Embarrassment mounted for West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress after the CBI arrested state transport and sports minister Madan Mitra in connection with the Saradha scam on Friday.
He is the first minister of Bengal to be arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in any case, and the fourth Trinamool leader to be held by the probe agency in the chit fund scam.
Accusing the Centre of adopting bullying tactics after Mitra’s arrest, Banerjee lashed out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah and dared them to arrest her.
“CBI may take Madan to SSKM Hospital. I will go to meet him. Let me see whether Amit Shah’s goondas and Narendra Modi’s police can arrest me,” she said.
“It (the arrest) is unfortunate, shameful and deserves to be condemned. It’s sheer political vendetta. Can the CBI and the Centre go out of their jurisdiction and act like this?” she added.
The Saradha chit fund scam trail is hounding Banerjee’s government unlike any other challenge she has encountered during her stint in power so far and Mitra’s arrest triggered fresh calls from opposition leaders for her resignation.
Opposition parties have repeatedly accused the CM of trying to shield some of the beneficiaries of the company’s slush funds.
The Saradha scam was caused by the collapse of the investment operation of the Saradha Group, a consortium of over 200 private companies, which ran many unlicensed financial schemes in eastern India.
Under the scam hundreds of thousands of small investors lost Rs.2,459 crore, according to an official estimate. There are unofficial estimates that peg the figure higher.
The CBI arrested Mitra around 4 pm after questioning him for about three hours during which he denied taking any money from Saradha, said an official privy to the development.
According to the official, who did not want to be named, Mitra stood his ground despite CBI officers confronting him with evidence.
“In the Saradha chit fund scam, RC 4 S/14, case relating to Saradha Realty, CBI has arrested Madan Mitra, a cabinet minister in the government of West Bengal on prima facie evidence of criminal conspiracy, cheating and misappropriation as well as deriving undue financial benefits from Saradha group,” said a CBI statement.
“CBI has also arrested Naresh Balodia, legal advisor to Sudipta Sen (Saradha Group chairperson) on charges of criminal conspiracy, cheating and diversion of funds in the same case,” the statement added.
Within an hour of the arrest, the Trinamool tore into Shah, who had launched a scathing attack on the Bengal CM last month, laying the foundation for the 2016 assembly elections in the state.
“The arrest of our cabinet colleague seems to be an act of vendetta. It appears CBI is controlled not only by BJP but also by Amit Shah. We strongly condemn this action. Neither the governor, nor the assembly speaker was informed before the arrest,” said Subrata Mukherjee, state panchayat minister.
The Supreme Court had in May ordered a CBI probe into the chit fund scams in West Bengal, Odisha and Assam under which various companies, including Saradha, allegedly duped investors of around Rs.10,000 crore.
Two Rajya Sabha MPs (Kunal Ghosh, Srinjoy Bose) and a vice-president (Rajat Majumdar) of the Trinamool are already behind the bars in connection with the Saradha case.
The CM’s stated position is none from her party took any money from Saradha. She also points to the group’s operations having started during the Left rule, which she ended.
The group folded up in April last year, leaving its investors, largely from rural areas with little access to formal banking facilities, in the lurch.
The opposition mounted pressure on the CM after Mitra’s arrest.
“Madan Mitra’s arrest shows that Trinamool leaders are neck deep in Saradha scam, and the dots are leading to Mamata Banerjee’s doorstep. It’s time for her to resign taking moral responsibility,” said Sidharth Nath Singh, BJP national secretary.
State Congress president Adhir Chowdhury, too, demanded that the CM step down.
By any yardstick Mamata Banerjee is facing the worst point of her political life after coming in power in Bengal in May 2011. She is without friends at the centre. Worse, all the parties that she is approaching for alliances are declining.
Last month, both her former ally, Congress, and the the Left leaders rebuffed her when she said in the national capital that she is ready to tie up with any party (even with her bitter opponents like the Left) to fight communalism (read BJP).
“In 2011 when she tied up with Congress and swept into power in Bengal, she was at the zenith of her career. Within three years, she reached the lowest point. Her personal image, that of impeccable honesty, is gone. The popularity of the party is under a big question mark. And she now has the CBI on her trail, something that could be said about other regional party leaders, but not about Mamata earlier,” said COngress leader Abdul Mannan.