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From Saradha to Narada: The Ugly Underbelly of Bengal Politics

A sting on TMC leaders taking cash will certainly impact on the party’s electoral fortunes, writes Abheek Barman.

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(Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi has said that the Commission will examine the representation from political parties involving the Trinamool Congress leaders’ bribe sting.)

Dwijottam Bhattacharjee, a Kolkata-based political analyst and former colleague, calls it a “moment of reckoning for all that the Bengali has traditionally claimed to stand for in public life: simplicity, probity and honesty of purpose.”

That was on the evening of Monday, 14 March, when a little-known website called naradanews.com exploded the equivalent of a thermonuclear device in West Bengal, where assembly elections begin from 4 April.

In a 23-minute clip broadcast widely on Bangla as well as national news channels, Narada purports to show at least a dozen top leaders of Mamata Banerjee’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), openly accepting cash from reporters who conducted the sting.

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The Sting

A sting on  TMC leaders taking  cash  will certainly impact on the party’s electoral fortunes, writes Abheek Barman.
All India Trinamool Congress general secretary Mukul Roy addresses an election rally in Malda district when he was on good terms with his party supremo Mata Banerjee. (Photo: PTI)

Narada says these include Mukul Roy, a former Railways Minister and Banerjee’s main political strategist (who accepted Rs 20 lakh) and political chameleon Subrata Mukherjee, minister for Panchayat and Rural Development (Rs 5 lakh).

It also features Saugata Roy, a former physics professor-turned-politician (Rs 5 lakh), Firhad ‘Bobby’ Hakim, Urban Development Minister (Rs 5 lakh) and Madan Mitra, jailed for his alleged role in the chit fund scam. Mitra has already got a TMC ticket to contest the polls.

Narada claims it started recording in January 2014, to probe business-politics links in the chit fund scam. But the scope of its investigation expanded as it unpeeled layers of graft in the TMC establishment.

The Opposition Alliance

The Opposition Left and Congress, which have sewn up a tactical alliance to contest the TMC, are out in protest: CPI(M) leader Suryakanta Mishra is hyperactive on TV, holding up a smartphone looping the video. Adhir Chaudhuri, who heads the state Congress, is also leading anti-graft protests against TMC. The BJP, widely perceived to have sewn up a ‘pre-poll understanding’ with the TMC has no option but attack Banerjee’s party on graft.

The TMC is in denial. Party spokesman Derek O’Brien shouts, “kutsha, kutsha, kutsha” (“lies, lies, lies”) on Bangla TV; Banerjee claims an opposition bereft of issues is using “dirty tricks” to malign her government before elections.

The most intriguing argument comes from TMC minister and spokesman Partha Chatterjee. He said the video established “nothing,” and the charges would ring hollow, exactly as they did, “in the case of Bangaru Lakshman.” The corpulent Chatterjee is skating on thin ice.

Guilty of Graft?

A sting on  TMC leaders taking  cash  will certainly impact on the party’s electoral fortunes, writes Abheek Barman.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in a roadshow as a part of her election campaign in Kolkata on Saturday ahead of the state assembly elections. (Photo: PTI)

In 2001, as BJP president, Lakshman was caught on camera accepting Rs 1 lakh in cash from reporters of Tehelka magazine, to fix tenders to buy night-vision goggles for the military. Contrary to Chatterjee’s beliefs, Lakshman’s case did not die out.

In 2012, Lakshman, earlier sacked from his party presidentship, was found guilty of graft by a court and sentenced to a maximum of seven years in jail. He died two years later, out on bail pleading illness.

In a strange coincidence, Matthew Samuel, who stung Lakshman and ultimately sent him to jail, is also the brain behind the Narada operation. Tehelka, his former employer, is near-defunct; the brand is, ironically, owned by businessman K D Singh, a TMC Rajya Sabha MP.

Analyst Bhattacharjee believes that this scandal, involving almost every leader ‘close’ to Banerjee’ mars the TMC’s claims of honesty. Indeed, organised criminal ‘syndicates’ in sectors like building material, real estate, liquor, illegal bars, extortion and political violence have mushroomed since 2011.

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Impact on Polls

A sting on  TMC leaders taking  cash  will certainly impact on the party’s electoral fortunes, writes Abheek Barman.
CPI(M) West Bengal secretary Suryakant Mishra. Much will depend on how the Left-CPI(M) alliance will work on the ground. (Photo: facebook.com/cpimcc)

The Left Front, which ruled Bengal for 34 years before that, was also corrupt, but drew the line when senior leaders were dragged into controversy.

One of the best examples is of veteran communist Prasanta Sur, urban development minister from 1977-82. In 1978-79, Sur was accused of accepting bribes in a giant project to fill Kolkata’s marshy eastern suburbs with earth. This area now comprises the wealthy suburbs of Salt Lake and New Town.

Two contractors engaged in the operation were alleged to have hiked the project cost from Rs 1 crore to Rs 4.5 crore, with Sur’s approval. Under great public pressure, Sur was forced to step down in 1982.

In November 1988, Jatin Chakraborty, leader of CPI-M ally RSP, had to leave under even more controversial circumstances. As PWD minister, he alleged that contracts for street lighting had been given out to Bengal Lamps, where Chandan, son of chief minister Jyoti Basu, had worked for a while.

As the controversy blew up, Chakraborty’s own role in signing off on those files as minister was exposed. The Left had no option to dump him. In later years, Chakraborty now contesting polls as an independent, was so starved of resources that he had to campaign in a cycle rickshaw.

Till the TMC came to power five years ago, Bengal politics did maintain a veneer of morality and accountability. Former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee still lives in a tiny, two-room apartment in Kolkata; Jyoti Basu, at the height of his power, was the conscience-keeper of Indian politics. Bengal’s first chief minister, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, over six feet tall, was supposed to have a moral core as big as his frame.

But what impact will Narada have on poll results? Bhattacharjee and many in Bengal media believe it could shave five to seven percentage points off TMC’s vote share of 39 percent.

Arun Ghosh, an executive in a large Kolkata company, has a darker view.

The impact will be zero. In the last five years, people have lived through utter lawlessness. We’ve been bombarded with news about graft and syndicates. Yet, there’s no choice but to live with this, because the opposition is weak.
Arun Ghosh, Company Executive

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist.)

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