Mamata Banerjee is a street fighter and her party is fighting on the streets these days.
The television screens are filled with images of young men with bandanas around their heads, sticks in their hand, smashing the windows of a BJP office. A straw effigy with a garland of sneakers around its neck and a Modi mask for a face is set ablaze. Trinamool Congress MPs are flabbergasting Delhi police by sitting in dharna and singing Ekla chalo re en masse. There's a full programme of resistance — rail roko, protest marches, road blocks.
Tollywood stars and political lightweights like Tapas Pal are one thing. But Sudip Bandopadhyay, Trinamool leader in the Lok Sabha, is another matter entirely. Mamata Banerjee has made it clear that she's not going to take his arrest lying down. She sees the CBI arrests of her MPs as pure vendetta by the BJP government — Trinamool-bandi after notebandi.
The Centre will say the CBI is just doing its job, investigating a financial scam. Trinamool will say the timing of CBI's renewed vigour smells of vendetta. Both could be true. We will never know for sure what the CBI would have done or not done, if Mamata Banerjee had not been as vociferous against demonetisation.
But one thing we know sure.
That which we call a Rose Valley
By any other name would smell as murky.
Mamata Banerjee is not defending Rose Valley or Saradha. She is claiming to be a victim of vindictive selective outrage. What about BJP and the Pearl group chit fund scam, she asks. Tapas Pal has named Union minister Babul Supriyo as being close to the Rose Valley boss. Supriyo has countered by threatening a defamation lawsuit against Pal. But Trinamool's Derek O'Brien posted a video where a smiling Supriyo poetically calls himself a flower in Rose Valley's garden. Aah, the good old days, when they all promised us a rose garden.
Saradha and Rose Valley are different schemes. Rose Valley had a plan where investors booked holidays or land by paying monthly instalments and at the end could opt for a return on the investment with annualised interest. Saradha was a consortium of over 200 companies running a Ponzi scheme promising astronomical returns of over 20% and generous commissions for its agents. Rose Valley is much bigger and far more wide-ranging than Saradha, some say seven times its size. But the booming success of both point to something rotten in the state of Bengal. This was not just naïve villagers tempted by get-rich-quick dreams. Everyone bought into it with gusto.
Mamata Banerjee is not defending Rose Valley or Saradha. She is claiming to be a victim of vindictive selective outrage
Like all Ponzi schemes, the main thing they sold was trust. That's where the politicians and film stars and television stars came in. Sudip Bandopadhyay is accused of giving speeches motivating the company's agents and vouching for its credentials. Tapas Pal was on the board of directors for a while at Rose Valley. Mithun Chakravarty returned ₹1 crore he had received from Saradha after the scam broke. Saradha claimed actor and MP Satabdi Roy was paid ₹2 lakhs a month as brand ambassador. The artist Suvaprasanna was quizzed by the Enforcement Directorate about his stake in a channel sold to Saradha. None of this necessarily implies some great web of corruption. Actor Aparna Sen who edited a magazine funded on Saradha money said she thought her magazine was being run by a publishing house.
It's understandable. Who wants to look too closely at where the money is coming from as long as it keeps coming? Who wants to look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly one that's pumping in money into a magazine or a film or a newspaper, especially in business-starved state?
What's most fascinating is how quickly Rose Valley and Saradha came to dominate the political and cultural landscape of Bengal. They were everywhere. There were Rose Valley resorts in beach towns. Rose Valley sponsored Durga Pujas across Kolkata. It was the principal sponsor for the Kolkata Knight Riders for two seasons at ₹5.5-6.5 crore. The cricketers had to wear Rose Valley logos on their t-shirts and Shah Rukh Khan shot ads for them.
Saradha sponsored NRI Bengali gatherings, set up a television channel, Tara Muzik, supporting local artistes. When Lionel Messi demanded ₹20 crore for an exhibition match in Kolkata in 2011, the sponsors went to Saradha. In its heyday, Saradha money was running eight newspapers and weeklies in five languages — Seven Sisters Post, Bengal Post, Sakalbela, Kalom, Prabhat Vara, Ajir Dainik Batori, Azad Hind, Parama. It owned FM radio stations and TV channels.
Rose Valley launched Ruposhi Bangla television channel where Tapas Pal's genial wife hosted a cooking show. Its chairman said that they planned to set up four television channels for an investment of ₹500 crore. Rose Valley produced national-award-winning films like Moner Manush, Shunyo Anko, Ashchorjo Pradip with well-known directors like Gautam Ghose. More stories are tumbling out. The New Indian Express says a top Bengali actress will be summoned soon for allegedly enabling transactions worth ₹350 crore through hawala channels for Rose Valley.
Both Saradha and Rose Valley spent lavishly to keep the stars in its rolodex happy. Foreign trips. Expensive cars. Junkets. Posh apartments. It's not just a Trinamool story. Saradha started under CPM's watch. And as Mamata never tires of pointing out, "How many times has Rose Valley hosted Roopa Ganguly and Babul Supriyo?"
What's most fascinating is how quickly Rose Valley and Saradha came to dominate the political and cultural landscape of Bengal.
Of course, they did. Rose Valley and Saradha wanted to become Brand Bengal. It wooed every celebrity and politician it could find. And a cash-starved Bengal lapped up the largesse. What was obviously more enticing, though unspoken, was that in a state where Marwaris dominated business, here finally were hugely successful Bengalis, and ones willing to spend lavishly on art, culture as well as real estate, jams and jellies and, of course, politicians. It's now a matter of deep chagrin to think that Sudipta Sen of Saradha and Gautam Kundu of Rose Valley are probably the most famous homegrown Bengali businessmen of recent times, although Kundu was technically from Tripura. But his Rolls Royce roamed the streets of Kolkata.
Mamata Banerjee wants this to be a story of BJP vendetta. The BJP wants this to be a story of Trinamool corruption. None of that helps the small investors who bought into the daydream and lost their life savings, the ones who committed suicide. But this is not just a political story or a financial one. It's a story of a state that willingly suspended disbelief and went starry-eyed over the flashy wealth of businessmen who came in from nowhere. It shows a different kind of bankruptcy, of a state given little else to believe in. Now the Rolls Royce has turned into a pumpkin. And not just its politicians, but Bengal itself, has been left red-faced.
As the song goes:
When you take you gotta give so live and let live and let go oh oh oh oh
I beg your pardon I never promised you a rose garden
I could promise you things like big diamond rings
But you don't find roses growin' on stalks of clover
So you better think it over.
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