The politicians are only the stars of the election movies in which voters are the audience and party workers, the extras. The real power, ultimately, resides with those who decide which star and which script to back: the financiers.
Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.
Shortly after his recent re-entry into active politics, 1980s superstar Mithun Chakraborty, who had campaigned for the CPI(M) in West Bengal when Chief Minister Jyoti Basu was in power, before becoming a Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament and finally joining the BJP earlier this month, appeared in a television show with presenter Sudhir Chaudhary. The anchor asked Mithun da (as he’s popularly known in Bengal) how his ideology had changed so much over the years. Mithun da in response delivered what must be one of his greatest lines till date. “None of these have a different ideology,” he said. “All of them want to help the poor…Everyone wants to do the same thing, only the flag changes.” I suspect Mithun da by mistake said “help the poor” instead of “help the rich”, but otherwise I am in complete agreement with him. Mithun da has offered a brilliant political insight.
With West Bengal polls in the news, Mithun da’s party-hopping from Left to Centre to Right has drawn attention. However he is hardly the only person to have switched parties in recent times. It has become a fairly regular occurrence to find the same politician who was loudly berating the BJP as communal till two days ago suddenly reappear as spokesperson of the BJP and make statements against Muslims two days later. The list of turncoats not only in Bengal but all over India in the past few years is long, and the passage to loud public declarations of bhakti (piety) and deshbhakti (patriotism) for several of the more illustrious among them has been helped along with nudges and prods from agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation. Bhakti and deshbhakti are now the last refuges of many a scoundrel.
Anyway, the question that arises is, were these people lying when they earlier professed a certain ideology, or are they lying now? Or is the correct answer, as the writer Tabish Khair commented, that they were lying then and are also lying now?
After all, it is likely that as Mithun da said, only the flag changes — in which case they never really believed in any ideology to begin with. This is entirely plausible if we consider that the real business of politics is not politics, it is business. To get a sense of how, take a look at the infamous letter written by former Mumbai Police commissioner Param Bir Singh to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray following his recent transfer. In the letter, Singh alleged that Home Minister Anil Deshmukh had told police officer Sachin Waze that he “had a target to accumulate Rs 100 crores a month. For achieving the aforesaid target, the Hon’ble Home Minister told Shri Waze that there are about 1,750 bars, restaurants and other establishments in Mumbai and if a sum of Rs 2-3 lakhs was collected from each of them, a monthly collection of Rs 40-50 crores was achievable.” The rest of the amount would have to be raised from “other sources”, Singh wrote.
Deshmukh has naturally denied the allegations and issued a statement saying he was extremely disturbed by the slander aimed at maligning his image. His party chief Sharad Pawar clarified that on the date on which Deshmukh’s alleged meeting with Waze took place, Deshmukh was in quarantine due to COVID-19 . An inquiry by a retired judge is expected into the matter.
Whatever the judge finds about this particular case, the fact that there is “hafta wasooli” by the police is an old story, one that has been depicted in Bollywood films over the decades. The experience of facing police extortion in one way or another is a lived reality for practically the entire Indian population. Its mechanism was publicly explained in Aamir Khan’s show Satyamev Jayate by former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Sanjay Pandey. Khan asked Pandey, where does the money extorted from commoners by police constables go? Pandey replied, “We are in a democracy. Everyone is aware that there is a hierarchy of seniors. Then there are the politicians. It is a chain.”
He specifically mentioned “institutional collection” from restaurants and bars. He also told Khan, “you have a studio, if you want to run it at night, you have to pay so much.” The episode was aired in 2014, so clearly the institutional collection from restaurants and bars was already well established then.
The hafta system obviously didn’t come into existence in 2014 or 2021. It has been around for at least 50 years if not more. It is also not unique to Mumbai. It is there in some form in every city in India. Nor is collection from restaurants and bars necessarily the mainstay of the extortion business. There are also other sources, such as real estate mafias that work in collaboration with the police, bureaucracy and politicians. Outside the cities, the forms of collections change. In one place, you might find a coal or iron mining mafia running in connivance with corrupt police and politicians, who get their cuts. In another place, it could be a river sand or timber mafia. In a dry state it may be alcohol. In a border state, it could be drugs. The common feature everywhere in every state is that there are always some illegalities in businesses, some payoffs that allow the illegalities to carry on, and some of the black money from this finds its way into political funding.
As bigger players get involved, the sophistication of the system of corruption increases.
From being a few notes stuffed into a constable’s hand to look the other way, it becomes an organised and deceptively respectable system of scams dressed in suits and ties.
That system remains regardless of which individual or party is in power. Parties come and go, the system goes on forever.
The IPS officer Pandey on Aamir Khan’s show began his explanation of the chain of extortion by saying, curiously, that “we are in a democracy”. What it implies is that a systematic sharing of the spoils is what democracy is about. Everyone from bottom to top is entitled to a share according to his position in the hierarchy. The share is for the position, like a salary, meaning that if a person is transferred from a lucrative posting, or a politician loses a ministry, he would suffer a huge financial loss.
Without money, contesting elections is practically impossible. In many parties, candidates who cannot finance themselves and additionally contribute to the coffers of their bosses, cannot get tickets. Then there’s the big gamble of spending crores on an electoral race that the candidate might lose to a rival, who in order to contest would have to be much like him. Whoever wins will be rich from the collections from the form of corruption that is prevalent in the area, as will those who bet on him. If the winning candidate becomes a minister, there will be the bonanza of milking an entire department. Public works is especially popular; it is the jackpot.
The bettors who finance politicians and their parties are the real powers behind every throne. The politicians are only the stars of the election movies in which voters are the audience and party workers, the extras. The real power, ultimately, resides with those who decide which star and which script to back: the financiers. As the unrecognised political scientist Mithun Chakraborty said, none of them has a different ideology. The one ideology shared by all of them is the ideology of maximising their own profits.
The only thing the audience can do is choose which film they want to see.