|Rahul Gandhi in Behrampore.
Picture by Amit Datta
Behrampore, April 19: Rahul Gandhi today accused the Mamata Banerjee government of protecting those behind the Saradha scandal, picking up from where Narendra Modi left off and seeking to chip away at her so far invincible shield of probity.
“Hum garibon ki baat karte hein, unke bhojan ki baat karte hein, auraat ki adhikar ki baat karte hein…. Aur Mamataji chit fund ki baat karti hein, Saradha ki baat karti hein (We talk about poor people, their right to food and women’s rights…. Mamataji talks about chit funds and Saradha),” the Congress vice-president said, his last few words drowned in the applause from the audience at the Friends’ Union Club Ground at Behrampore.
A leader of a party plagued by corruption scandals summoning the nerve to challenge the Mamata government’s integrity in her own state and drawing an enthusiastic response — although Behrampore is a Congress stronghold — is not too familiar a sight in Bengal.
That it had touched a raw nerve was soon evident. “Amake jail-e pathak, dekhe nebo (Let them send me to jail, I will see),” Mamata thundered in Malda a few hours after Rahul’s speech in Behrampore. “Chorer maayer boro gola (A thief’s mother shouts the loudest),” she added.
The change in tone was apparent as Mamata had not referred to the Saradha scandal at an earlier meeting in North Dinajpur that took place before Rahul spoke.
Political guests touring Bengal used to steer clear of raking up Saradha, probably because of the chief minister’s unassailable reputation and a belief that no charge would stick. The Trinamul success in the panchayat polls was also projected as a sign that the government had survived the Saradha fallout.
But Modi bucked the trend by referring to Saradha in Siliguri and openly spoke of “loot”. By coincidence or otherwise, a catalyst was bunged into the Saradha pot by the Enforcement Directorate that arrested Saradha chief Sudipta Sen’s wife and son. The two were arrested by a central agency from under the nose of Bengal police who were unable to do so for nearly a year.
The Opposition has smelt blood and is not pulling its punches. Yesterday, Mamata’s predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacherjee had gone to the extent of saying: “The symbol of honesty has become the symbol of Saradha.”
Today, it was Rahul’s turn. This is the first time that Rahul has directly targeted Mamata over the scandal, unlike the past when he restricted himself to criticising the state government for its failure to utilise central funds.
“Around 20 lakh families have had to suffer, over Rs 18,000 crore was involved in the scam…. It was your money, poor people’s money. But Mamataji’s government is not taking any action and protecting the people behind the scam,” Rahul said.
“The scam should be probed by the CBI, but the state government is not doing anything. Because they know that the day the probe is started, their own people will be exposed,” Rahul said.
The Bengal government has been opposing a probe by the central agency, saying it has done the needful by setting up a special investigation team and a probe commission under a retired judge.
Over 20,000 people had assembled at the Murshidabad district headquarters, around 200km from Calcutta, to take part in the rally, organised to drum up support for the three Congress candidates from the district — Adhir Chowdhury from Behrampore, Abhijit Mukherjee from Jangipur and Mannan Hossain from Murshidabad.
Saradha featured at a rally in Malda, too, earlier in the day when Rahul said the state government had done nothing despite repeated prods from markets watchdog Sebi and the ED. Rahul had attended the Malda rally for party nominees from the district, Mausam Benazir Noor and Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury.
Malda and Murshidabad are both vital to the Congress. In 2009, the two districts had given the party five of its six MPs from Bengal.
Rahul, who appeared to have a bad throat when he took the stage at the Behrampore rally, was equally virulent in his attack when he spoke on women’s safety in Bengal. “While we are talking about women’s empowerment, setting up police stations for women and inducting more women into the police force, Mamataji’s government is creating new records. Bengal tops the list of atrocities against women…. Bengal records the highest number of rapes in the country even as it has a woman chief minister,” he said in both Malda and Murshidabad.
At the Malda rally, Rahul also dwelt on the primary teacher eligibility test - another uncomfortable topic for Mamata - when he referred to how only those affiliated to Trinamul had been recruited as teachers. Of the 17.5 lakh candidates wrote the test on March 31 last year, 18,793 qualified and were recruited.
Although the Congress's fight is primarily with the Left in these two districts, Rahul's attack on Trinamul was a strategic move, sources said. “As Trinamul is the ruling party, some of our supporters are shifting their loyalties to Trinamul, which can be costly for us in the elections…. So it was good that Rahulji’s main attack was on Trinamul,” said a Congress source.
In Behrampore, for instance, Rahul started his speech by saying the Mamata government had failed to fulfil what the people had expected when they voted for change in the 2011 Assembly elections.
“When Mamataji came, we thought there would be development in Bengal…. But only the colour of the flags changed from red to green. In the Left regime, only supporters of the Left prospered… Similarly, in the Trinamul regime, only Trinamul workers are benefiting…. The poor people are not getting any benefits,” said Rahul, before stealing a glance at Chowdhury, the state Congress president.