The latest revelations in the Saradha chit fund scam have robbed West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of her greatest political currency: her image as an honest politician. The image embossed in the minds of her Bengali supporters was of a leader who wears slippers worth Rs 30 and a saree worth Rs 300, and few other adornments. But it is this perception of probity that she no longer enjoys.

In 30 years as a politician, she has never been charged with corruption, unlike many of her contemporaries in other states. But the Ponzi schemes operated by the Saradha group threaten to engulf the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, and it does not look like Banerjee will emerge unsullied.

Biggest beneficiary
On Saturday, Kunal Ghosh, chief executive officer of Saradha’s media wing and a suspended representative of the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha, spoke to the media outside Calcutta High Court. Ghosh, who has been in jail since November 2013, alleged that Banerjee was the biggest beneficiary of the Saradha scam. “For the truth to emerge,” he added, “Mamata must be questioned.”

Bengali newspapers have published the 91-page confession letter written by Ghosh in jail, which is packed with incendiary details of meetings Mamata allegedly had with the prime suspect in the Saradha scam, Sudipto Sen. This confession counters Banerjee’s claim that she had only met Sen at a few public functions and knew nothing of the scale of operation of the Saradha companies.

Ghosh describes a meeting at a government guesthouse in Delo in Darjeeling district attended by him, Sudipto Sen, former railways minister Mukul Roy, and the chief minister. Ghosh says that Banerjee also met Gautum Kundu, proprietor of the Rose Valley group of companies, on the same visit to Delo. Kundu’s Rose Valley group is under investigation by the Security and Exchanges Board of India for involvement in another chit fund scam.

In his confession letter, Ghosh writes that Banerjee used this meeting to ask Sen for help in starting an English news channel and newspaper based out of New Delhi, with a view to generating favourable news coverage for the Trinamool Congress. The idea was to project Banerjee as a candidate for the prime minister’s chair, should the possibility of a third front government arise after the Lok Sabha elections.

No response
Mamata Banerjee has not refuted the claims made by her former MP, only dismissing him as a “rotten fruit in the party” who needed to be removed for his misdeeds. But her opponents have not been shy in seizing the opportunity.

On Sunday, Amit Shah made his first visit to Kolkata as Bharatiya Janata Party president. Speaking at a rally organised before the Assembly by-elections at Chowringhee, Shah attacked the chief minister as partymen shouted “Gali gali mein shor hai, Mamata Banerjee chor hai” in the background.

At a press conference on Monday, senior Congress Party of India (Marxist) leader Gautam Deb said that the founder of the TMC would end up in jail for her role in the Saradha scam.

A robust defence
It is not easy for the TMC leadership to rubbish the claims of Kunal Ghosh. He was not only an MP of their party but the de facto number two. Banerjee entrusted him with media-related responsibilities and he was ever present at public functions.

When the Saradha scam was first uncovered, Banerjee defended Kunal Ghosh earnestly, attacking the media and opposition for sullying his name. At a public function at Khudhiram Anushilam Kendra in May 2013 she said: “Is Kunal a thief? Tumpai [the nickname of TMC MP Srinjoy Bose] a thief? Mukul a thief? Am I a thief? And you all are pious. Remember if they are thieves, then you are also not innocent.”

Ghosh has attacked his former boss because he believes he is being made a scapegoat while Sudipto Sen will escape. The story is so charged at the moment that anything Ghosh says becomes headline news in the state. West Bengal police are determined to keep Ghosh away from the media, so much so that he suffered a minor injury outside court the other day after being forcibly whisked away by the police.

Mamata Banerjee’s great political strength has been that she has seemed to always have the interests of the poorest at heart. This link to a chit fund scam, a kind of financial fraud that specifically targets the poor and uneducated, has hurt her image tremendously.

After Saradha, Mamata may no longer be anyone’s didi.