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Will Saradha do to Didi what Bofors did to Rajiv?

The year 1989 marked a key LS poll when the country punished a leader with a different style for corruption charges that are yet to be established in a court of law. Twenty-five years later, Bengal is debating if a similar political denouement is in store for Mamata.

india Updated: Sep 25, 2014 17:19 IST
Avijit Ghosal
Avijit Ghosal
Hindustan Times

1984: Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress wins 404 seats in a 533-seat Lok Sabha (76% of the seats).

1986: A $285 million contract is signed between Swedish arms company Bofors and Indian government for the supply of howitzers.

April 1987: Swedish radio alleges kickbacks have been paid to top Swedish and Indian politicians to secure the deal; media is flooded with reports that Rajiv Gandhi is one of the direct beneficiaries.

1989: Congress bites the dust in the Lok Sabha polls. Ends up with just 197 seats.

Cut to 2011: Mamata Banerjee leads Trinamool Congress to a stunning victory in West Bengal, winning 187 of the 293 seats (64% of the seats)

2013-14: Saradha scam explodes; media full of reports that top Trinamool leaders are direct beneficiaries. Her own party MP labels Mamata Banerjee as the “biggest beneficiary”.

Comparisons in politics are odious, but there are some chilling similarities. At a perception level, the Saradha muck is sticking to Trinamool Congress leaders, but more importantly to chief minister Mamata Banerjee as well.

If politics is 99% perception, 1% reality, as paraded, this could hurt Banerjee much like it hurt her ‘early life mentor in the Congress’ 25 years ago.

Like Rajiv Gandhi, Banerjee also came to power riding on a corruption-free image. For many, incorruptible is the word associated with her.

Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as prime minister was hurt by allegations over Bofors gun deal. (HT file photo)

The shadow of the Saradha chit fund scam, however, is hounding her government unlike any other challenge she has encountered in her stint in power so far.

One of the factors that drove Banerjee’s historic sweep in the 2011 assembly elections in Bengal was the image of a woman who preferred to lead an austere, almost ascetic, life to serve the people.

She was someone who did not need much beyond a coarse saree, rubber slippers, a functional watch, a jhola and a few hairpins to keep her oiled hair in place, apart from endless cups of tea and a few helpings of puffed rice.

“It’s this image, the trump card of the party that has got sullied in the Saradha storm,” says a top executive of a foreign firm in Kolkata.

This executive, who used to work as a senior bureaucrat, thinks the erosion of this advantage is a setback to the entire package of beliefs that ‘Brand Mamata’ represents.

As 2014 tentatively pushed into autumn, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers raised the slogan “Gali gali me shor hai, Mamata Banerjee chor hai”. This was hitherto unthinkable in Kolkata, and anywhere in Bengal, and perhaps even beyond.

Apart from heralding a completely new era in the way the opposition addresses Banerjee, this slogan also immediately revived memories of Left sloganeering in 1986-87 in the city when the Bofors kickbacks began to badger Gandhi.

Courts have failed to establish any links between the two, but India’s modern political history shows the shadow has never truly vanished.

It is the same history that raises the crucial question — will Banerjee pay as heavy a political price as Gandhi had 25 years ago?

Despite the rising clamour in media and civil society, Trinamool leaders cite electoral results to suggest otherwise.

Banerjee won the 2013 panchayat elections with a thumping majority and had to settle for a 1:1 split with the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha by-elections.

“The panchayat polls in June-July 2013 came in the thick of the Saradha scam and were held in the belts where the Saradha victims lived. But we won 13 out of the 17 zilla parishads, establishing complete dominance over all three tiers – gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads,” said one of her senior ministers who did not want to be named.

The opposition, however, points out that the probes did not pinpoint ruling party leaders as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is doing now.

They hope more and more Trinamool leaders and ministers will be dragged into the investigation before the state heads of assembly polls in 2016.

But then most leaders admit turning sentiment into votes requires organisation across the state, something that none of the opposition parties has at the moment.

Samik Bhattacharya, the first BJP MLA to win in Bengal on his own, is not pulling his punches.

“It (Saradha) will cost Mamata more dearly. Rajiv Gandhi had a century-old party with a structure to fall back on. Trinamool Congress is a one-person party. The entire system will collapse once the leader’s image is gone,” he says.

Political analysts are guarded.

“It’s quite likely that Saradha may turn out to be Mamata Banerjee’s Bofors. Let me tell you, anti-incumbency has already set in among a large and growing section of the urban voters. It will take some time to spread to the rural sections,” says Amal Mukhopadhyay, retired principal of Presidency College and a professor of political science.

“But in 2016, I don’t rule out a thinning of the thumping majority that Trinamool enjoys in the current assembly,” he adds.

The problem with Bengal’s ruling party is, it is yet to refute with logic and evidence the perception that its leaders are deeply involved in the Saradha scam.

As the scam exploded in Bengal in April 2013, the opposition immediately started alleging the entire plot was aided and abetted by leaders of the ruling party.

There were too many signs all around – Trinamool leaders regularly graced Saradha programmes and sung paeans to its chairperson Sudipta Sen, the kingpin of the scam.

A clutch of newspapers and TV channels owned by the group unquestionably campaigned for the ruling party. Even the chief minister was seen in more than one Saradha programme.

Former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was the first to coin a catchy phrase: “Agey uni chilen satatar pratik, ekhon hoyechen Saradhar pratik” (Earlier she was the symbol of honesty, now she is the symbol of Saradha).”

As 2013 drew to a close, worse followed. Banerjee’s own party MP, who was also the CEO of Saradha’s media business, alleged the CM held secret a meetings at Delo tourist lodge in Kalimpong (North Bengal hills) with Sen, in which he was present along with party general secretary Mukul Roy.

“She was the biggest beneficiary of the entire exercise,” alleged Kunal Ghosh publicly. Over the past one year, none from the party logically refuted what Ghosh claimed, apart from labelling it as the ranting of a ‘thief’.

A suspended Trinamool Congress MP has alleged Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was the biggest beneficiary of the Saradha scam. (HT file photo)

The CBI investigation into Saradha has reinforced public perception.

Between the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI, as many as six Trinamool MPs have been summoned; Kunal Ghosh and another party leader are in jail; and the textile minister and two assistants of the transport minister have been interrogated.

What’s more, another Rajya Sabha MP who heads a chit fund himself is under the scanner of the ED. And just two days ago, Sudipta Sen's driver told in public that he drove Sen to Trinamool general secretary Mukul Roy's office a mere four days before he escaped from Kolkata on April 9 last year when the Saradha empire was crumbling all around him. And on April 7, another Trinamool MP Subhendu Adhikari visited Sen at late in the night for a long meeting at the group's office.

Worse still, another MP has been accused of having ties with the Jamaat-e-Islami and channeling Saradha funds to the fundamentalist group in Bangladesh.

Trinamool chief Banerjee, who finds herself grappling with a raging controversy, has, however, maintained that the Left Front is to be blamed for the chit fund menace in Bengal, as most of such companies had begun operations in the previous regime.

First Published: Sep 25, 2014 12:08 IST