Kolkata: This is the Swacch West Bengal election. The “From Narada to Saradha” slogan with variations has popped up on boards hanging from the backs of Kolkata’s ubiquitous minibuses, on social media and in graffiti across the city.
The election has been reduced to one simple question – how clean is the Trinamool Congress? The opposition and its voters are asking this in different ways. The choice of candidates in two constituencies, Behala East deep in south Kolkata and Kamrhatty in North 24 Parganas, says it all. These re-nominations add up to a challenge from Mamata Banerjee to voters — believe that the Trinamool Congress is clean.
The infamous 11 of the Rs 65 lakhs Narada sting operation are almost the same as those named as recipients in the Rs 15000 crore Saradha Chit Fund scam. The newest revelations of dirty money secrets in the Trinamool Congress involving an ex-student leader Shankudev Panda, who is very close to Mamata Banerjee’s family, have confirmed perceptions of the connection between the party and dubious cash transactions. Sections of the public posted and shared a cartoon that specifically links Mamata Banerjee to corruption. In one of them she is visualised exclaiming: “That’s a relief. I was not shown!” apropos the Narada viedos.
The buying and selling of influence is the connection between Narada and Saradha. The Narada video footage makes visually explicit what was a written testimony and reported details of Central Bureau of Investigation interrogation in the Saradha Chit Fund scam. It is the difference between seeing and believing and hearing/reading and having doubts.
Till the Narada sting videos surfaced, the nomination of Madan Mitra, in prison because the Central Bureau of Investigation will not let him out on bail in the Saradha Chit Fund case, was her gamble to clear the name of her party from the taint of corruption and abuse of power. It was a daring gambit and it certainly challenged the opposition and the voter when she announced it. After the Narada sting videos surfaced Madan Mitra more than the others of the infamous 11 has become the embodiment of the From Narada to Saradha slogan. The re-nomination of Behala East candidate Sovan Chatterjee repeats the challenge to the voter; he is the man seen in the Narada sting operation wrapping the bundles of bank notes in a towel and heard complaining that he prefers dollars. His name was on the long list of recipients of bounty from the Saradha Group released by its boss Sudipto Sen. As mayor of Kolkata he has been embroiled in controversy over shady deals for purchases, property and procurements.
The Narada videos have converted this election into a test, both of Mamata Banerjee and the gullibility of voters. The TMC leader finds herself daring the electorate to defy her. In doing so, she has made herself both a guarantee of her henchmen’s probity and has put her personal integrity at stake. The petty cash money for favours videos would not have mattered at the beginning of Mamata Banerjee’s term; now, it raises questions about what the Trinamool Congress is all about.
Campaigning in North Bengal ealier this month, in a damage control move, she said, “ Mamata Banerjee is the candidate in all 294 seats” dismissing everyone else as proxies. This is her signal to the voter: Trust in Me. Rattled by the build-up of opposition pressure and the social media-posters-graffiti comments on the connection between the Trinamool Congress and dirty money, Mamata Banerjee has inserted herself into the uproar, as the personification of swacchta and satata, that is, cleanliness and purity. Her jitters are understandable. The Narada-Saradha connect reopens the controversy about the sale of her paintings; the prices at which they were sold, to whom were they sold and what happened to the sale money.
The Trinamool Congress is pulling out the stops to revive the romance between the voter and Mamata Banerjee. In West Midnapore, her nephew and many believe heir, Abhishek retold the old story: she continues to live in a tiled, makeshift room, wears white cotton saris and chappals, is the epitome of sacrifice and selflessness and her “image,” is simplicity itself. By deploying her simple lifestyle as proof of integrity and probity in public life, she and the party are anxious to redirect public attention away from scandals.
The persona of Mamata Banerjee has become the one weapon or protection to halt the spiralling suspicions about the Trinamool Congress and its leadership from gaining strength in the popular imagination and galvanising voters in West Bengal to reject the appeals of the Congress – Communist Party of India Marxist led Left Front combine. She may have got away with even defending the indefensible — distributing testimonials to racketeers and their bully boys, testifying that “not all syndicates are bad,” in an attempt to whitewash the construction supplies mafia, protection and dirty money rackets in real estate, kickbacks and skimming — committed in the past almost five years, except that then Narada happened.