Kolkata, April 27 (IANS) With the influential Saradha Group chit fund going bust, the Trinamool Congress government in the state is faced with the biggest threat it has faced in two years of being in office. Allegations fly thick and fast of Trinamool ministers and MPs being involved in the scam that resulted in tens of thousands of poor investors losing their lifetime savings.
With sagging morale in Trinamool ranks, party MPs at a meeting in Delhi asked for exemplary punishment for leaders and parliamentarians who had any links with the dubious firm.
But then, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee used to be a regular at Saradha programmes. She would urge her audience to watch the Group's channels and read its newspapers and must have seen them as her bulwark against a hostile media.
Party leaders are worried -- the squeaky-clean image of their 'didi' --may be sullied; and that could be ominous.
The Saradha fiasco comes just ahead of the panchayat polls. The Trinamool leadership has cause for worry, as many of the company's depositors were poor villagers. What is worse, Saradha's management used its proximity to the Trinamool to the hilt, displaying large pictures of Trinamool leaders at its programmes to attract depositors.
The group raised huge amounts of money from unsuspecting depositors who were lured by promises of huge returns, which no legal bank or financial institution could equal.
The company set up shop sometime in the mid-2000s. It is alleged that they got the "blessings" of the Marxists, who were then in power. By 2009, Saradha Group was on an expansion spree, spreading into neighbouring states.
Its promoter Sudipta Sen, now under arrest, recruited a large number of agents from among unemployed youth, and as Trinamool's clout increased, he started cultivating its functionaries and purchased or launched ten news channels and newspapers which supported the Mamata Banerjee-led party to the hilt since 2010.
Ever since the scam started unravelling in mid-April, the scale of the alleged nexus between politicians and scamsters has caused alarm.
The foremost of those whose names are entangled in the mess is Trinamaool Congress Rajya Sabha member Kunal Ghosh, chief executive officer of Saradha Media. He drew a princely salary of Rs.15 lakh per month, besides an allowance of Rs.1.5 lakh. The astronomical sum, a rarity in Indian journalism, has raised questions about the precise nature of his role in the Group.
A police complaint has been lodged by employees of news channel Channel 10 against Ghosh and some other high level officials for non-payment of salaries of employees, and non-submission of provident fund and tax deducted at source to the government.
Ghosh, however, brushed off allegations: "As the CEO, I was entrusted only with editorial responsibilities, and had no financial powers. I was just an ordinary salaried employee," he said.
But the road ahead for Ghosh will be bumpy. A letter written by Sen April 6 to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) names Ghosh, and nearly 20 other people, for having fleeced him. Sen also accused Ghosh of barging into his office with miscreants and extracting a sale deed for Channel 10.
The letter also alleges that the owner-editor of Bengali daily "Sambad Protidin" Srinjay Bose, now a Trinamool Rajya Sabha member, had forced Sen to pay his newspaper Rs.60 lakh per month for running the channel on an assurance that the newspaper editor would also protect Sen's businesses from the government.
Bose, however, claimed his paper had only entered a business arrangement with Sen; the deal fell through as Sen was unable to fulfill his part in it.
The third Trinamool MP to come under the scanner is Shatabdi Roy, a one-time leading lady of Bengali films. Shatabdi had reportedly served as brand ambassador of the group.
Roy, however, has denied any involvement in wrongdoing: "I was never their brand ambassador. I never endorsed any of their products. I only attended some of their programmes and took appearance money as an actress," she said.
When State Transport Minister Madan Mitra's name cropped up in connection with the scam, he issued vehement denials. To his discomfiture, local channels aired two chunks of footage where he was seen lavishing praise on Sen, and promising to stand by the Group.
Fingers are also being pointed at Congress leader and union Minister of State for Health Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury: He was one of the first leaders to raise his voice against the mushrooming of chit funds in Sept, 2011, when he wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In March last year, however, he wrote another letter to the prime minister withdrawing his complaint against Saradha Realty India Limited.
"Why did he make the volte-face? For what consideration? Is it money?" asked state minister for Women and Child Development and Social Welfare and Trinamool leader Sabitri Mitra.
Hasem said the insinuations held little water. He had written to the prime minister about the chit funds not once or twice, but several times, he said.
(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)