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Mamata and the BJP won't be friends in a hurry

January 15, 2017 12:34 IST

As Rose Valley resurfaces, Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Tapas Pal's arrests marks the end of the bonhomie between the TMC and BJP.
Namrata Acharya reports from Kolkata.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

In April 2013, when the Saradha scam unfolded, many said it was the end of the road for the feisty chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee.

However, the 2016 elections to the state assembly proved the naysayers wrong and the Trinamool Congress rode back to power with impressive numbers: The party won 211 out of the 294 seats, bettering its tally of 184 in 2011.

It seemed the ghost of Saradha had been buried for good.

The entire TMC leadership came out unscathed from the Saradha scam.

In September 2016, even Madan Mitra, former state transport minister, got bail after spending nearly 21 months in prison.

Mitra was the only TMC leader, barring Kunal Ghosh who has been long shunned by the party, to go to jail in connection with Saradha.

Mukul Roy, a close aide of Banerjee, had untangled himself from the scam, even though he was grilled for hours by the Central Bureau of Investigation. After a hiatus, Roy is now back as a party loyalist.

That it had won the elections in spite of the relentless Saradha campaign in the media made the TMC confident that the allegations did not resonate with the public.

In September 2016, when the Supreme Court ordered the return of disputed land to farmers in Singur, it boosted the party's morale further.

Things are different now.

During the short spell of winter, West Bengal turns to festivities. It is believed that Banerjee, who also holds the information and cultural affairs departments, takes keen interest in organising large-scale rural carnivals like Maati and Jatra Utsav, thus promoting folk art.

This year, just before the festivities kicked off, Narendra Modi launched his demonetisation drive on November 8, which poured cold water on the celebrations in West Bengal.

A livid Banerjee declared war against Modi.

'Today, I am taking a pledge, whether I die or live, I will remove Modi from Indian politics...Bazaar, cinema, jatra (theatre) everything got affected, but he didn't care about common people,' she said.

Of all Modi detractors, Banerjee was the most vocal.

Then, on December 30, the CBI arrested TMC MP Tapas Pal for his involvement in the Rose Valley scam.

A few days later, on January 3, it arrested another TMC MP, Sudip Bandyopadhyay, for his involvement in the scam.

"The investigation was ordered by the Supreme Court in 2013. The TMC was utilising its connections in Delhi to stop, sabotage or slow down the investigation. In 2015, when the investigations reached Trinamool Bhavan, Banerjee came to Delhi and maybe bought some time," says CPI-M leader Mohammad Salim.

According to Salim, Banerjee had managed to get some exemption from New Delhi from March 2015.

"Now, it seems, the exemption was granted with a time limit. New Delhi thought it was renewable, and she thought it was permanent," he adds.

In fact, this view held by the Opposition is echoed by many, especially those affected by the unravelling of the ponzi scheme.

"It is just that the TMC and BJP bonhomie has ended now that these arrests have taken place," according to a member of Amanatkari and Agent Suraksha Mancha, a forum of depositors affected by the scam.

TMC Leaders could not be reached for comments.

In October, Kunal Ghosh, a TMC member of the Rajya Sabha, who was has been long portrayed as a key accused in the Saradha scam, got bail. Ghosh has been vocal against the TMC right from the time of his arrest about three years back.

Recently, Ghosh was nominated as a member of the BSNL Telephone Advisory Committee in Kolkata by the Centre.

In a letter dated January 9 to the Department of Telecommunication, the BSNL Employees Union demanded withdrawal of Ghosh's nomination on account of his involvement in Saradha.

It may be mentioned that membership of the Telephone Advisory Committee is a political appointment; in other words, Ghosh has been nominated by the government and not BSNL.

"In the old days, when the Department of Telecommunication was the only telephone service provider, the Telephone Advisory Committee was created. It is a legacy which is being continued in BSNL, wherein MPs are appointed as members of the committee," says P Abhimanyu, general secretary, BSNL Employees Union.

"It is a waste of expenses," he added, "and we have long demanded the abolition of the committee, but government has not accepted our recommendations.

Nevertheless, Ghosh's nomination did send out a strong message in the political echelons.

With Ghosh being mercilessly dumped by the TMC soon after his arrest, he emerged as one of Banerjee's most vehement critics.

On several occasions, Ghosh demanded an independent inquiry against the chief minister for her involvement in the ,strong>Saradha scam.

Observers believe this has paid off well for Ghosh and earned him a favour from the Centre.

Three years ago, when Saradha broke out, the Rose Valley scam had taken a backseat.

However, Rose Valley, by all counts, is the biggest ponzi scheme ever in West Bengal.

Officially, Saradha involved embezzlement of close to Rs 3,000 crore (Rs 30 billion) while Rose Valley involved close to Rs 17,000 crore (Rs 170 billion).

However, according to estimates from Amanatkari and Agent Suraksha Mancha, the size of Rose Valley, which operated in 19 states, could be close to Rs 30,000 crore (Rs 300 billion), while Saradha could be around Rs 12,000 crore (Rs 120 billion).

Gautam Kundu, chairman of Rose Valley, once known for his flamboyance, has always been known to have strong political connections.

Rose Valley's business gained traction once the Left Front government in West Bengal started to slip into decline, and its media ventures became the mouthpiece of certain political parties.

Alongside, Kundu invested substantially in Bengali films, thus nurturing a strong connection between politics, films and business.

The crackdown on chit funds at large has crimped the film industry in Kolkata.

Today, in total, around 171 cases around ponzi companies, mostly in West Bengal, are pending with several courts.

Meanwhile, the depositors accuse the state government of taking no action against the tainted companies.

"It was the state government's responsibility to register first information reports against the tainted companies like Saradha and Rose Valley. It should have investigated the matter based on allegations of depositors," says a member of Amanatkari and Agent Suraksha Mancha.

Soon after the Saradha scam, the state government had constituted the Shayamal Sen Commission to look into the scam.

The state government had also declared setting up a fund of Rs 500 crore (Rs 5 billion) from higher revenues from cigarette sales to facilitate the return of money to depositors.

However, the commission wrapped up hastily in 2014.

The state government was under legal pressure, as the commission had no mandate to return money to the afflicted depositors, and it was set up with an intention of only probing the issue.

Moreover, the state realised that it had no mandate to return money related to private transactions between a fraudulent company and individuals from state coffers.

According to Ashim Chatterjee of the Chit Fund Sufferers Unity Forum, while Rs 167 crore (Rs 1.67 billion) was allocated to the commission, it disbursed only about Rs 130 crore (Rs 1.3 billion).

However, of the Rs 130 crore, cheques worth Rs 103 crore (Rs 1.03 billion) came back to the commission due to wrong addresses.

However, according to the commission's Web site, it has made payments worth Rs 166.26 crore so far (Rs 1.6626 billion).

The courts have provided hope to the duped depositors.

After several FIRs and PILs filed by depositors, the Calcutta high court has constituted a bench which opens Monday to Friday, from 3 pm to 4.30 pm, to hear cases related to the scam.

Out of the total 171 cases, close to 60 are being investigated by the CBI, while the rest are being heard by the Calcutta high court.

It has also formed a one-man committee of Justice (retd) S P Talukdar for returning money to depositors in the chit fund company, MPS Group.

"To come to a definite solution, judicial activism is needed, which is now happening at the Calcutta high court. Every day, eight to ten cases are being heard," according to a member of Amanatkari and Agent Suraksha Mancha.

While ponzi schemes once again dominate the political discourse in West Bengal, newer forms of money-multiplication scheme have resurfaced in the state.

Recently, the Reserve Bank of India threw light on the issue by cautioning media outlets from carrying advertisements of illegal companies providing loans, mostly to people with poor credit records.

Meanwhile, festivities go on in West Bengal.

Interestingly, this year's theme for the Jatra Utsav in the state is Banglar Jibone Jatra (life in Bengal).

Surely, the festival will have newer scenes to depict this season.

Namrata Acharya in Kolkata