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Saradha, till the last breath
- How the scandal became a sleeper hit at the campaign box office

Calcutta, May 10: Saradha became the sleeper hit of Campaign 2014 in Bengal, capturing the trail that once looked set to be ruled by Mamata Banerjee’s national ambitions and entertained by her troupe of celebrity candidates.

But Saradha exploded on the political firmament on the eve of the first day of polling in Bengal and stubbornly stayed there till the last day of campaigning, finding ballast in arrests by the Enforcement Directorate and an order by the Supreme Court for a CBI probe.

So much so that the Trinamul campaign crescendo on Saturday revolved around “Sanchaita” and “Overland”, references to companies that got caught up in fund-raising controversies when the Left was in power.

Trinamul workers crisscrossed the city on auto-rickshaws and pick-ups, highlighting over loudspeakers the steps taken by the government for the duped depositors of Saradha.

“Our government set up a commission to inquire into the Saradha default and paid compensation to those cheated by the group. The Sanchaita and Overland scams had happened during Left rule. What did the Left government do for the victims?” the loudspeakers blared.

Narendra Modi, the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister, raked up the Saradha issue at a rally in Siliguri on April 10, holding the Bengal government responsible for the scam and promising stern action against the guilty if his party came to power at the Centre.

With the central Enforcement Directorate arresting Saradha chief Sudipta Sen’s wife Piyali and son Subhojit on April 16 and other visiting national leaders such as Rahul and Sonia Gandhi accusing the government of protecting those behind the scam, the issue took centre stage, eclipsing the administration’s standoff with the Election Commission over the transfer of officials.

The chief minister and other senior Trinamul leaders launched a counter-attack on Modi — who had initially extended the olive branch to Mamata at a rally in Brigade on February 5 — as well as on the CPM and the Congress. Trinamul opposed a CBI probe into the Saradha scam even as its rivals demanded one.

With the Supreme Court ordering the CBI probe yesterday, the Opposition used the two-day window before the close of campaigning for the last phase of elections (on Monday) to attack the state government.

Abdul Mannan of the Congress, Mohammad Salim of the CPM and Rahul Sinha of the BJP held street-corner meetings, small rallies and media conferences throughout the day, saying the CBI probe would “reveal the truth”.

State BJP chief Sinha held two public meetings in the Calcutta North Lok Sabha seat, which he is contesting.

“Why did the government oppose a CBI inquiry into the Saradha scam? Had the CBI begun probing the scandal a year ago, the truth could have been unearthed by now,” he told his meetings in wards 5 and 16.

Later, Sinha told this newspaper that BJP supporters “shouted slogans against the government’s attempts to cover up the scandal” at a roadshow in his constituency.

“Narendra Modi was the first national leader to broach the Saradha issue in public,” he said.

BJP workers crisscrossed the Calcutta North constituency on 11 autos, criticising the state administration over loudspeakers.

Congress Rajya Sabha MP Pradip Bhattacharya described the CBI probe into the Saradha scam as the “last nail in Trinamul’s coffin” at a rally he addressed in Entally to campaign for Calcutta North candidate Somen Mitra.

Mannan, the Congress’s Serampore candidate and one of the court petitioners, demanded to know how much money the state government had spent over its legal battle to prevent a CBI probe.

“By saying the government welcomed the CBI probe, finance minister Amit Mitra has misled the people. Till the last (Supreme Court) hearing, the government had opposed the CBI probe. They must come clean on how much money was spent in the legal battle,” he said at a media conference.

Salim, a CPM central committee member and Raiganj candidate, echoed Mannan at a news conference in Alimuddin Street.

“The chief minister says the government is bankrupt and yet crores were spent to cover up the scandal and oppose a CBI investigation,” he said.

The Opposition expects the apex court verdict to have an impact on polling in East Midnapore, South 24-Parganas, North 24-Parganas and Nadia, where a large number of people lost their life’s savings when the Saradha Group went bust in April last year. Fourteen of the 17 seats that go to the polls on Monday are in these districts.

Some Trinamul leaders said the possible impact of the court verdict on the polls was difficult to predict because the vote was just two days away.