Bribery sting: Narada can’t wreck TMC’s poll march

  • Avijit Ghosal, Hindustan Times, Kolkata
  • Updated: Mar 15, 2016 13:23 IST
West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee with party leaders during the release of the party's list of candidates for the upcoming Assembly elections, in Kolkata on Friday. A sting video was released by Narada News from two years ago showing ruling party politicians accepting money. (PTI)

Visuals of people’s representatives accepting money for favours remained to be one of the most unacceptable. So the uproar was natural when Narada News released a video that showed a dozen politicians of the ruling party in West Bengal accepting bribes – some sheepishly and some disdainfully.

In scale, the sting is unmatched. Almost every prominent leader, barring chief minister Mamata Banerjee, is seen readily taking cash from unknown persons of a fictitious company. While former sports minister Madan Mitra (now jailed) is seen languidly lying down as cash is piled near him, urban development minister Firhad Hakim (never jailed) is seen reclining on a rocking chair.

Read more: TMC feels the sting: Leaders accused of graft, Mamata targeted

As the assembly elections are barely more than a month away, heightened political and media activity in the next few weeks is guaranteed. Further revelation – claims to have 52 hours of footage – is also likely. But the moot question is: Will it affect the prospects of the ruling party where it hurts the most? Facts seem to indicate that it won’t.

Saradha effect

In April 2013, the Saradha chitfund scam exploded, sinking thousands of crores of rupees and ruining the fate of almost 1.8 million depositors, mostly from poor rural and semi-urban Bengal.

The Saradha scam was a much more personal assault on the people of Bengal as the amount was far bigger and was squandered directly from the common man. Many who voted lost their life’s savings or watched friends and family get ‘robbed’. Dozens of depositors and agents committed suicide. The streets of Kolkata and major towns were filled with angry protests, and most of them turned against leaders of Trinamool Congress (TMC), some of whom were openly seen hobnobbing with Saradha chitfund chairman Sudipta Sen.

The panchayat polls followed in a few months, but somehow that anger did not convert to a bad election outcome. Contrary to political pundit predictions, TMC romped home, consolidating their victory in the 2011 assembly polls.

To the electorate, the taint didn’t seem to matter in the rural polls. Chief minister Banerjee’s party came to control 13 of the 16 zilla parishads and swept all the three tiers – gram panchayat, panchayat samitis and zilla parishad – in the polls.

In 2014 came the bigger match, the Lok Sabha polls. But the Modi wave that engulfed the country stopped at the borders of Bengal. The BJP, including Narendra Modi, campaigned aggressively and attacked from the Saradha angle but could only manage two Lok Sabha seats of 42 – perhaps the party’s worst show in any major state.

Read more: Thousands gather for Mamata’s march in Bengal

The last proof of political immunity for the TMC came in the second half of 2014 during the civic polls when it swept the hustings too. By this time, the CBI investigation had enough evidence to indicate that some ruling party leaders were part of the Saradha scam, but it didn’t seem to affect the Bengal electorate’s verdict.

So if Saradha is any benchmark, Narada is by far a weaker weapon to wreak electoral damage against the TMC.

The Trinamool has denied the authenticity of the Narada video, with leaders including Derek O’Brien, Mukul Roy and Partha Chatterjee, maintaining the footage was doctored all through Monday. They further claimed it was part of a political conspiracy by a united opposition that was incapable of fighting the ruling party politically.

Weak opposition, and the power graph

The quality of political activity is not only determined by the ruling party but also by the opposition. If there seems to be no lack of confidence among TMC leaders (assuming one is guilty until proven innocent in this case), it also due to a weak opposition. Had a strong opposition been there, they would have hit the streets at full charge on Monday and gone beyond television newsrooms to rake up stung sentiments.

A common sense in the city was that had Mamata Banerjee been on the side of the argument, her party would have blocked streets and unleashed less than peaceful protests.

Here’s another perspective: The ruling party’s career graph – at what stage of a high or low did the incident take place?

In the summer of 1979, police under Jyoti Basu’s administration opened fire on refugees in Marichjhapi island in the Sunderbans when they refused to vacate the island (under a reserve forest). A yet undetermined number of people were killed; corpses were allegedly flowing down the river into the Bay of Bengal. However, the government continued unscathed.

It is largely believed the death toll was higher than the 14 at Nandigram in March 2007; this episode became instrumental in sweeping the Left Front government out of power.

While Nandigram happened 30 years after the Left came to power, the Marichjhapi barbarism, a far more politically sensitive topic, took place just two years after it formed government.

Applying these dynamics to the current context, there is simply not enough anti-incumbency for the Narada sting to feed on.

Is it really a taint?

Former minister Madan Mitra, who has been in custody since December 2014 for his involvement in the Saradha scam, has been given a ticket to contest from his own constituency Kamarhati. A visit to the constituency reveals overwhelming support for him.

In equal measure of the support for him is the almost contemptuous rejection of the suggestion of his corruption.

It also appears the novelty of a leader being seen on tape accepting money seems to have worn off. The shock and dismay that followed Tehelka’s expose of former BJP president Bangaru Laxman and MPs carrying suitcases of bank notes to the Parliament is no longer possible in 2016.

On paper, the united opposition of the Left and Congress coupled with the sting video may seem a powerful combination to deflect. Whispers among the TMC camp suggest apprehensions that this combine could have an effect, but only marginal. Whatever few rattled voices exist within the party are the exceptions rather than the rule.

In numbers, the Trinamool Congress won 184 seats out of the 294 constituencies in 2011. Before Monday, the speculation was whether the Congress-Left combine can restrict Banerjee’s bastion within that mark – anything less will make her mightily upset. Post Monday, that mark hasn’t lowered.

In fact, the TMC received a huge moral boost from its Saradha scam crisis. It demonstrated to the party that though some losses must be sustained – a few people in jail and face embarrassment in drawing rooms of some urban citizens – the political cost can be mitigated.

Baptism by fire one could say, and therefore, fearless.

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