March 20, 2016

Ponzi Scams, Corruption, Sting & Etc

Nilotpal Basu

AS soon as the sting video of a new news website uploaded its coverage on the TMC leaders of West Bengal, all hell broke loose. Mathew Samuel, the chief of the website has put out the story as to how this investigation was conceived in the aftermath of the milestone political change in West Bengal after the 2011 assembly elections where the Left Front was dislodged from office after record breaking 34 years. Being a old hand at sting operations and a part of the operation West End which investigated the NDA scam on acquisition of defence equipment, Samuel’s capacity is in no doubt. It was West End which broke new grounds and rocked the politics of the country in which the then defence minister George Fernandes got embroiled. Tehelka became a household name. The present X-files of the brings out an obvious irony. Mamata Banerjee, the TMC supremo was part of the Vajpayee cabinet at the time when West End rocked the NDA boat. She resigned and disassociated her party from the NDA. Fading memories might disable people to realise that her and the TMCs disassociation from the NDA was not on the state sponsored Gujarat carnage, but on the revelations of the Tehelka sting. She did not wait for the authentication of the Tehelka videos. To recall the past, it was fairly clear that the transcript of the videos matched the actual sequence of developments which corroborated the revelations. It was important for her to completely disassociate from the muck that marked that episode. It was a crucial period in her political image building where value based principles would characterise the basic premise of a nascent regional outfit. She wanted to wear honesty on her sleeves! But that was a different time. And alas! A different context. Had she been consistent, the logical response to the present Narada revelations would have been to resign her office on moral grounds. Because the current revelations show that her entire top brass – whose who of TMC – is seen to be accepting, what cannot be described by anything but, bribe. SARADHA & OTHER PONZI SCAMS IS THE BACKGROUND In Samuel’s own words it is the allegations regarding Saradha chit fund scam that actually kicked off the conceptual beginnings of the present sting. The actual video which is 23 minutes long is again as claimed by only a fraction of the 52 hours long video recording that is in their possession. The Saradha ponzi scam is one of the biggest financial scams not just in West Bengal but perhaps in the whole country. The magnitude of the financial swindle can be gauged from the fact that about 17 lakh small investors lost their hard earned savings when Saradha crashed and defaulted on the repayment of the investments. Nearly 100 victims of the scam including agents who had mobilised the money from the people mostly from the downtrodden sections have so far committed suicide. The amount involved runs into several thousand crores. And after Saradha several other ponzi companies also crashed. According to fairly reliable estimates about 200 such crashes have taken place involving a total of Rs 60,000 crores. No doubt, there was a complete collapse of the regulatory oversight which was to be exercised by relevant regulators like SEBI, ED, SFIO and even Reserve Bank. The new reality of neo-liberal policy regime on mobilisation and interest rates on small savings had facilitated the mushrooming of such ponzi companies. But what stood out in the case of West Bengal was the active complicity of the TMC as a party even before they came to occupy office of the state government in 2011. The Saradha group prospered phenomenally after the change of government; because while Left was in office there were vigorous efforts to call their bluff and efforts to change the existing law which left the state government with very little powers to control them. However, the reluctance of the central government and the failure of the regulators and reduction of the interest rate in government approved small savings schemes facilitated a conducive environment for them to prosper. And obviously the TMC’s attitude which was not merely to look the other way but in active complicity made this a monster! When the Saradha crashed there was huge uproar. The state government and the state police started investigation. However, it was more an exercise of hushing up rather than bringing the culprits to book. The sufferers and the opposition consistently demanded that the case related to these swindling by the ponzi companies be handed over to CBI because there was a conflict of interest. Being beneficiaries of the scam, TMC leaders and their government could not be depended upon for going to the bottom of the scam. But here again, stiff resistance was put up by the state government at different levels of judiciary. It finally ended with the Supreme Court pronouncing that CBI should be handed over the investigation of the Saradha and other ponzi scams. The magnitude of the involvement of the state government can be understood from the fact that Rs 11 crores of tax payers’ money was spent on the legal expenses to stop the investigation from going to the CBI! However, after having started the investigation and making certain headway the CBI went into a ‘sleep mode’. This Saradha scam and especially the widely held view that the chief minister had sold one of her paintings (!) for a whopping Rs 1.82 crores which would put many an established painter to embarrassment to Saradha, was used by Narendra Modi in his campaign for becoming the prime minister of the country. Therefore, people expected that under the new government, CBI (the ‘caged parrot’) would be liberated and justice would be done to lakhs of small investors who had lost their savings earned on their sweat and blood. But after an initial whimper things came to a standstill giving rise to a widespread belief that there was a quid pro quo! Passage of Bills for the government in the Rajya Sabha where the government was in minority would be ensured by TMC while the CBI and other central agencies would pussy foot! Therefore, beyond some of the top leaders of the TMC including a member of the cabinet and MPs behind bars for a considerable length of time nothing moved. In fact, the TMC started claiming that nothing was amiss and there were canards against the party and its government. BRAZENNESS OF THE TMC LEADERS What X files did was to bring out the brazenness of the TMC leaders. While one watches the 23 minute video ( one will be stunned by the sheer recklessness of these top brass of the TMC. They allow journalists access to their office and even bedroom and unquestioningly accept money in lieu of the promise they hold out to help and cooperate with the Impex Consultancy which is the fake identity of the journalists. Not once do they show any inclination to check the antecedents of the money giver. It is this brazenness which replicates the attitude by the TMC top brass while facilitating and benefiting from the Saradha and other scams. What the viewer experiences through their own eyes and ears is a confirmation of the same base instincts which went into the engineering of those scams. It involves almost everybody who is of some significance to the TMC including the CM’s nephew and an MP himself! To what extent the rot has set in can be made out from the fact that the second in command at that point in time Mukul Roy, a Rajya Sabha MP (and most amusingly a member of the Ethics Committee as well) asks the journalist to go and meet the SP of Bardhaman a senior IPS officer who is still in service and deliver the money. In turn, the SP, Mirza, boasts that he is the closest to Mukul Roy, so much so, that the leader wakes up in the morning with his phone call. That Mirza’s words are not empty boasts becomes clear when one recalls the developments during 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The EC had ordered the transfer of Mirza from the position of SP Bardhaman for his tainted record. The CM went into an ugly confrontation with the EC protesting that transfer. It is here that the images of the sting intersect with reality. The TMC’s response has been predictable. Conspiracy has been a catchword of the CM and her team. In most of the occasions this has been the charge leveled against the opposition to browbeat them and repulse very definitive allegations. But time worn as it is, it has also come to lose all credibility. In the light of the doctored video telecast by some of the news channels to falsely implicate JNU students is a straw that TMC leaders are desperately trying to clutch. But this defence could also come to naught easily like the JNU videos because the forensic testing of videos is now child’s play for professionals. But what has nailed down the TMC leadership is that X files absolutely corroborates with the widely held perception about the party. The MPs of the CPI(M) in both houses of parliament have raised the demand for these cases to be examined by relevant committees of the parliament to verify the charges; because most of the TMC leaders happen to be members of either houses of parliament. And there are precedents in the cash for questions scam when 11 MPs were found to be guilty of impropriety and wrong doing and bringing disrepute to the institution of parliament. West Bengal is in the middle of the election process. The EC has to act. The CPI(M) and the Left had earlier brought it to the attention of the Commission that there is a grave threat to the exercise of franchise in elections to be held, given the violence mayhem and intimidation in course of all elections held since the TMC has been in power. It has been pointed out that the threat comes essentially from two sources. The first, the complete partisan role of the administration including the police to benefit the ruling party and the almost cadre like behaviour of the men in uniform who protect the goons of the ruling party and go all-out against the opposition cadre. The other is from unprecedented levels of cash which is deployed to influence the election process. The availability of ill gotten wealth of ponzi companies finds their way to completely corrupt and undermine the system. X files have brought these apprehensions to an extremely disturbing reality. In the assembly elections people will make their views known over this extremely unsavoury development. Hopefully, the EC will ensure the undeterred exercise of the franchise. It will be very important to concretely bring the perpetrators to book and hand out exemplary punishment.