Pushed on the backfoot with the Supreme Court ordering a CBI inquiry into the Saradha chit fund scam —- something that she had been vehemently refusing —- West Bengal Chief Minister Friday tried to present a brave face against the opposition onslaught even as she sought to turn the tide in her favour by saying that she wanted to return the money to the investors but cannot now.
“I was returning the money to the poor from the government fund…The onus of returning the investors’ money now should rest on the CBI. Let the CBI return it,” Mamata said while campaigning for her party in Berhampore.
The Mamata Banerjee government had formed a one-man commission of enquiry of Justice (retd) Shyamal Sen and set up a corpus of Rs 500 crore to pay back the investors, numbering into lakhs. Stating that chit funds were governed by the Centre and not the state, Mamata said, “Who governs chit funds? It is not under the state government but the central government. Why did you sleep for 30 years? Why did you keep silent during CPM rule (in Bengal)? This is my complaint.”
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She also brushed aside the judgement having any political ramifications for her party coming as it does just two days ahead of the last round of polling in Lok Sabha elections on May 12. The fate of 17 seats, including some of the closely contested, will be decided in the final and round in Bengal.
“They (the Opposition) are thinking that the CBI enquiry was ordered just two days before before the election. What does it matter to me? Truth will come out. Fire cannot be covered with ashes,” she They have said whatever they wanted to”, she said.
The opposition has alleged that Trinamool Congress had close links with Sudipta Sen, chairman of the now bust Saradha Group. At Nabanna, the state secretariat, state finance minister Amit Mitra, talking to media, also highlighted the fact the TMC government has already compensated more than 400,000 investors a portion of their lost investment and would have made payments to another 250,000 but for the SC verdict. “CM had announced (to return the money) before the model code of conduct came into force. Show me one example of this gesture of returning money to such a huge number of investors at any part in India. We have heard about chit fund scams to the tune of over Rs 45,000 crore in Punjab and Haryana. But what is the result?” he asked.
Mitra, however, questioned the timing of the verdict. “There is certainly space for reading politics into it…But we still welcome it,” he said even as he put a question mark on the effectiveness of a CBI probe.
“The CBI in is entrusted with the investigation of several other cases in Bengal like Netai massacre in Junglemahal, Nandigram massacre…but what is the outcome?” Mitra asked. TMC general secretary, meanwhile, denounced any link between the party and those who orchestrated the scam. “We (TMC government) will resign if any link is established between us and Saradha,” he said, adding there could be an inquiry by the Interpol.
Eminent lawyer Bikash Bhattacharjee, who monitors important cases on behalf of the Left Front, said the onus of any political fallout of the verdict should rest on the TMC government as they had sought frequent adjournments in the case resulting in loss of time.
Top bureaucrats and police officials, however, said that the ramifications of CBI taking over the probe would be far reaching and more crucial than its immediate impact on the polls as the central agency “will enlarge the scope and ambit of the probe” and “more people could be brought under its purview”.
The worst sufferer could be the TMC as the names of many of its leaders have come to be associated with the Saradha scam and with other chit fund scams in Bengal and elsewhere. While suspended party MP Kunal Ghosh, happens to be the only TMC leader to be in jail, there are several others who may be dragged into the investigations.
Saradha Group chairman Sudipta Sen had sent an 18-page letter to the CBI on April 6, urged the agency to treat it as an FIR. The letter mentioned the names of several influential personalities and political leaders who are linked to the TMC.
“For the past 2 years, Pratidin has taken from me, represented by Srinjoy Bose, the MD of Pratidin Publications and Pratidin Television Media Pvt Ltd, a sum of Rs 20 crore. Most of the payment was made by cheque or RTGS,” the letter reads. Pratidin, a Bengali newspaper, is closely associated with TMC. At another place Sen writes: “They brought Mithun Chakraborty as the brand ambassador Channel 10 at Rs 20 lakh per month. But Mithun did not participate in any function of the channel except one talk show…”
Chakraborty is now a Rajya Sabha MP nominated by the TMC. Sen had also mentioned the names of Matang Singh Assam and his former wife Monoranjana Sen. Monoranjana had recently appeared before the Enforcement Directorate after having allegedly ignored repeated calls. The name of Nalini Chidambaram, wife of Union finance minister P Chidambaram also features in the letter as Monoranjana’s advocate.
Among political personalities who might fall into the probe ambit include TMC MPs Sisir Adhikari and Suvendu Adhikari —- both had apparently known Sudipta Sen in connection with a massive housing project that Saradha Reality was planning in Contai in East Midnapore. Their names were mentioned in a recorded CD by Kunal Ghosh. The name of Madan Mitra, a Bengal minister, also featured in course of the investigation as one of his close acquaintances, Piyali Mukherjee, had joined the Saradha as a legal adviser. Piyali died under mysterious circumstances and police investigation has failed to throw any light on her death. Even as the SC insists on unearthing the Saradha’s money trail such personalities may become crucial for the CBI investigators.