Serampore, April 27: Narendra Modi today promised the “sternest action” against those behind the Saradha scandal if his party came to power, the announcement following one of the sharpest attacks on Mamata Banerjee by any politician in recent times.
As Modi sank one rapier thrust after another, one of his most teasing questions milked the allegation that Saradha chief Sudipta Sen had spent Rs 1.8 crore buying Mamata’s paintings.
Another swipe that is certain to touch a raw nerve was his charge that Mamata had done more damage to Bengal in 35 months than what the Left did in 35 years.
“After a (new) government is formed in Delhi, the sternest action will be taken,” the BJP prime ministerial candidate told a cheering crowd of 60,000 to 70,000, a chunk of which had spilled outside a packed Serampore stadium.
His 53-minute speech was a study in contrast with the two others he had delivered in Bengal this election season. On February 5 at Calcutta’s Brigade Parade Grounds, Modi had been soft on Mamata, still trying to reach out to her, but he mentioned Saradha towards the end of his April 10 speech in Siliguri.
| BJP state chief Rahul Sinha (left) ‘corrects’ Narendra Modi’s figure on the alleged price of one of Mamata’s paintings. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
Today, Saradha was his main theme at a time the apex court’s verdict is awaited on a plea for a CBI probe, joined in by Bengal’s entire Opposition and fiercely opposed by the Trinamul Congress government.
Modi seemed to adopt a tone of mock concern, affecting the pose of a pained elder and well-wisher keen to advise Mamata on political dos and don’ts for her own good.
“Mamataji, I know you are a good painter and your paintings used to sell at Rs 2 lakh, Rs 4 lakh, Rs 15 lakh.… But why did your painting once sell for more than Rs 1 crore?” he asked.
The question was of a piece with Modi’s recently acquired knack for raising local matters everywhere on the back of research by his team, but this time his homework seemed a little perfunctory.
State BJP president Rahul Sinha quickly got up from his seat and whispered into his ears, and Modi corrected the figure: “Will you please tell the people of Bengal who bought one of your paintings for Rs 1.8 crore?”
Sinha later told The Telegraph: “Finally, my efforts have paid off. I’ve been trying to highlight this issue for long. Today, Modiji spoke about it.”
During the 2011 Assembly polls, Mamata had claimed her party was meeting its election expenses by selling her paintings at exhibitions. There was, however, no disclosure of the buyers’ identities. The insinuations about Sudipta Sen surfaced after the Saradha bust. Trinamul tonight asked Modi to furnish proof or face a defamation suit.
Modi continued to fuss about his “respect” for Mamata. “Mamataji, I respect you; that’s why I’m trying to draw your attention to something I have come to know from people and the newspapers,” he said. “This is not good for you. So, it’s my responsibility to let you know publicly that people are talking about it.”
But he never took the focus off Saradha, even playing on the group’s name, which he said was synonymous with Saraswati, the goddess of learning.
“Yeh bhumi Saraswati ke pujariyon ki bhumi hai, jo Saradha naam se bhi jani jati hai.... Lekin jis Saradha ki hum puja karte the, wohi Saradha chit fund ban gayi (This is the land of worshippers of Saraswati, who is also known as Saradha. But the Saradha we worship has become Saradha chit fund),” he said.
“Mamataji, we didn’t expect this from you — you have destroyed the dreams of the people of Bengal.”
Aware that the Left and the Congress too are trying to gain from the Saradha collapse, which has affected lakhs of small depositors, Modi tried to link the Congress with the scam by asking what Union finance minister P. Chidambaram had done till now.
“Mamataji and Chidambaramji are trying to shield people behind the scam,” he alleged.
Modi said there was no difference between Mamata, the Congress and the Left. “She still retains the habits of the Congress and is walking on the Left’s path.”
The assault comes at a time Mamata has been targeting Modi and his party at almost all her rallies, apparently in an attempt to woo Bengal’s substantial minority votes. “She is engaged in vote bank politics. Mamataji, you have such a love of power!” Modi said. “You have done more damage to the state in 35 months than the Left has in 35 years.”
The BJP later alleged that Trinamul activists attacked some of its supporters on their way to the rally.