The recent images were astounding. A mountain of hard cash, gold bars, and dollars stacked in a room. And in Bengal. Unheard of. In Maharashtra, money laundering charges against a party ideologue over ‘redevelopment’ of a small chawl. Shocking again. TV images of heaps of currency notes recovered from a close associate of former TMC minister Partha Chatterjee are playing out. The voluble Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, till recently editor of Sena mouthpiece Saamana, who is known for his fluent and fiery editorials, has been charged with money laundering. It seems that the greed for cash has caught up with some members of communities traditionally associated with a disdain for money, namely the Bengali bhadralok and the Maharashtrian educated middle-class. When did hauls of cash and gold—once seen among ‘dabang’ netas elsewhere—start to appear in Bengal of all places?
Earlier this week, in another twist, Maharashtra Governor BS Koshyari was forced to apologise for his remarks about Rajasthanis and Gujaratis being primarily responsible for making Mumbai India’s financial capital. To believe that only certain communities are known for their money-making instincts and others not is an old pre-liberalisation notion. Today, in a nationwide phenomenon, the crorepati cult seems dominant across most communities and certainly among members of all political parties. In fact, in the last 30 years, India’s politics has been overturned by the power of money. For example, as TMC ‘syndicates’ and Shiv Sena ‘shakha pramukhs’ wield ever more influence, a new bourgeoisie in Bengal and tough-playing lumpenised groups in Maharashtra have risen to prominence, and politics has become a cutthroat contest for resources.
Bengal’s bhadralok class, known to prize education and gentility, have always looked at the pursuit of money with some unease. Businessmen have never been Bengal’s heroes. Instead, Bengali heroes are figures like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who evoke high ideals of learning and sacrifice.
Similarly the Maharashtrian middle-class, as exemplified in the residents of Dadar and Shivaji Park, have always taken pride in their literary and social reform ancestors (and their cricket stars), in the legacy of Phule-Shahu Maharaj-Ambedkar. When Maharashtrian middle-class icon Sachin Tendulkar acquired a Ferrari, it was a conspicuous break from the norms of austerity and resistance to flashiness. But today, a coarsened money-oriented politics has taken a terrible toll on society.
An image change
Partha Chatterjee and Sanjay Raut are both former professionals, the first an ex-HR executive and the second a former journalist. Shiv Sena was originally a movement demanding clerical jobs for Maharashtrians in a work milieu dominated by English-educated south Indians. When it began, Shiv Sena—led by Bal Thackeray, a professional cartoonist who lived in an artistes’ colony Kalanagar—did not seek wealth, rather the aim was a good job and middle-class respectability. Similar to Bengal where the wealth-possessing communities were the Marwaris, in Bombay the Maharashtrians were not noted for their big money. Rather it was the Parsis (a category governor Koshyari conveniently forgot to mention) and the Gujaratis who were regarded as affluent.
Of course, there’s a positive side to the across-the-board embrace of commerce. In an earlier Bengal, while Satyajit Ray may have stayed away from commercial cinema, today’s Bengali filmmakers like Shoojit Sircar and designers like Sabyasachi have achieved great success. Where it was once only the exceptional Bengal entrepreneur Amal Gopal Bose who founded an international corporation, today the state is shedding its regressive opposition to industry. Mumbai’s cricketing great Sunil Gavaskar, nurtured in the simpler pre-1991 times, has now seamlessly transitioned into a more glamorous T20 era.
Cash, crime, politician no bar
On the negative side, however, the pervasive and perverse influence of politics, and the capacity for inordinate money-making by those who have political power, particularly in urban areas, has degraded society. In sectors such as real estate and private education, politicians across India are accumulating overwhelming amounts of wealth. Rent-seeking politicians are now found across communities, parties and states. Only those in opposition parties seem to be singled out for raids and arrests with glaring selectivity on the part of the Enforcement Directorate. But this can’t mask the reality: Politics is now big business. Electoral bonds, intended to clean up the dark underbelly of politics, clearly have not worked, instead, opacity and secretiveness have been legitimised, revealed in heaps of cash in the possession of politicians.
Partha Chatterjee’s links to visible hoards of hard cash and the Raut imbroglio are more shocks to the system. Clearly, no community, whether Bengali bhadralok or Maharashtrian educated class, can claim the moral or cultural high ground anymore. Ironically, those who have lost out because of these scams are the very groups whose regional aspirations wealthy netas and their cronies claim to represent: Low-income students and teachers in Bengal, chawl dwellers in Mumbai. Kaun Banega Crorepati is not just a high-aspiration game show, it’s now being played out in the ‘great Indian democracy,’ class or community or party or state, no bar.
Sagarika Ghose is a journalist, columnist and author. Her recent published works are Indira, India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister (Juggernaut) and Why I Am A Liberal (Penguin Random House). Views are personal.