West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s handling of the controversy over the Central Bureau of Investigation wanting to question Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar in the Saradha chit fund scam, may have dented her image substantially. Apart from the fact that it has once again thrown the spotlight on a scam that had more or less vanished from the national consciousness, although that did not take away from the scale of the scam and the criminality involved. In fact, questions need to be asked of the CBI as to why it became proactive so close to the Lok Sabha elections, after sleeping on the case for four years. The obvious question is if it was waiting for political directions from the powers that be in Delhi; and if Delhi was hoping to dangle the scam above the Bengal regime’s head like the Damocles’ sword, in the hope of political “quid pro quo”. Neither the state nor the Centre should forget that the Saradha scam is among the worst that this country has seen, for it robbed the poor of their lives’ savings, knowingly and unscrupulously. As this newspaper has reported in this edition, the Saradha group of companies raised an astronomical Rs 20,000 crore from low- and medium-income group investors numbering over 20 lakh, and spread over the states of West Bengal, Assam and Odisha among others. This the group did by luring them with promises of high returns. The group did not have any obvious business and the money raised was misused for personal gains, for round tripping and several other activities, apart from influencing decisions through politicians, bureaucrats and even some officials belonging to regulatory authorities such as the SEBI, Registrar of Companies and the Reserve Bank of India. Serious charges abound against Banerjee’s own party members of colluding with the scamsters and being willing participants in one of India’s worst ponzi schemes. There are genuine concerns about the ongoing probe that must be addressed. This newspaper earlier reported that the police in West Bengal was blocking the CBI from carrying out a proper investigation into the scam; that Rajeev Kumar, who initially conducted the probe, was refusing to cooperate with the CBI after the Supreme Court handed over the case to the Central agency; that there was fear of destruction of crucial evidence.
There is no doubt that Mamata Banerjee is a popular mass leader who has fought her way to the top through sheer grit. But considering she holds a Constitutional post, her “street fighter” instincts have to take a back seat when confronted with matters of the state. By getting her police to “detain” the CBI officers who were doing their job, so much so that Central paramilitary forces had to be deployed to protect Central officers and assets in Kolkata, all she did was to ensure a near breakdown of the Constitutional machinery. Such show of anarchy does not behove the chair she occupies. The whole nation was aghast at the drama playing out on their TV screens. And it is not that she could stop the CBI from questioning Rajeev Kumar. So what did she achieve by such show of rashness, except for damaging her own image as a hard-working Chief Minister, who may even be considered for the post of Prime Minister if such a situation arises? The Opposition leaders’ support for her agitation too did not go beyond lip service. Indian politicians are far too sensible to be seen to be siding with apparent forces of “chaos”; they know that such antics do not sit well with their voters. Mamata Banerjee is a smart political player, but even she is mistaken if she thinks that she will be able to consolidate her voters in West Bengal through such show of virulent opposition to the Centre, while also trying to portray her fight as between Bengalis and “Hindi speaking non Bengalis”. The Bengali population is fully integrated into the national mainstream and language chauvinism is not the best way to rouse popular passions in that state. From reactions on social media at least it was obvious that even her own voters were left unimpressed and were interpreting the whole episode as an attempt to protect wrongdoers, some sort of a panic reaction. This could be completely wrong, but that was the message that went out, which is not good for the TMC’s long-term political future.
More importantly, certain matters are above politics. The Saradha scam is one such. Both the Centre and the state need to realise that. The guilty must be brought to book. Over 20 lakh people are looking for justice and it must be given to them—now.