Slightly more than a year after the collapse of various Ponzi schemes operated by the West Bengal-based Saradha Financial Group, the extent and nature of its links to the state's intelligentsia are still coming to light.

Ponzi schemes give returns to old investors from investments made by new investors rather than from profits. Saradha's scheme caused losses of about Rs 4,000 crore to roughly 1.4 million investors, most of them from poor, rural areas.

The group's links to the ruling Trinamool Congress and the state's film industry became known after the arrest of the promoter, Sudipta Sen, in April 2013, who is still in jail. Since then, prominent intellectuals have also been questioned.

The latest is Aparna Sen, an award-winning filmmaker, who was questioned by the enforcement directorate on August 18 in her capacity as the founding editor of Parama, a women-oriented Bengali magazine, launched in November 2011 and funded by the Saradha group.

Although there is no sign of wrongdoing on her part so far, many people are baffled that a filmmaker of her stature agreed to edit a magazine funded by such a dubious group.

Earlier, on July 24, the Central Burueau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate questioned Mithun Chakraborty,  actor and TMC Rajya Sabha member, about his role in events promoting the financial group's TV channels.

In April, Arpita Ghosh, a theatre actress and a TMC Lok Sabha member, was also questioned for her involvement with a Saradha-backed TV channel. She had filed an FIR in April 2013 against promoter Sudipta Sen for not paying salaries to the channel's employees.

They aren't the only intellectuals and artistes who were involved in enterprises funded by the group. Shubhaprasanna, a painter who helped build the protest movement against a proposed special economic zone in Nandigram in 2007 and who is a close aide of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, was a major shareholder of Saradha's four TV channels. Banerjee, then in the opposition, was at the forefront of these protests against this plan of the Left Front government.

From the arrest in November 2013 of Trinomool Congress parliamentarian Kunal Ghosh, the handsomely paid former chief executive of Saradha's media division, to the questioning of Aparna Sen this month, it is apparent that a wide swathe of the state's literary and cultural establishment was in some way linked to this discredited group.

Huge network

Bengal has always had its share of Ponzi schemes, but Saradha took them to another level. From donating to the annual Durga Puja celebrations and the football club East Bengal to running news channels and producing films, Sudipta Sen, the group's chairman and the managing director, cast his net wide.

As he built up a huge patronage network after founding the group's companies in 2006, no one was willing to take him on, either from the political class or in intellectual circles, even though in 2009 the Security and Exchange Board of India, the stock market regulator, warned the public about Saradha.

There were exceptions: In early 2011, TMC MPs Soumen Mitra and Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury warned the public about the group's fraudulent practices.

But what Sen managed to do through Saradha was to provide a joint platform for politicians and intellectuals, who had started working together at the height of the agitations in Singur, against the Tata group's proposed car plant, and in Nandigram.

Mamata reciprocated by giving election tickets to intellectuals, traditionally supporters of Left parties, in the 2009 Lok Sabha and the 2011 assembly polls. In the latter, she routed the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, which had ruled the state for 34 years in a row.

By this time, TMC politicians had realised the huge importance of media and entertainment in keeping their power intact.

The kingpin

At hand to help was Sudipta Sen, who wanted to invest money raised from the Ponzi schemes in the film and media industries to help build the group's brand. Sen recruited Trinamool MP and actress Shatabdi Roy as the group's brand ambassador.

By 2013, the group owned eight newspapers in five languages, two Bengali news channels, two Bengali entertainment channels and one FM radio station, employing about 1,500 journalists. West Bengal transport minister Madan Mitra headed the Saradha Employees' Association.

In a controversial notification in 2012, the state government asked every public library to subscribe only to these newspapers. In return, the newspapers gave favourable coverage to the ruling party.

Saradha thus offers us the perfect example of how to create an insidious system of links between politics, business and civil society, at the end of which the intellectual class was willing to ignore the antecedents of their paymasters if they could increase their mass appeal.