Closing in

The Mamata government feels the heat as the CBI arrests Cabinet Minister Madan Mitra in the Saradha scam.

Published : Jan 07, 2015 12:30 IST

Madan Mitra with Mamata Banerjee, a 2013 picture. He is the fourth Trinamool Congress leader to be arrested in connection with the Saradha scam.

Madan Mitra with Mamata Banerjee, a 2013 picture. He is the fourth Trinamool Congress leader to be arrested in connection with the Saradha scam.

THE situation seems to be getting from bad to worse for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the ruling Trinamool Congress in the State as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) tightens its noose around the party in connection with the multi-crore Saradha scam. One by one the Chief Minister’s men are being put behind bars, leaving Mamata ineffectually raging at the Centre for what she perceives to be a “conspiracy” against her government. Though the most humiliating blow so far has been the arrest of Madan Mitra, a senior Cabinet Minister (Sports and Transport) and one of the most high-profile leaders of the party, the worst may be yet to come. With every summons from the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate, and with every new revelation and hints that more is to come, the ruling party is finding itself increasingly on the back foot.

Mitra, one of Mamata Banerjee’s closest aides, is the fourth Trinamool leader to be arrested in connection with the Saradha scam. The others are Rajya Sabha members Kunal Ghosh and Srinjoy Bose and former Director General of the West Bengal Police Rajat Majumdar. On December 12, the CBI arrested Mitra on prima facie evidence of criminal conspiracy, cheating and misappropriation of funds, and deriving undue financial benefits from the Saradha Group. This was the first time in West Bengal that a serving Cabinet Minister was arrested.

Mitra’s arrest, a big setback for the Trinamool, was not unexpected. He was one of the most prominent faces of the party that unabashedly endorsed the Saradha Group and its chairman Sudipta Sen at a time when the organisation’s fund-collection racket was at its peak. On numerous occasions, Mitra was seen at functions organised by the group, his face was on the advertisement banners of the company, and he often spoke in glowing terms about the company and its chairman, who is at present in jail. “Sudipta Sen has shown how to make an ocean from a drop of water,” Mitra famously said at one of Saradha’s functions.

It is believed that powerful leaders of the stature of Mitra openly voicing their support and closeness to the company facilitated its growth. Lakhs of investors, who mostly hailed from rural Bengal and the poorer sections of society, felt reassured that their money was safe in Saradha as the State government itself stood firmly behind it. “I felt it would be safe to put my money in Saradha as it would be to entrust it to the government itself. We got the impression that Saradha and the State government were very close,” said Biswanath Sahu, a vegetable vendor, who lost more than Rs.50,000 in the scam. The Saradha fund-collection scam turned out to be one of the biggest financial scandals to have ever hit West Bengal.

Though the Trinamool has maintained that Saradha came into being during the tenure of the earlier Left Front government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), it cannot deny the fact that the exponential growth of the group came about only after the Trinamool came to power in 2011. Around mid-2013, when the impact of the scam hit the State, the Saradha Group was practically an inseparable arm of the ruling Trinamool Congress.

“Two more to go”

The successive arrests of Srinjoy Bose and Mitra ominously brought back to public memory Mamata’s rhetorical question when the Saradha scam first surfaced and names of important members of her party cropped up in connection with the tainted Group. “ Kunal chor? Madan chor? Tumpai chor ? Mukul chor? Aami chor? Sabai chor?,” (Is Kunal a thief? Is Madan a thief? Is Tumpai (Srinjoy Bose) a thief? Is Mukul a thief? Am I a thief? Are we all thieves?) she had said in May 2013. Of the five names she mentioned, three—Kunal, Srinjoy and Madan —have been arrested, giving the scope for Mamata’s detractors to gleefully quip: “Two more to go.”

It is not just the opposition that has been demanding that the CBI interrogate the Chief Minister. The arrested Trinamool leader and former head of Saradha’s media wing, Kunal Ghosh, himself has time and again clamoured for Mamata’s interrogation, claiming that she has been the one to gain the most politically from the Saradha Group’s media support.

It may also be recalled that in September 2013, Arvind Singh Chauhan, Sudipta Sen’s driver, dropped a bombshell when, following his release after having spent nearly a year in prison, he told the media that days before Sen took flight (he was apprehended from Sonamarg near Srinagar on April 23, 2013), the Saradha chairman had held meetings with Mukul Roy, party general secretary, and Suvendu Adhikari, Trinamool heavyweight and Lok Sabha member from Tamluk in Purbo Medinipur. The CBI has already questioned Adhikari.

On December 23, just 11 days after Mitra’s arrest, the Enforcement Directorate created a flutter when it visited the ruling party’s headquarters, the Trinamool Bhavan at Topsia in Kolkata, with a summons for yet another close aide of Mamata, Shankudeb Panda. Panda, one of the general secretaries of the State Committee of the Trinamool Congress, apparently received regular payments from several accounts of the Saradha Group. Also under the CBI scanner are the well-known painter Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya and the businessman Aminuddin Siddiqui. Both are known to be close to the ruling party and certain influential leaders.

There have also been reports that the CBI and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) may jointly look into the allegations of connections between the Saradha scam and the banned Islamist terror outfit, the Jamait-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Earlier, the State government had come under severe criticism for its attitude in dealing with terror activities following an accidental blast on October 2 in a house in Khagragarh in Bardhaman district that was being used as a bomb factory by the JMB.

The blast exposed an Islamist terror network spread over different parts of West Bengal and other regions of India. The house in which the blast took place was also a local Trinamool party office and was owned by a well-known Trinamool supporter.

Mamata's reaction

The Chief Minister has been reacting with her characteristic belligerence. She accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance at the Centre of indulging in “political vendetta” and using the CBI as a “political tool”. She condemned Mitra’s arrest and called it a “conspiracy to insult Bengal”. Reminiscent of the days when she was an opposition leader, her party took to the streets and orchestrated protests in different parts of the city.

Although life was severely disrupted for a few days by the Trinamool’s agitation programmes, the protests soon fizzled out as fewer and fewer people began to turn up at the call of the party. Finally, the Trinamool was left filling podiums at protest sites with schoolchildren before it decided to call off the movement. If the Saradha scam has battered the image of the Trinamool Congress, whose supremo never tires of trumpeting her and her party’s “honest image”, Mamata’s intransigent stand in support of the indefensible has served to further bring down the credibility of her government.

With the ruling party getting increasingly cornered, a buzz of the possibility of early elections has surfaced in political circles. Though there has been no statement—official or unofficial—from the State government on this issue, the opposition has not ruled out the chances of Mamata wanting elections before her government finishes its term in May 2016.

“Given the way the Saradha investigation is poised, and the distinct possibility of the Trinamool getting further enmeshed in the scam, it may make better political sense to go in for early elections. The opposition will not be well-prepared and possible defectors will not get enough time to make their exit,” senior Pradesh Congress leader Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline . The CPI(M) too voiced its concern and stated that it would prefer that the State government complete its full term.

Political observers feel that Mamata’s tirade against the Centre and the CBI is nothing more than obfuscation in order to shift the attention from the real issue at hand—the ruling party has little to counter the developments taking place. For all their allegations against the misuse of the CBI by the Centre, Trinamool leaders have been careful to avoid any threat to move the Supreme Court, at whose order the CBI has been conducting its investigation on the Saradha scam. “How can she say Madan Mitra’s arrest was illegal? If she has the courage she should take the matter to the Supreme Court,” said Surjya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly and Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M).

Many feel that the Chief Minister’s show of defiance is also a means to counter the nervousness in the rank and file of the party. “There is bound to be a feeling of uncertainty among party people at a time like this. Expressing outrage and protesting is a way to assert ourselves,” said a Trinamool source. However, it resembles more what Mamata herself said at her press conference after the arrest of Madan Mitra: “This is a fight for survival.”

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