The stench of corruption is not nasty, offensive or politically crippling as it may have been in the remote, idyllic past. It is taken for granted that money and power are inextricably linked. The arrest of West Bengal Commerce and Industry minister Partha Chatterjee for his involvement in the School Service Commission recruitment scandal, by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) underscores the nexus. But there is no real sense of shock or dismay.
The ruling party in the state, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has distanced itself from the revelation of a stash of ₹21.90 crore secreted in an apartment where Arpita Mukherjee, a close associate of Chatterjee lived.
The party is doing its best to brush off the dirt attached to the discovery of several property title deeds in Mukherjee’s name recovered from the minister’s home. And, Chatterjee remains a minister in the Mamata Banerjee government, just as he remains the senior most leader of the All India party as General Secretary.
TMC immune to scandals
In many ways, the TMC has become inured to scandals involving money, because it has survived and flourished despite staggering revelations of close connections between several party leaders and Ponzi schemes and even straightforward barter deals of cash for influence. In 2013, the Saradha chit fund scam shone a very powerful light on shady connections between TMC leaders and Sudipta Sen. In 2016, the Rose Valley chit fund scam revealed more connections between money and TMC politicians. The popularity of Mamata Banerjee and her capacity to lead the party to victory in state elections remains intact. In the May 2021 state assembly elections, the BJP’s negative campaign on pervasive corruption and dynasty politics failed to deter voters from delivering a mandate to her party.
This is emphatically not an invitation to turn a blind eye to the chronic corruption in the political establishment. It is a reality check on the ability of political parties to survive exposures on the nexus between money and politics. The fact is Mamata Banerjee has won three state assembly elections in a row. Her party men who were picked up by ED or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on charges of money laundering or cheating have also won in subsequent elections. Member of Parliament, Sudip Bandopadhyay was re-elected in 2019, after he was arrested by CBI in the Rose Valley scam and kept in jail in Odisha. Madan Mitra, arrested by CBI in the Saradha scam in 2014 was re-elected to the state assembly in 2021. Mukul Roy, earlier in the BJP and now in the TMC was questioned by CBI in the Saradha scam and was elected to the state assembly in 2021.
‘Tradition’ of corruption
Rent-seeking by those in power is endemic in West Bengal, as it is across India. In the final years of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, the “party” had taken control of the state administration, including education institutions. News reports, anecdotal evidence and the trashing of merit lists for appointments and admissions underscored that college admissions were controlled by the Students Federation of India (SFI). Appointments of teachers in colleges, transfers and postings were also controlled from the CPI(M) headquarters in Alimuddin Street. The party had manoeuvred itself into the position of patron and everyone else was a client. The Mamata Banerjee regime continued with the patron-client relationship, but was found out and the resistance and fight back was more organised. CPI(M)’s senior leader Bikash Bhattacharya, a practising lawyer in the Supreme Court and Calcutta High Court has been working on the SSC scam case, pro bono, for years.
Also read: Partha Chatterjee arrest: The guilty must be punished, says Mamata
Soon after as the TMC ousted the Left Front, underqualified drop outs were appointed to school and college governing bodies. The man who became notorious because of his loutish behaviour was a strong man, turned leader, Arabul Islam.
Instead of the “party” it seems that leaders, some of them ministers in the Mamata Banerjee cabinet, became the channels for the disbursal of favours. The first minister who was named and shamed by the Calcutta High Court was Paresh Adhikari. His daughter who was a school teacher candidate overtook several others who had done better in the eligibility tests. The Calcutta High Court issued orders sacking the daughter and telling her to pay back her salary. It was, therefore, a matter of time before the needle of suspicion turned to Partha Chatterjee, who was education minister in the first two terms of the Mamata Banerjee government.
Making money from the desperate
The Partha Chatterjee arrest raises two issues. First, is the survival of politicians despite being investigated following arrest because voters do not see them as totally evil. Second, cash for recruitment to jobs, in the state sector as well as in the private sector is a “booming industry,” as one report stated. The two issues are not separate. There is a common basis. There are few jobs and lakhs, actually crores of young aspirants. The only way in which aspirants can game the system and jump ahead in the queue is by finding someone who has the power to hoist stragglers to the front of the line.
A new class of people have emerged, including politicians, some at the top end of the ladder, if the charges against Partha Chatterjee are proved correct, who have absolutely no hesitation in making money from the desperate. There is greed and there is no moral prohibition to stop people from exploiting the vulnerabilities of India’s young job seekers. There are unscrupulous agents who are open to peddling power to make money from desperate job seekers, regardless of whether these job seekers are qualified or have failed to qualify.
The Government of India’s Ministry of Education has put out an alert in March 2022 against sarvashiksha.online, samagra.shikshaabhiyan.co.in, and shikshaabhiyan.org.in, fake internet addresses whose only objective is to misguide job aspirants by using a similar layout to that of the original websites and demand money from the respondents for the recruitment process. In Uttar Pradesh a scam has been unearthed by the Yogi Adityanath government where fake documents were created for recruitment of teachers and assistant teachers against cash payments by job seekers. In Karnataka, the ₹100 crore police sub-inspector recruitment scam is another case in point, where mark sheets were faked by agents against cash extracted from job seekers. In March this year, over two crore young and educated aspirants for railway jobs ransacked railway stations and went amok because they had invested heavily in the recruitment process.
The cash for jobs scandals across India is a measure of the unemployment problem. The latest Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy survey shows a jump in unemployment on the one hand and job losses on the other. Unemployment has shot up to 7.8 per cent and job losses have increased by 13 million, mostly in the agricultural sector. And, more and more young people, part of the “demographic dividend” generation are reporting that they are not looking for jobs. CMIE surveys, based on self-reporting, suggest that a mind boggling 60 per cent have dropped out of the labour market.
Arrests, exposing scams futile attempts
Exposing job scams seems to have no effect on scamsters, be they politicians or professional cheats. The agencies – ED, CBI and Income Tax – are ineffective. Regardless of how many raids, investigations, interrogations and arrests they conduct, the convictions do not come fast enough to warn off potential scamsters or deter the unscrupulous from exploiting the despairing young job seeker
Also read: Chatterjee’s close aide ran 12 shell companies; documents found: ED
The efficiency of the ED and CBI is open to question. The conviction rate of ED is under one per cent. The “agencies” however do have a nuisance value, which up until now has worked to intimidate and embarrass the political opposition and influential critics. Reports analysing the targets of raids indicate that since 2014, Central agencies have investigated 570 of the Modi regime’s political rivals and critics and in some cases, their family members as well. The 570 figure is a staggering 340 per cent jump in raids compared to the 10 years of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance government. From about 17 cases a year, the number has zoomed to about 75 cases a year during the Modi years.
Mamata Banerjee’s call for a fast conclusion to the investigation and initiation of a case against Partha Chatterjee, after he was arrested by ED for money laundering is a challenge to the Modi government’s strategy of dragging its feet on getting to the point. As she and the rest of the opposition knows, an investigation that lingers on and on is a weapon that can be deployed again and again to embarrass the political opposition.
The lack of transparency and the opportunities for illicit fund raising in India’s election system have been debated by just about every political party and civil society organisations. None of these debates have succeeded in inhibiting the visibly more expensive campaign style and machinery of political parties. Raids by agencies, unearthing stacks of cash, jewellery, benami property allows political parties to engage in shrill rhetoric about “vendetta” politics.
Central agencies weapons against Opposition?
In public perception, there is a nexus; Mamata Banerjee described the BJP’s modus operandi as a washing machine. Tainted politicians who defect to the BJP miraculously drop off the ED-CBI-IT radar. Investigations dried up after Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari, Sovan Chatterjee defected to the BJP. On the other hand, Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena, Nawab Malik of the Nationalist Congress Party and the reopening of money laundering investigations case against former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, 84-year-old Farooq Abdullah, all point to the tactical deployment of the agencies for intimidation and harassment. The same is true for the ED investigations that have been reopened in the National Herald case requiring interminable interrogation of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
The approaching Amrit Mahotsav deadline and the flagrantly unlawful cash realisations for its celebration in Kashmir could be a reason for hauling Farooq Abdullah in for questioning. Approaching elections in key states, including Gujarat and the intensifying anti BJP politics inside Parliament and in the streets are perceived as triggers for the reopening of investigations against the Gandhis.
The efficiency of vendetta politics involving agencies is questionable. Mamata Banerjee won a two thirds majority in 2021 despite a high decibel campaign about her tolerance of corruption in the Trinamool Congress.
Raids against anti-BJP opposition party leaders does serve a purpose. It bolsters the BJP and Modi’s claim to be the only alternative; the best of a not so good lot. The difference is that the opposition’s misdemeanours can be investigated; the ruling BJP’s cannot. Only 39 individuals linked to the BJP or its allies have been investigated for corruption since 2014. This is a classic move in politics, where the ruling regime projects itself as just a bit better than the rest.
Also read: Bengal teacher recruitment scam: Minister Partha Chatterjee arrested by ED
The connection between fund collection and elections is real. The intense pressure on politicians and political parties to amass ever larger war chests, without falling foul of the Election Commission’s rules and watchful agencies has grown exponentially in the past decade. The inflows that keep the BJP buoyant like the 75 per cent of the ₹6,535 crore over 15 phases from anonymous and protected donors collected through electoral bonds are not available to smaller and regional parties. Spiralling rivalry and zooming costs of doing politics have pushed political parties to creatively raise money, in India and in other law abiding democracies as well. The price of politics is expanding corruption.
(Shikha Mukerjee is a political commentator for print, digital and television. She was political editor of The Times of India in Kolkata.)
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