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Everyday politics and corruption in west bengal

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

Abstract

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.
COMMENTARY
MAY 27, 2017 vol lIi no 21 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
22
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 (sumananthro1@gmail.com)
teaches at Dr A P J Abdul Kalam Govt College,
New Town, Kolkata.
COMMENTARY
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
COMMENTARY
MAY 27, 2017 vol lIi no 21 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
24
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.
notes
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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COMMENTARY
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2 Se e MGNREGA port al at http://164.100.129. 4/
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a te_name=WEST%20BENGAL .
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Vol 1.
... 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. ...
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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, http://www.anandabazar.com/state/ 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-://www.anandabazar.com/editorial/rightgrant-leads-to-increased-revenues-1.399250#.