‘Give And Take’ Opera

The Politics of Quid Pro Quo

Bibekananda Ray

Quid pro Quo is a Latin phrase, meaning "something given in return for something". In the context of India's electoral politics, it means, "We give you goodies, you elect us to power!'' In electoral democracy, this is not unethical as long as 'goodies' mean 'collective good' but when a government showers State largesse on some sections of people, not all, it is. There was a time when opposition parties of West Bengal in the Left Front regime, mainly the Congress, used to cry foul if the Front government gave away State largesse with an eye to getting votes for the ruling party. Jyoti Basu, the Chief Minister from 1977 to 2000 was charged with pursuing politics of quid pro quo (in Bengali, Payiey Deoar Rajniti). The CPI(M) and its ally, the Congress, who were smashed into smithereens in this year’s poll, did not make it an issue.

In 2011 poll, the Chief Minister could not pursue this policy, because she was then not in power. The seventh Front government did little, worthy of recall, for individual or collective good of citizens. The CPI(M) used to secretly distribute favours to the electorate before the poll day on the sly- currency notes (hidden in packets of puffed rice, (saying ''there's green chilli, eat with care"), spades, sarees, blankets etc. Mr Basu or any other minister in his cabinet never announced or admitted this, because it amounted to bribing the electorate, which the Election Commission would not have permitted. These were stray and secret cases in stray constituencies, not in a large scale, or ubiquitous but what the chief minister did before the 2016 poll beats all precedents.

A democratically elected government survives, and returns to power, by doing development, the new mantra of governments, all over the world- development of all kinds, from infrastructures of roads, bridges, flyovers, transport, electricity, educational institutes, irrigation, agriculture, Fisheries etc. so that the people elect or return a party through the next poll. There is nothing unethical about it; government does its duty by doing all these. When a government delivers cheap rice, bicycles, shoes, socks, books, stationery, shirts, pants, frocks, sarees, etc. to poorer sections of people, particularly before a poll, does it not eschew its ideals? Should a political party tell people before a poll that if elected, or re-elected, it will provide all these as well as cash for wards' education, dowry, marriage, maternity, brick, sand, cement, thatch or tile for new and old houses etc.? Should it do so, even if it has the wherewithal?

As political parties proliferate in India with the connivance of the Election Commission, the race for wresting or returning to power gets fiercer, potential votes for each contesting party are divided. As there is on other means but political to loot the exchequer and State assets, political parties sprout to fight, win and capture power by fair means or foul. The 1950 Constitution has helped the proliferation of parties. The naivete of the Constituent Assembly, with honest aim to provide to the people a meaningful democracy, made launching of parties easy, unlike in the USA and other Western democracies. The inevitable result has been their luxuriant growth. On 16th September 2014, the total number of parties registered with the Election Commission was 1761; of them six were 'national', 49 were 'state parties' and a whopping 1706 were unrecognised parties but only 464 of them put up candidates in the Lok Sahha poll in 2014. A party has to win in at least 3% of the total number of seats, or at least three in the Assembly, or one in the Lok Sabha for every 25, or part thereof, of seats allotted to that State; alternatively, the party should poll at least 6% of the total valid votes in a general election and win at least one Lok Sabha, and two Assembly seats in it. Even if a party does not win any in a State, Lok Sabha or Assembly poll but gets at least 8% of the total valid votes, it will still be recognised as a state party. Not all parties contest in every poll or constituency, but 10-15 candidates including the Independents contesting in an Assembly or Lok Sabha constituency is very common. According to the UNESCO, among India's 81.5 crore eligible voters (in 2014), some 37%, i.e., 28.7 crore are illiterate. Not being able, or liking to, weigh the pros and cons of a contesting party, or a candidate, they vote mostly on selfish considerations, like their offspring, or they themselves, getting work, jobs, education, State grants, wages for work and local infrastructures. They do not bother about alleged, or real, corruption in parties; they take it as ploy of the opposition to disenchant them, as the ruling party leaders would have them believe. Politicians know this too well and do not elaborate on the macro goals of a State or of government. They are happy with the penny they get free from the government and do not like to be swayed by opposition charges of ruling party leaders swindling pounds. Corruption in bureaucracy and politicians is a fait accompli in India; denial or refutation by the accused does not cut ice. Among the States, this is most glaring in West Bengal now, as illustrated by the 2016 poll, returning Trinamool Congress to power with a two-thirds majority. So many scams surfaced during the first regime (2011-2016)—the Sharda Chit Fund loot of poor people's deposits, in which a CB1 probe, begun in 2013, goes on interminably. The micro-finance company collected around 200 to 300 billion rupees (four to six billion US dollars) from over 17 lakh depositors, before it collapsed in April 2013. Much of the deposits were allegedly given away to, or swindled by, TMC leaders and supporters, big and small. The Supreme Court has asked all States to assist in the probe to discover the scam's inter-State ramifications. Involvement of several TMC leaders and legislators in the scam is proved prima facie, but the electorate did not see anything wrong in it.

Rajiv Gandhi's Congress was voted out of power in 1989, mainly on a charge of receiving a bribe of Rs 64 crore from the Swedish Bofors Gun Company, a molehill compared to the mountain of the Sharada scam. During the early phase of the month-long 2016 poll in West Bengal, suddenly a video clip of a sting operation, by an investigative journalist, showing TMC leaders accepting wads of currency notes from an unknown giver. The involved leaders did neither deny, nor admit; the senior most TMC leader merely said, the wads of notes shown in the video have not gone into the receivers' pockets, apparently admitting that they have gone into the party fund. The electorate did not take it as a ground for refusing their votes to the party's candidates. Returning to power, despite such allegations, the Chief Minister ordered another probe by Calcutta Police Commissioner whom she praises openly. What else can such a city police head do but clear the accused TMC leaders of charges of ill-gotten money? Sensibly, the Calcutta High Court has declared this police probe as unnecessary and void.

No human being can be above board in all respects; even Hindu mythologies mention human foibles of some Hindu gods and goddesses. Politicians do not admit of any blemishes and not take opposition and media charges as true, until proved in courts or probes. The Chief Minister cries foul when a party colleague is maligned, and refutes it, convincingly, or otherwise; as a Bengali saying goes, claims that her party is like a clean-washed basil leaf (dhoaa tulsipata). She bulldozes and steam-rolls all allegations as mere conspiracies by the opposition to oust her. In her first regime, lot of development did take place; law and order improved and trouble spots of Darjeeling, Jungle Mahal, Singur and Nandigram returned to normal. In years and months until the next poll, due in 2021, more development will take place but will the political culture that she inherited and nursed change, or improve? Will the politics of Quid Pro Quo be replaced by one for doing collective good and not winning hearts by showering State largesse on an unthinking bought-out electorate?

Vol. 49, No.12, Sep 25 - Oct 1, 2016