The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has registered as many as 30 First Information Reports (FIR) in connection with a chit fund scam in West Bengal. According to the Economic Times, FIRs have been registered for frauds ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 1 crore. This showcases the agency’s rather vigorous commitment to nab perpetrators in a case that is not devoid of political ramifications.
Over the years the CBI has come under fire several times for allowing itself to be bent to the will of its political masters who allegedly use the agency to coerce political rivals and dissidents alike.
Brief background of the case
The Saradha Group, an umbrella organisation of over 200 private players started a chit-fund, promising investors high returns. It was launched in the early 2000s by businessman Sudipto Sen. But eventually it turned out to be just a ponzi scheme aimed at small investors. The fund collected over Rs 2,500 crores from 1.7 million investors spread across not just West Bengal, but also Assam, Tripura and Odisha.
In 2012, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) asked Saradha to first get the regulator’s permission before accepting money from depositors. In January 2013 it was discovered that the group’s cash outflows exceeded its inflows. After that it was all downhill and the scheme collapsed quickly. Estimates of the total amount of the fraudulent fund vary but are said to be in the vicinity of Rs 10,000 crores.
The Bengal government first set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by then Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar to probe the case. In 2014, after Supreme Court intervention the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The Enforcement Directorate (ED) also questioned several accused and witnesses in the case.
Sudipto Sen was arrested in Jammu and Kashmir in April 2013, and then his custody was transferred to the Bengal Police. Another key player was Debjani Mukherjee, a close associate of Sen.
Allegations of political bribery via fee for celebrity endorsements
Several influential politicians, many of whom were celebrities such as actors and sportspersons, were allegedly involved or at least connected with the scam in some way. It is alleged that they were given lucrative endorsement deals as a part of an elaborate method to bribe the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC).
Perhaps the most high-profile association was that of Bengali actor Shatabdi Roy who is also an AITC Member of Parliament (MP) from the Birbhum Constituency. Roy was alleged to be a brand ambassador for the fund.
However, in an April 2013 interview to ABP News, Roy clarified, “My image appears in endorsements for many brands and I perform at various events for which I charge a performance fee. I was only present at one event where Sudipto Sen was said to be present.” She also added, “I did not get involved with any of this in my capacity as an AITC member, but in my capacity as an actor. The allegations of political bribery are false.”
Roy was questioned by both, the ED as well as the CBI. In September 2019, Roy reportedly returned the fee she had charged for her association with the brand.
Another high-profile celebrity to be associated with the brand was yesteryears actor Mithun Chakraborty who was also a Rajya Sabha MP from AITC. He had reportedly appeared in promotional videos and advertisements and also on one of the television channels funded by the Saradha group. He maintained that his association too was purely in his capacity as an actor.
Moreover, after being questioned by investigation authorities, Chakraborty returned the brand fee of over Rs 1 crore in June 2015. He also resigned from his position as MP in 2017 citing health concerns, but many speculate it might have had to do with the mental trauma he suffered on account of his name being dragged into the scam.
Who’s who of AITC allegedly involved in the case
Sudipto Sen reportedly bought paintings by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for a whopping Rs 1.8 crores. However, he denied having purchased the paintings. This however, drags Banerjee into the case making her the most powerful politicians to be allegedly associated with Sen.
Another AITC MP Kunal Ghosh was appointed CEO of a media group in which Saradha had invested over Rs 900 crores. Though the party subsequently suspended Ghosh, it wasn’t before he allegedly implicated Mukul Roy (who was then a close confidante of Banerjee) and 12 others in the case.
Another AITC heavyweight Srinjoy Bose was also allegedly involved in the media operations of the Saradha group. WB Transport Minister Madan Mitra allegedly headed the employee’s union of the group.
Those who jumped ship
Since the scam broke two key players; Mukul Roy and Himanta Biswa Sarma have jumped ship and joined the BJP. Roy, as mentioned earlier, was one of Mamata Banerjee’s closest confidantes and was in fact one of the founding members of the AITC. Roy was questioned by the CBI for 8 hours in 2015. He maintains that he had been questioned by investigation authorities not as a suspect, but as a witness. After the questioning, Roy, who had been the General Secretary, was reduced to just being a member and Banerjee reportedly started distancing herself from Roy. He joined the BJP in November 2017.
But the case of Himanta Biswa Sarma is quite different. At present he is the Deputy Chief Minister of Assam and holds several key portfolios including Health, Finance and Education. He is often said to be the most powerful man in Assam, with his influence said to even exceed that of Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.
At the time when the Sarasha scandal broke Sarma was a Congress politician and a close associate of veteran leader Tarun Gogoi. It is alleged that he played a key role in helping the group expand its operations in Assam and was paid handsomely for his efforts. However, nothing has been proved conclusively so far, though Sudipto Sen allegedly named him in an 18-page confession letter that was released by Mamata Banerjee in February 2019 during the infamous tussle with the center involving Rajeev Kumar. Mamata had then said that she had enough evidence against Sarma and dared PM Modi and Amit Shah to take action against Sarma. In August 2015 Sarma joined the BJP and many say it was this move that helped the BJP establish itself in the state and come to power in 2016.
It remains to be seen if the fresh vigour with which the CBI is approaching the case will have any impact on any other AITC members. Would they then jump ship and would this finally help BJP win the assembly elections next year? West Bengal has been a coveted state for the BJP, and though they have steadily made inroads into the state consistently improving their tally in different elections, victory has remained just out of their grasp so far. Will they be able to finally dig up enough dirt on Mamata Banerjee to oust her from power or will the veteran Bengali leader hold on to her bastion next year?