Monday, April 22, 2024

When they collected cash as if there is no tomorrow

Is Partha too close for Mamata to escape the heat?

The 2018 Ajay Devgn-starrer Raid revolves around a bold and honest income tax officer tracking the illegal cash of an influential politician from Uttar Pradesh. The officer eventually succeeds, staving off pressure from the Prime Minister and murderous mobs. The movie is back in circulation.

People in India are drawing parallels with a similar incident that took place recently in faraway Bengal, a state known for its high level of education and its artistic temperament.

In that very state, a former education minister, now the  industry minister, has been caught along with many confidants. One of the confidants had storied cash in a heap resembling a pyramid of currencies. Others own multiple properties, gold and foreign exchange.

Partha Chatterjee, a very influential member of Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is now in the custody of the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Chatterjee failed in multiple attempts to hoodwink officers of the ED. He mentioned the name of the Bengal CM and party supremo Mamata Banerjee as his relative and tried calling her unsuccessfully. This reporter has seen a copy of the report produced by the ED in a Kolkata court. The burly politician tried another ploy. His supporters pushed doctors at a state government hospital to declare Chatterjee very sick and that he needed immediate hospitalisation. The doctors at the Seth Sukhlal Karnani Medical Hospital did exactly that.

But their diagnosis did not cut much ice with the ED officers. 

Pushed by orders of a court, Chatterjee was flown in an air ambulance from Kolkata to Bhubaneswar where doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, run by the Central government, declared him fit to be taken into the custody of the ED.

SSC scam

The cash, it is now emerging, was allegedly wealth offered by gullible people who wanted their sons and daughters to be employed as teachers and clerks in state-government run schools, in what is being called the staff selection commission (SSC) scam. The education sector is the biggest zone for government-level employment in Bengal.

Chatterjee was the state education minister from 2014 to 2021 and it is now being alleged that he had a free run with those admissions; men and women under his patronage kept on seeking illegal cash from gullible aspirants. He was grilled by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in April and May this year in connection with the scam.

Preliminary investigations showed Chatterjee, whose men collected cash as if there was no tomorrow, even got school jobs for unqualified relatives of his security guards. As many as 10 such people got jobs, claims a plea filed in the Calcutta High Court.

Sudipto Dasgupta, the lawyer of the petitioner, was quoted saying: “The court has asked to add the party to the main SSC scam case and has asked them to file an affidavit about their job details and how they got it, by August 17. Biswambhar Mondal was Chatterjee’s bodyguard and it is his family who got these jobs.” Mondal’s ancestral home is in East Medinipur district’s Chandipur area. The petition said both his brothers, Bangshagopal and Devgopal, and his cousins, got jobs.

When the Aide Sang Like a Canary

Chatterjee’s friend Arpita Mukherjee, a small-time actress, told ED that the cash belonged to Chatterjee. Such was her panic during the raid that she even told the ED officers that they could take away all the cash and bury the case.

“She was in a state of total depression, she could not even speak properly,” said a top source in Kolkata. “She initially put up a brave face but collapsed when the ED officers confronted her with a diary they found at her home.”

The diary, claimed by ED officers, belongs to the Department of Higher and School Education, Bengal government, and may offer vital clues to the investigating agencies tracking the SSC scam.

Mukherjee, during interrogation, has already said the cash recovered from her home was Chatterjee’s property. The ED suspects the cash was offered by those seeking jobs in government schools.

The actor’s distraught parents told the ED officers and television reporters that they had no idea about their daughter’s alleged ill-gotten wealth. One newspaper quoted her mother saying: “Children of this generation do not tell their parents what they are doing.”

Chatterjee and Mukherjee are in the custody of the ED till August 3.

Mukherjee, say reliable sources, is not the only friend Chatterjee used to stash his ill-gotten wealth. One Manasi Guchait has confessed to ED officers that she was holding eight properties in Santiniketan, the abode of Rabindranath Tagore, on behalf of Chatterjee. These properties, claimed ED officers, are double-storeyed bungalows.

The news is a facepalm moment for TMC leaders, who have often claimed that it was the BJP that was trying to take total control of areas in and around Santiniketan.

Another Chatterjee friend, Dr Ahana Chakravarty, who is now being grilled by the ED, has confessed to owning multiple properties in and around Kolkata. Separately, Chatterjee confidant Monalisa Saha has already confessed about her links with top officials of the Awami League and BNP of neighbouring Bangladesh.

Top sources said the first trigger in this case came some months back, when a person was arrested near the Bangladesh border carrying bundles of cash. On interrogation, he confessed that he was carrying the cash to an influential politician in Kolkata.

The news about Partha and Arpita has rattled many in Kolkata. In fact, newspapers had to make space  on the front page, which had been reserved for Bengal matinee idol Uttam Kumar, who died on July 24, 1980. “It is an insult for Bengal that news of Partha Chatterjee and Jagdip Dhankar overshadowed coverage of Uttam Kumar,” said Rupayan Bhattacharya, a top editor.

Jagdeep Dhankhar, former Bengal governor and the current vice-presidential candidate of the ruling BJP-led NDA, was known for his constant bickering with the ruling TMC in Bengal.

Senior Bengal lawyer Arunava Ghosh said Chatterjee always demanded his slice of the cake wherever he worked. Old-timers allege Chatterjee’s men would also demand cash for clearing bills at the central PSU Andrew Yule.

“He is not an ordinary person, he is a top leader. This is Bengal’s biggest scandal and the final figure is not known yet,” Ghosh told this reporter on a telephonic interview.

Chatterjee has been one of the most prominent TMC faces in Bengal and is a five-time legislator from the city’s Behala Paschim Assembly constituency. The 69-year-old politician has been Mamata’s “go to” leader when it comes to dealing with organisational affairs, playing an important role in the party. Chatterjee is also a member of the party’s disciplinary committee.

The news has rattled the TMC. The SSC scam could range between Rs 400 and Rs 500 crore, though many claim the figure could be much higher.

Patronage and fear

This is not all. As interrogations continued in Kolkata, ED officers started gathering more evidence against Chatterjee and his very powerful promoter lobby, which operated in the southern fringes of the city.

Chatterjee reportedly ruled the roost in a 7km area stretching between Garia and Tollywood, home to Kolkata’s iconic movie studios. Sources say his friends, acting as promoters developing residential and office properties, had created a mafia-like grip in the area. The annual Durga puja festivities of the Naktala Udayan Sangha was organised by Arpita and Chatterjee, and many businessmen would make huge donations — not out of devotion but fear. Film stars would routinely make an appearance, as would sportspeople and academicians.

“When he started in politics, he was a humble worker. And then he started growing in stature and got complete control over the neighbourhood. Nothing would work without him and his men taking commissions. And no one could complain,” said a resident of Garia.

The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there have been countless cases where Chatterjee’s men forcefully occupied new flats purchased by outsiders and left only after they were suitably bribed.

Chatterjee, claims the ED, was in the thick of it. He loved adulation; he was the big boss of South Kolkata. Everyone listened to him.

In the custody of the ED, Chatterjee, who always went about with an entourage of at least 50 supporters, is all alone. He is no longer Sancho Panza to the TMC, nor Jabba The Hut to his supporters. He is Bengal’s biggest lone ranger. And he still does not know why the Bengal CM did not take his repeated calls, according to the ED report.

Indeed, rather than the missing cash, it is the unanswered calls that are probably bothering Chatterjee the most. 

If Mamata is not talking, would the man talk to the world about her? One suspects the sxxt could hit the roof in coming days.  

(Shantanu Guha Ray, a Wharton-trained journalist, is the Asia Editor of Central European News & Zenger News and an award-winning author. He won the 2018 Crossword award for his book, Target, which probed the NSEL payment crisis.)

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