On the face of it, West Bengal’s political scene seems to have been thrown into a cauldron over the past two days. On Monday, Mausam Noor, the Congress MP from the Malda North constituency, joined the Trinamool Congress and on Tuesday, BJP president Amit Shah held a meeting in East Midnapore district that was both significant and tumultuous.
Let’s begin with Shah’s rally, after which violence between the BJP and TMC broke out. What seems to have happened is that TMC supporters attacked and set on fire vehicles being used by BJP supporters, while the latter vandalised a TMC office. Both sides also attacked the police. Each side accused the other of initiating these unsavoury proceedings. Later Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh called West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee seeking a report on the violence and was told he should ask party cadres not to indulge in hooliganism.
Which side cast the first stone cannot, obviously, be ascertained at this juncture, but it is clear that both parties were guilty of lawlessness. It is equally clear that the administration should have been better prepared to stamp out any attempt at disturbing the peace. As far as Singh’s call is concerned it cannot be gainsaid that it is within his jurisdiction to make inquiries. It would be interesting to find out, however, how often and with what kind of alacrity, the Union home minister has made such inquiries when violence has broken out in states ruled by his party.
That said, politically, the more interesting part of the story is Shah’s speech at the meeting. We can safely leave out the rhetorical parts of it and focus on one theme Shah took pains to belabour. His focus was on the raft of Ponzi schemes that had been uncovered in Bengal. Shah was bold in his declaration that while 2.5 million people in Bengal had lost their savings to the operators of theses schemes, Mamata had done nothing to put the unscrupulous people behind bars and return the lost money to defrauded investors. Only the BJP could do that, he claimed.
Along the way, he did not fail to mention the issue of Mamata’s paintings, that he claimed had been bought by owners of ‘chit funds’ for crores and crores of rupees. Chandrima Bhattacharya, head of the TMC women’s wing, promptly sent a defamation notice to Shah for the remarks about the paintings, challenging him to produce evidence, which he had not.
Let us examine these propositions. To begin with, it is true that Shah has never produced any evidence that Mamata’s paintings were bought for crores and crores by operators of Ponzi schemes, nor has any other BJP leader. If BJP leaders had such evidence, it would be fair to assume that proceedings would have been initiated against her, just as cases have been launched against some of her party colleagues, and in myriad other cases, against a number of Opposition leaders.
If we dismiss the paintings issue as part of the standard hit-and-run political tactics of smear and hope, there remains the larger claim that only the BJP can put Ponzi scamsters in prison and return the money defrauded by them to millions of defrauded investors. Let us examine this. The Saradha scam broke in 2013. In its aftermath, the owner of the Saradha group, Sudipto Sen, who had run, was arrested from Srinagar, by the state police.
Mamata pledged to return the money to investors and set up a fund with that purpose in view. Part of it was raised by levying extra cess. A commission headed by a retired judge was set up in 2013 to oversee the process of the disbursal of monies, which was followed by a one-man committee comprising another retired judge, set up by a division bench that is overseeing the entire process of processing applications. According to people following the matter, progress is being made and disbursals will start soon.