left Front era. Third, the Left
Front which had ruled the state for 34
years at a stretch, has lost its position of
opposition in the assembly.
One of the major issues raised by the
Left Front and Congress alliance during
their election campaign was the corrup-
tion charges against key TMC leaders, as
revealed by the Narada News agency,
and also the TMCs alleged involvement
in the Saradha fi nancial scam (Economic
Times 2013). TMCs massive victory sug-
gests that perhaps the issue of corruption
was not as important as it was thought
by the opposition. In this article, I refl ect
on the reasons for which corruption is
not an important political issue in West
Bengal. I further show that TMC has
effectively installed a new model of
service deliver y which is in contrast to
the party-based and organisation-depend-
ent de liv ery system promote d by th e Le ft
Front in its regime. I argue that although
the recent reports of religious polarisa-
tion of the state and a related rise of the
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are pushing
both the corruption issues and issues of
service delivery, the new model of service
delivery would ensure TMCs stronghold
in the state.
When broadly defi ned, corruption is a
mode of exchange where money is used
to attain private ends by political means
(Della Porta and Vannucci 2012). Perhaps
the most precise description of corrup-
tion in the Indian scenario is given by
Dreze and Sen (1996). They document
the following important dimensions of
corruption: (i) rent-seeking behaviour of
the leaders, (ii) absenteeism and poor
performance, (iii) lack of trust and hence,
lack of partnership between the state
and civil society, and (iv) development
of a culture of corruption within the
public sector.
Through my ethnographic experiences
at different gram panchayats of Bardha-
man, Bankura, Purba Medinipur and
Paschim Medinipur districts of the state
from 2008 to 2016, I refl ect that corrup-
tion is increasingly accepted as a “neces-
sary evil” within the everyday political
practices of the state.
Corruption as Discipline
It is seen that individual bene ting
sch e mes implemented by the gram
panchayat often bring people closer—or
to use Foucault ’s (1991) term, discipline
them—to corrupt practices. Most con-
spicuous among these is bribery. In all
these four districts, I found that it is gen-
erally accepted that a family is supposed
to pay somewhere in between `10,000
and `15,000 to entitle t hemselves for the
Indira Awaas Yojana. For the Indira Gan-
dhi National Old Age Pension Scheme,
bribery is given voluntarily.
One of my informants in Purba Medi ni-
pur refl ects, “often, the family members
willingly pay some amount to pace up the
process.” I have noted that somewhere
I express my sincere thanks to Bhaskar
Chakrabarti, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and
Debraj Bhattachary ya for lively discussion on
these issues over the past eight years.
Suman Nath (
teaches at Dr A P J Abdul Kalam Govt College,
New Town, Kolkata.
Economic & Political Weekly EPW MAY 27, 2017 vol lIi no 21 23
in between 10% and 15% of the wages
under the Mahatma Gandhi National
Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme
(MGNREGS) is extracted from the bene-
ciaries by local TMC leade rs. It i s accept-
ed by the villagers on the condition of
getting more days of work. In one of the
group discussions in Bardhaman—once
a bastion of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)—CPI(M)—I came across
the following notion:
CPM leaders were honest, they never de-
manded money for public services, but nei-
ther did they provide as many days of work
or other benefi ts as swiftly as TMC does. TMC
people ask for money, but in return the work
is done.
Moreover, it is seen that the TMC has
made people relatively free from the
party grid which is famously described
as “political society” by Chat terjee (2004)
and “party society” by Bhattacharyya
(2009, 2010, 2016). The political media-
tion through different hierarchies—booth
committee, branch committee, local
committee, and fi nally, district commit-
tee—through which decisions were
made used to be well organised, but
simultaneously time-consuming.
For getting certain things done, CPM took
months … they had their political hierarchy and
protocol to follow, TMC did not have much p ro-
tocol to follow … as a pe rson you need to know
whom to ask for what and you must be w illin g
to pay a certain amount! (One of the villag-
ers in Bankura, fi eld notes, Januar y 2015)
This notion has been popularised by
the TMC as opposed to the CPI(M) in each
of the gram panchayats I studied. These
issues of party mediation and relative
freedom by the TMC are well canvassed
in the gram sabha meetings. In sum,
from my fi eldwork, I could derive two
effective strategies of everyday political
practices adopted by the TMC which are
in contrast to the erstwhile CPI(M) and
Left Front-led initiatives of the state.
First, there is a deliberate attempt to
free people from the strict party grid
and to make them depend on one or
two relatively powerful local leaders.
Although, in one sense it is an accumula-
tion of power by a handful of people, it
has accelerated the process of ser vice
delivery. It is seen that the party supremo
Mamata Banerjee did not make much
changes in her list of candidates for the
assembly election of 2016. She even
made former transport minister, Madan
Mitra contest the elections from jail. She
continued to defend Anubrata Mondal,
district secretary of Birbhum, who is al-
legedly involved in fuelling political
clashes in the district after the panchayat
election. These re ect her dependence
on locally powerful leaders, and lesser
focus on organisation-based initiatives.
Second, and related to the fi rst point,
in contrast to CPI(M)-led Left Front or-
ganisation-based operations, TMC could
deliver things to the people relatively
quickly, often through a corrupt form of
exchange. Yet, because of the speedy and
assured delivery of services, a large section
of people approve of this mechanism.
While the instances of corruption often
vary regionally, and a comprehensive
picture will emerge only when intensive
research is carried out, it is nevertheless
clear that people are willingly engaging
in corrupt practices to get their work
done. Quick delivery of ser vices through
a strong leader has effectively reduced
the Left Front promoted “party society.”
In 2013, the Government of West Bengal
brought out the West Bengal Right to
Public Services Act which primarily aims
at timely delivery of public services,
especially services directly affecting
individuals. Notably, th is is also the year
when TMC gained a massive victory in
panchayat elections. The initiation of
such an act reinforces the political strat-
egy of reliance on service delivery by
whatever means possible.
Quick and Direct Impact
If one compares the policies of the two
regimes, stark differences can be noted.
The Left Front has championed com-
munity-driven initiatives manifested most
prominently through the three-tier
panchayat system. Post 2000, in an att empt
to further devolve the process of the
panchayat at boot h level, Gram Unnayan
Samiti (GUS or village development
councils) (Government of West Bengal
2006) was formed. Strengthening Rural
Decentralisation Cell (SRD) was also
formed to initiate participatory rural
appraisal (PRA)-based approach in plan-
ning at the GUS.
The success of this initiative was pri-
marily dependent on the effectiveness of
GUS. Through our fi eldwork, we found
that the apolitical or at least multi-politi-
cal nature1 of the GUS-led development
discourse failed primarily because of the
unintended politicisation of such forums
(Chattopadhyay, Chakrabarti and Nath
2010). Instead of selecting members as
per policy, villagers were compelled to
elect from the two “panels” placed by
contesting political parties in almost
every instance. Since the election of
panels was by raising hands, villagers
involuntarily revealed their political
identities which made the political divi-
sion prominent. The Left Front took such
initiatives keeping in mind the dwin-
dling participation in the annual gram
sabha and biannual gram samsad sabha,
and keeping faith in community-driven
initiatives which has historically been
benefi cial to their political organisation
(Chattopadhyay, Chakrabarti and Nath
2010; Sengupta and Ghosh 2012). How-
ever, initiatives such as the SRD are
time-consuming and often leave no
quick and tangible impact on village life.
Meanwhile, in contrast to such a well-
organised community-driven endeavo u r ,
the TMC-devised policies are quick to
make a direct impact on people’s every-
day lives. Moreover, it is important to note
that these policies are relatively easy to
implement. Most prominent among such
initiatives is the Kanyashree Prakalpa,
in which girls of 18 years are given
`25,000 in an attempt to help them con-
tinue their education. Through another
initiative—Sabooj Saathi—students of
Classes 10th and 11th attending school
are given bicycles. Moreover, the distri-
bution of subsidised foodgrains under
the National Food Security Act is also
quite effective (as noted by Sarkar 2016
and Hafeez 2016). It is also important to
note that a special emphasis is given to
implement the MGNREGS effectively, as
the average day of employment has in-
creased from 34.7 days to 46.9 days over
the period of four years.2
Concluding Remarks
The continuation of the TMC regime, even
with serious charges of corruption, is a
result of a calculated strategy against
MAY 27, 2017 vol lIi no 21 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
the party grid developed by the CPI(M)-
led Left Front over the years. There are
at least two different issues, coming out
prominently. First, the quick and easy
way to deliver schemes are emphasised
by TMC which does not require an organ-
ised party grid. Rather, existing institu-
tions (like schools, colleges, ration
shops, etc) are apt to manage such initia-
tives. There fore, the TMC regime is clear-
ly indicating that strong leadership and
existing formal institutions, instead of
political organisations, will be involved in
planning and implementation of progra-
mm es in the coming days. The state will
experience rapid delivery of quick and
relatively easy to implement initiatives
followed by centralised accumulation of
power which is in complete contrast to
community-driven endeavours.
Second, the opposition, most promi-
nently the Left Front with its organisa-
tion-based initiatives, is going to face
even more diffi culties in making itself
visible in state politics. The political
space for such organisation-based poli-
tics would now shrink further because
(i) the TMC is successful in making
people demand for speedy and populist
policy implementation; (ii) strong lead-
ers with local networks and command
over local administration are the new
mediators (and protectors of people’s in-
terests)—an alternative to “party socie-
ty;” (iii) people have already accepted
corruption to be a part of their everyday
political encounters, and therefore the
Left Front and the Congress, at least at
present, will fi nd it hard to capitalise on
these issues.
It is important to note that the political
vacuum of the opposition forces in West
Bengal is quickly fi lled by a relatively
recent rise of the BJP. The 2016 parlia-
mentary by-elections in Cooch Behar
and Tamluk show a striking increase in
the percentage of vote share of the BJP,
from 16.4% to 28.5% in Cooch Behar,
and from 6.4% to 15.25% in Tamluk (PTI
2016). More recently, in April 2017, BJP
came up as the nearest opposition in the
Kanthi assembly seat.
Interestingly, sensing the everyday-
ness of corrupt practices in West Bengal,
the BJP takes time to respond to the
res urgence of Narada i ssue (Anandabazar
Patr ika 2017). Instead it tends to focus
more on religious polarisation. The most
comprehensive manifestation of such a
political strategy is the report of more
than 150 armed Ram Navami rallies
organised by BJP and its allied forces in
April 2017 (Ghosal 2017). As the state has
begun to experience a new form of pri-
mordial polarisation, policy and corrup-
tion issues are increasingly disappearing
from public debate. Therefore, with the
model of quick delivery of public ser vices,
the TMC would continue to h ave a strong
hold in the state. However, interesting
political alteration is expected to take
place with the opposition forces in the
state. First, the Left Front and the Con-
gress would fi nd it hard to gain popular-
ity by tapping corruption issues. Second,
the BJP, because of increasing religious
polarisation, would continue to reap
electoral benefi ts as manifested in the
by-elections. Clearly, West Bengal is
going to experience a shrinking of
political space for the non-BJP forces in
the near future.
1 G ram U nna yan S ami ti e xpec ted to in volv e bot h
the win ning candidate and his/her nearest
opp osition, and reserved cer tain positions for
government employees, teac hers, and so on.
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Economic & Political Weekly EPW MAY 27, 2017 vol lIi no 21 25
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... Since more than 70% of the population lives in rural areas, the income of a large section of the population has increased (Ghatak 2021). Moreover, the welfare schemes like Sabooj Sathi and Krishak Bandhu, introduced by the state government to cater to the needs of the rural and semi-urban people have been quite popular (Nath 2017;Bhattacharya 2021;Ghatak 2021). A group of scholars have also praised that there is no evidence of discrimination along the party line in the delivery of these schemes (Nath 2017;Bhattacharya 2021). ...
... Moreover, the welfare schemes like Sabooj Sathi and Krishak Bandhu, introduced by the state government to cater to the needs of the rural and semi-urban people have been quite popular (Nath 2017;Bhattacharya 2021;Ghatak 2021). A group of scholars have also praised that there is no evidence of discrimination along the party line in the delivery of these schemes (Nath 2017;Bhattacharya 2021). The evidence further suggests that the level of informalisation of labour has slightly declined under TMC (Figure 2). 3 All these convey suffi cient reasons to believe a fair amount of popularity of the ruling party among the low-income people. ...
... This is the term used in the state to represent the unoffi cial commissions charged from the benefi ciaries of government schemes by local TMC leaders (Financial Express 2019). For example, people need to pay `10,000-`15,000 to entitle themselves for Indira Awaas Yojana (Nath 2017). Similar evidence of cut money extraction by local TMC leaders is in abundance in popular media. ...
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The conventional belief indicates that the gradual success of an incumbent party lies in the economic progression of the state and the well-being of the majority of voters. However, the recent growth of the incumbent party in West Bengal does not support the belief entirely. A marginal improvement of agriculture and rural people, relying on the delivery of welfare schemes at the cost of overall growth (including industrial and service sectors), reveals a redistribute strategy employed by the state in the federal setting. This compels the dependency of low-income people on minuscule resources in the absence of modern sector growth along with building an organisation of cadres, mushroomed under the shadow of welfare schemes, to deliver those services among the networks against the agency fees and commission, worked effectively to engineer the popularity and helped to extinguish the unrest among the non-beneficiaries. This paper unfolds evidence in support of such a strategy that helped maintain incumbency.
... Party members are deputed to different social spheres like factories, farms, or colleges to organize people under the party's umbrella. Left Front's excellent record of maintaining communal amity in the State, its success in keeping in check the rising prices of essential commodities made it more acceptable to the common people (Nath, 2017). ...
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The present paper aims to investigate the spatiality of electoral behavior and its changing dimensions concerning the contemporary general elections in West Bengal. It analyses the general elections of 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019 and observes the spatial changes of voting behavior in the context of political parties contesting the election. The study is based upon electoral data and theoretical arguments framed as opinion and analysis over the changing political reflection from the particular political space of West Bengal. The electoral data and inferences are shown by the Geospatial technique to visualize the voting behavior in the spatial context. It is true that political aspects of electoral behavior are organized on the basis of certain theoretical backgrounds having interdisciplinary nature. The methodology adopted for the study is theoretical and qualitative; however, arguments and analyses are based upon secondary electoral data derived from the Election Commission of India about elections and electoral behavior. The cartographic technique is adopted to show the spatio-temporal trends of the electoral behavior of the electorates of West Bengal.
... LF's defeat in 2011 has led to a steady disappearance of the party society withgradual disintegration of LF organisations. TMC in its second term in 2016 consolidates their support base even in places which used to be considered as the LF bastions (Nath 2017). Two years before that, in 2014 there was another major shift in the national politics when the INC led secular democratic United Progressive Alliance suffered defeat in the hands of BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance. ...
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Religious polarisation is on the rise in India especially after the BharatiyaJanata Party led National Democratic Alliance assumed power of the center in 2014. West Bengal with instances of numerous riots during the partition of the country has a history of peasant uprisefollowed by party-mediate public transactions for more than three decades. With party becoming the major mediating mechanism the state presents a picture of being relatively immune to riots and primordial identity issues. However, of late, there has been a significant rise in the number of riots and identitypolarisation. We have studied four major cases of religious polarisation and riots since 2015 to reflect on how identity issues are propagated through a mix of invented traditions, hoax and use of dubious means like employing goons and in what ways riots pay electoral dividends to the political parties.
Despite a strong state and a slew of poverty reduction/welfare programmes, the provision of basic services to the rural poor in India remains puzzlingly inadequate. Moving away from the usual trend of aggregate welfare impact analysis that characterises most studies on this theme, we explore the on-ground distributive politics around the implementation of India’s flagship social welfare programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). Based on a mixed-method study in the state of West Bengal, using observational primary data and ethnographic material across 46 sample village councils (gram panchayats) from 2013 to 2018, we draw attention to the non-homogeneity in the way political incentives of welfare provision are orientated towards different parties and individual stakeholders. In doing so, we traverse across multiple domains of political economic concepts, particularly that of partisan alignment, clientelism and patronage, and unpack the differentiated constellation of localised political incentives founded on a unique form of transactional paradigm called settings. We show how these on-ground transactions provide a multitude of political incentives for ruling/opposition political parties and panchayat functionaries, often going beyond conventional ethno-favouritism ideas of patronage and assuming a more personalised context. In turn, we also argue that the idea of settings is useful in providing a deeper understanding of local state-society relations and the political geography of welfare provisions in rural eastern India.
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West Bengal, in comparison to other states of India, witnesses large-scale political violence throughout the year which, however , sees an upswing particularly during the time of elections. Nonetheless, apart from a few sporadic mentions, such violence is yet to get scholarly attention. Based on my longitudinal ethnography (2008-2017) in four Gram Panchayats-the lowest to the three-tier local governance system, I show the ways in which political polarization and violence occupy a dominant position in everyday village life of the state. I show that while domains of dominance-subordination and hate speech shape much of the discursive spheres of the state, people, through a variety of formal and informal channels, tend to depend on political party and panchayat. Such politico-economic dependence, development of hooligan dominated political control, and continuation of violence through direct and subtler means are some of the major roots of violence.
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The policy shift towards decentralisation promises important social change in rural India, providing as it does a three-tier system of local self-governments, the Panchayats: at the village level, the district level, and an intermediate level between the two, called the Block Panchayat. There is evidence of far-reaching social change in rural West Bengal, a state in eastern India, after the Left Front government came into power, particularly because of revitalisation of the three-tier Panchayat system. The initial years of Left Front rule saw the village poor enthusiastically attending Panchayat meetings and taking part in decision-making at the village council, the Gram Sabha, the general body of villagers of voting age covering 10-12 villages, and the Gram Sansad, the forum of local democracy at the ward level. However, today, relatively few people in the villages are taking part in government-sponsored initiatives. Panchayat meetings are scarcely attended and almost always exclude certain classes and members of the community. In order to combat the problem, the Government of West Bengal has recently tried to further devolve the power and responsibilities of local government and has established Gram Unnayan Samiti (GUSs) or Village Development Councils, consisting of political members from both elected and the opposition parties and certain nominated members. The GUSs are supposed to bring in more participation at the grassroots level. In this paper, we study the formal policies regarding decentralisation and people’s participation in West Bengal, and analyse the dynamics of political processes regarding decision-making at operational level after the introduction of GUS. We have analysed audio recordings of meetings of the Gram Sabhas and the dynamics of the newly formed GUSs to uncover the actual rate of people’s participation, actual meeting procedures and reasons behind people’s reluctance to participate. We argue that solutions lie in having a strong third-tier in order to address issues of lack of transparency and accountability in decision-making, and make recommendations as to how that might be achieved.
The changing conditions in two villages of West Bengal - Galsi and Adhata - give a picture of the emerging issues and dynamics of the state's rural political economy. This paper attempts to explain these complexities in the light of the idea of a "party-society". It also shows that the initial impetus of land reforms failed to result in productive investments in agriculture and the marginalised sections feel increasingly alienated from the institutional politics of the party-society.
Dwidha katiye ebare pothe BJP (BJP Takes the Road, Sets Aside Hesitations in Bengali)
  • Anandabazar Patrika
Anandabazar Patrika (2017): "Dwidha katiye ebare pothe BJP (BJP Takes the Road, Sets Aside Hesitations in Bengali)," Anandabazar Patrika, 21 March, b jp-to-walk-rally-against-tmc-on-narada-iss ue-1.583548#.
Left in the Lurch: The Demise of the World's Longest Elected Regime?
-(2010): "Left in the Lurch: The Demise of the World's Longest Elected Regime?," Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 45, No 3, pp 51-59.
Over 150 Rallies on Ram Navami: Swords, Saffron Flags, Chants of Jai Shri Ram in Bengal
  • Aniruddha Ghosal
Ghosal, Aniruddha (2017): "Over 150 Rallies on Ram Navami: Swords, Saffron Flags, Chants of Jai Shri Ram in Bengal," Indian Express, 6 April. Government of West Bengal (2006): Gram Unnayan Samitir hatboi, in Bengali, Handbook of GUS, Kolkata: Panchayat and Rural Development Department.
Poll Gimmick vs 'Revolut ionary Scheme': Bengal Politics Centres Around Food Subsidy
  • Sarah Hafeez
Hafeez, Sarah (2016): "Poll Gimmick vs 'Revolut ionary Scheme': Bengal Politics Centres Around Food Subsidy," Indian Express, 14 May.
Calcutta HC Orders Probe into Narada Sting: Five Points About the Case
Hindustan Times (2016): "Mamata Admits to Mistakes, Asks Voters Not to Desert Trinamool," Hindustan Times, 11 April. -(2017): "Calcutta HC Orders Probe into Narada Sting: Five Points About the Case," Hindustan Times, 4 April.
Thhik thhik anudan e aaybriddhi o bare (Right Grant Increases Revenues Too)
  • Abhirup Sarkar
Sarkar, Abhirup (2016): "Thhik thhik anudan e aaybriddhi o bare (Right Grant Increases Revenues Too)," Anandabazar Patrika, 31 May, ht t p-://