TMC alleges political vendetta as Central agencies speed up probe in poll-bound Bengal
With over six months left for West Bengal elections, heightened activity by the Central probe agencies since Monday has prompted the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) to allege “political vendetta by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.”
On August 24, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) sent notices to five TMC leaders in connection with the 2014 Narada News sting operation, the videos of which were made public before the 2016 Bengal assembly polls, seeking details of their family property. The videos purportedly showed high-profile TMC leaders receiving money to help a fictitious company.
On August 26 and 27, the Kolkata office of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is probing the Narada case as well as the Saradha, Rose Valley and MPS Group Ponzi fund scams involving thousands of crores of rupees, revamped its economic offence wing. Two officers of the rank of superintendent of police flew down from Delhi to join duty, a CBI officer said on condition of anonymity.
On August 28, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) questioned Chhatradhar Mahato, the tribal leader from Jhargram district who headed the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), an alleged Maoists-backed outfit launched during the Left government, in connection with the 11-year-old case of hijacking of the Bhubaneswar-Delhi Rajdhani Express.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee inducted Mahato into her party’s state committee in July. The Bengal government released him in February after his life term was commuted by the Calcutta high court.
The back-to-back developments have not gone down well with the TMC leadership. In all her public statements this week, including virtual meeting with the chief ministers of opposition ruled states, Banerjee alleged that the BJP is using Central agencies to crush the opposition.
“The chief minister cannot blame the BJP for everything. It is the judiciary that asked Central agencies to probe the Narada and Ponzi fund cases. On the other hand, it is the state government that is using the state police to file criminal cases against BJP leaders. This exposes the difference in mindsets,” said Bengal BJP vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar.
Saugata Roy, one of the TMC MPs, who received ED notice on August 24, said, “The ED served me a notice after several years. There are clear indications of a political vendetta.”
Other TMC leaders to have received ED notices are Kakali Ghosh Dastidar, former Lok Sabha member Aparupa Poddar, minister Suvendu Adhikari, and TMC leader Ratna Chatterjee.
Chhatradhar Mahato who was grilled at the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp in West Midnapore district on Friday, said, “I am a target because I represent the tribal community. The NIA said I will be grilled again.”
The Central agency probes in these cases are going on.
In the Narada case, the CBI filed the FIR in March 2017, acting on a Calcutta high court order that was upheld by the Supreme Court. The CBI also registered an FIR against then TMC Rajya Sabha MP Mukul Roy, who later joined the BJP and became the opposition party’s election strategist in Bengal. The trial in this case has not started yet.
CBI officials said the agency is also trying to wrap up the probe in the Saradha Ponzi fund case involving an estimated Rs 2,460 crore that was raised from around 1.8 million depositors from West Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh. Sudipta Sen, who owned the group, is in jail.
Some TMC leaders named in the Saradha case files have tried to come clean.
In 2019, Satabdi Roy, TMC’s three-time Lok Sabha member from Birbhum, returned to the ED a sum of Rs 30.64 lakh that she received from the Saradha group for being its brand ambassador, four years after actor Mithun Chakraborty, a former TMC Rajya Sabha member, returned Rs 1.16 crore to the ED. TMC’s former Rajya Sabha member Kunal Ghosh spent over two years in jail custody in the case.
The Rose Valley scam, estimated at Rs 17,000 core, is, however, the biggest Ponzi scam in Bengal in terms of money involved. In 2014, the Supreme Court asked the CBI to investigate the scams and the role of ‘influentials’ in money laundering. The ED is running a parallel probe.
“The Calcutta high court, which is overseeing the probes into the Ponzi scams as well as refund of money to investors, around 200 of whom have died by suicide, has taken a strong stand,” said lawyer Arimdam Das who represents the cheated investors of Saradha, Rose Valley and MPS groups.
On August 26, while hearing a bail petition filed by MPS Group owner Pramathanath Manna, who is in jail custody for six years, the division bench of Justice Joymalya Bagchi and Justice Suvra Ghosh expressed displeasure and asked the CBI why the trial has not started yet, he said.
Additional solicitor general YJ Dastoor, who is representing the CBI, informed the court that Manna had been delaying the trial by filing multiple cases.
The elections to 294-member West Bengal assembly is scheduled for May 2021, in which BJP is expected to be the main challenger to TMC, which has been ruling the state for the past 10 years. In 2016 assembly polls, the TMC has romped home with 211 seats while the BJP could secure only six. The Left parties got 32 seats and the Congress 44.