Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Mar 15, 2016
Will Saradha scam be neutralised by the Muslim vote?

With 28 per cent of the population in West Bengal being Muslim, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress (TMC) will try its best to corall this vote. The combine of the Congress and the Left Front, led by the CPI-M, will also be targeting the same vote bank. The BJP which has been wanting to make inroads in Bengal doesn't have any presence in the present Assembly though it did manage to get Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 general elections. The BJP's strategy is predicated on dividing the Muslim vote and appropriating the Hindu vote. Asansol Lok Sabha seat is actually a case study for the BJP. In the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, the BJP candidate Suryya Ray garnered only 49,646 (5.5%) votes while in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, BJP candidate Babul Supriyo got 414,983 (36.76%) of the votes. The paramountcy of proper candidate selection is not lost on the BJP. The TMC won 34 of the LS seats in 2014, while the BJP won two -- Asansol and Darjeeling.

In as many as 22 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats, the 'M' factor plays a role. Translating that to the Assembly, it works out to 125 of the 294 assembly seats. The Left Front once held sway over these 125 seats, winning 102 of them. But as the Left vote gravitated towards the TMC, in 2011, the TMC-Congress alliance won 94 of the 125. In order to retain the Muslim vote, the TMC Government has gone out of its way by ramping up subsidies by 211 per cent over the last two financial years. There are 59 Muslim MLAs in the current Assembly, with 24 MLAs belonging to the TMC, CPI-M 13, Congress 16, RSP 2, Forward Bloc 2, Samajwadi Party one and Independent one. The number of Muslim MLAs in the coming Assembly may well increase.

So, it appears that the negative imagery generated by the Saradha scam can be negated by preserving the Muslim vote. The cognitive process to read the tea leaves on the mechanics of winning West Bengal appears to be complicated. Here is a news flash – the throw-down between the BJP and TMC was for a long time bruising and ugly, as the culpability of other TMC leaders close to Mamata Banerjee was established, but then suddenly the hounds were called off as the BJP tried to elicit the TMC's support in Parliament on the GST Bill. But by November last year, the hounds were back. Manoranjana Sinh, former Congress minister Matang Sinh's estranged wife, was suddenly arrested by the CBI. If one reads the voluminous Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO) report on the Saradha scam, there is clear evidence of her alleged infringement where she has taken close to Rs 24 crore from Sudipto Sen. She could have been arrested much earlier, some altered equations there as well, I suspect. In fact, there was a huge lull in the erstwhile aggressive CBI action against Saradha chit fund accused till the recent Mamata-Modi bonhomie. As the weather cock indicated a change in the wind, Manoranjana was arrested and Tapas Paul was interrogated. TMC MP Paul was a director on another major scamster Rose Valley's board. Saradha CMD Sudipta Sen in his 'tell-all' letter to CBI mentioned Manoranjana's name and claimed that she had siphoned off a huge amount of money while settling a deal between Saradha and her company 'Positive Group'. After a six month lull, in March, CBI conducted raids at the residences and offices of Tapas Paul. Paul's residences were among 43 locations the CBI raided in connection with the Rose Valley Scam and then it went quiet. Then old wounds were reopened as the agency became the vanguard of the BJP in state politics.

Interestingly, hidden in different reports and depositions by the lynchpin Sudipta Sen, and other probe agencies, may well be the larger story of how the Saradha scam remained bubbling under the surface for so long, operating like a stealth bomber and soaking up hundreds of crores of gullible investor money. The answer could be immunity from the regulators along with possible political patronage. Lucre was obviously the lubricant as Sudipta Sen’s Saradha permeated all walks of life in Bengal. The hapless poor who invested were merely lab rats in a gargantuan pyramid scheme. Glossing over the reality of bribes having been paid to regulators, we may be narrow focusing too much on politics and more granularly on destabilising Mamata Banerjee’s government.

While the exhaustive SFIO investigation report of Saradha Realty India Ltd and other Sudipta Sen Group companies highlights the role of several TMC politicos, it also looked at purported payments made to regulatory agencies. In his deposition on oath recorded under section 240 (2) of the Companies Act 1956, Sudipta Sen stated that monthly payments were made to Debabrata Sarkar alias Nitu (secretary of East Bengal Football Club) at the rate of Rs 70 lakh per month for four years for settlement of matters with RBI and SEBI. Besides this, payment of Rs 15 lakh per month was made to Ramesh Gandhi for four years for looking after corporate affairs of the group.

After levelling these grave allegations, SFIO goes on to say that since these “allegations regarding payment of bribe are uncorroborated and as the CBI is already seized of the matter, it is recommended that the CBI may further look into this issue.” Clearly, SFIO was washing its hands off the affair. Compounding this is a letter dated 3.4.2013 sent to the Central Vigilance Commission by Sudipta Sen where he writes that after he got a letter from SEBI in 2010, Debabrata Sarkar met him and took Rs 5 crore initially and around Rs 80 lakh every month thereafter to settle the SEBI matter. According to SFIO, Sen said that payments made to Sarkar were in cash and whenever cheques had to be issued, they were in the name of Revlon Commercial Company with whom Saradha had no trade dealings.

If the Government is using the CBI as an instrumental to belittle the TMC, as Mamata Banerjee has been claiming in her vitriolic speeches, then the agency would do well to introspect on the role of regulators in this case. For the charges are specific with names and amounts of money included. Shouldn’t the ambit of the investigation then be widened, so that these specific charges are probed? We are talking the entire vector of regulators here – SEBI, RBI, RoC, Income Tax and even the Institute of CAs.

It is incumbent on both the CBI and the regulators to investigate these allegations thoroughly, for these are the outcome of sworn statements.

In the game between the hunter and the quarry in Bengal, the Centre and the CBI both need to be mindful of the “lesser” targets which indicate a complete rot in the regulatory system if true.

Let us now look at MP Kunal Ghosh’s deposition on the role of Madan Mitra which essentially helped the CBI nail the sports minister. Ghosh in his deposition said: “High profile personalities from politics and the bureaucracy were associated with the Saradha Group publicly and shared stage with Sudipta Sen. This inspired confidence in the minds of the people.” Actually, this was Sen’s modus operandi, involve the rich and famous in his scheme to defraud the public. In trying to extricate himself, Kunal Ghosh submitted pictures of Surajit Kar Purkayasta, a former commissioner of police of Kolkata, and of sports minister Madan Mitra attending programmes which were organised by Sen and Saradha companies.

In fact, Ghosh pointed out that Mitra was shown as president of the Saradha Employees Progressive Union in one of the pictures and this led to the CBI nabbing Mitra.

The entire Saradha scam is littered with discrepancies, for even investigators haven’t understood the true extent of the scam. The financial architecture of the scam and its magnitude is mind numbing. The personalities and agencies involved are scary. In this forest of political brinkmanship, the larger issue of the role of regulators and accusations of massive bribes should not be lost, for it will be a travesty.

The author is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi.

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