The law minister of a state on a street protest against a CBI probe into a Ponzi scheme that defrauded lakhs of investors, many of them poor, is a rare — and unseemly — sight. But it appears that the West Bengal government, in deep panic over the political fallout of the investigation into the Saradha chit fund, has chosen to brazen it out. In the last few months, whispers and allegations that the Trinamool Congress patronised and benefited from the swift expansion of the Saradha group have risen to a clamour that suggests that this might be the TMC’s own 2G moment. Five party MPs, one state minister and several other leaders have been questioned by the CBI. A former TMC leader has gently lobbed the suggestion that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee be questioned as well. The government and the party have responded to this crisis not by enabling a quick, clean probe but by accusing the Narendra Modi government at the Centre of manipulation. The sight of party workers protesting at the CBI office in Kolkata, with the law minister leading the charge, might seem like muscle-flexing of the party in power. What it is in reality is desperate politics by a government that believes it can play at being the opposition and expect the questioning over its role to cease.
The desperation stems from two reasons. One, the scam, which the chief minister had dismissed in 2013 in a typical moment of bluntness as “what-has-gone-has-gone”, has since grown into a political firestorm. A staggering 1.7 million people had deposited money with the Saradha group, which then sank into quicksand, with unpaid dues of Rs 2,000 crore. The Supreme Court stepped in early this year to order a federal probe, despite the state government’s objections, to shield the investigators from people with “clout and influence”. Second, even as the Left appears to be slinking into political oblivion, the new challenger in town is the BJP, which won two seats in the 2014 general elections but 16.8 per cent of the votes, up from about 6 per cent in 2009. It is already exhorting Bengal’s voters to pitch for a second paribartan in the assembly elections of 2016.
Whether the Mamata Banerjee government has the political smarts to counter a rising BJP remains to be seen. But in its wholly improper response to an SC-mandated investigation into a financial scandal of this magnitude, it has given its rivals all the ammunition they need.