The arrest of Trinamool MP, Kunal Ghosh, has further unspooled the Saradha scam and shown his close links to CM Mamata Banerjee. Will his dramatic behavior jeopardize her even further?
By Sajeda Momin
All of us have heard about drama queens. But I know of a drama king—the jailed Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Kunal Ghosh—who swallowed sleeping pills in his cell in November to the delight of Kolkata’s print and electronic media. Some dismissed the suicide bid as “staged” but Ghosh achieved exactly what he wanted. He hogged the limelight and tore into TMC chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
It was a very different Ghosh I first set my eyes on in May 2011, in The Bengal Post ’s editor’s office. In those days, he was in love with his didi—Mamata Banerjee. The Bengal Post was an English newspaper started in 2010 by a company called Saradha, owned by an unknown but “rich” Bengali businessman named Sudipta Sen.
Today, Saradha and Sudipta Sen are known across the country, thanks to the spectacular way the ponzi scam run by Sen went bust over a year-and-a-half ago. Sen and his executive director, Debjani Mukherjee, have been in jail since April 2013 for defrauding lakhs of poor investors.
But with the cyclonic speed that the CBI is progressing, the scam is threatening to now sweep up many TMC MPs and ministers in its swirl and throw them into jail, even threatening to destroy Mamata and her house of cards.
Once an acolyte of Mamata Banerjee, Kunal Ghosh has now implicated her in the Saradha scam
Ghosh, who claims to be “just a journalist”, first came close to Mamata when he worked for the Bengali newspaper Sangbad Pratidin, owned by Swapan Sadhan Bose, a shipping magnate known by his nickname “Tutu”. Bose was close to Mamata and was said to be one of her loyal financiers ever since she broke away from the Congress and launched her grassroots outfit in 1998. In return, Mamata sent Tutu to the Rajya Sabha as a TMC MP in 2005, and when his term expired in 2011, she replaced him in parliament with his eldest son, Srinjoy Bose, whom she affectionately calls by his pet name “Tumpai”. Ghosh’s meteoric rise in Sangbad Pratidin, from reporter to executive editor in July 2012, is said to have happened because he was seen as Bose’s hat-chet man as well as the conduit between his family and Mamata. Strangely, he was also CEO of Saradha Media.
So close was Ghosh to Mamata that she could often be seen holding his hand to climb up a dias at events. She called him her younger brother and listened to his counsel—or so Ghosh would tell people. His proof of their closeness was that at the annual “Martyr’s Day” show of strength that the TMC organized on July 21, Mamata made him Master of Ceremonies despite him not being a member of the TMC. This was much to the annoyance of many in the party who felt they had a prior claim. This public show of affection by Mam-ata sealed any doubts that people had about their closeness.
In a measure of the growing taint of the Saradha scam, West Bengal Transport Minister Madan Mitra was arrested on December 12 for his role in it. He was booked for cheating, criminal conspiracy and misappropriation.
The first time that Ghosh entered the offices of The Bengal Post was just a few days after Mamata had won the West Bengal asse-mbly elections in 2011. He swaggered into the editor’s office wearing a blue kurta-pyjama and a smug smile. Ghosh had summoned all the senior editors of the English daily to offer his pearls of wisdom. He proceeded to tells us that as a close confidante of Mamata, he knew that she did not read any English newspaper as they all attacked her and she didn’t trust them. Here lay The Bengal Post ’s opportunity, Ghosh said. It could become the English newspaper that defended her, and then grinning like a Cheshire cat, he added: “I want Didi to wake up every morning, look at The Bengal Post and smile.” From that evening, Ghosh’s name began to appear on the printline of The Bengal Post as CEO.
The newsroom was abuzz. Things were getting weirder and weirder. Among the journalistic fraternity, Ghosh had a reputation of a power-broker, not as a good reporter. Was Ghosh leaving Pratidin to join Saradha, everyone wondered? In 2010, Sen had bought Channel 10, a 24-hour Bengali news channel, just prior to the launch of The Bengal Post. Scathing articles about Sen began to appear in Sangbad Pratidin. Shockingly, a few months later, Channel 10 began to air dual logos—on the top left corner was the Saradha logo and on the top right was Pratidin’s logo. It seemed odd that the channel owned by Saradha did not advertise the other media ventures in its own house, but promoted a rival media house. Saradha and Pratidin had apparently entered into a media tie-up. There were rumors that Sen was doing it to please Mamata as the winds of change were blowing through Bengal and it looked clear that Didi was going to become the next chief minister. Sen would need her on his side if he was to continue with his businesses.
Even as the CEO of Saradha, Ghosh did not disassociate himself from Pratidin.
In fact, in July 2012, he went on to be promoted as executive editor of Pratidin. His salary in Saradha, he himself later admitted, was `15 lakh a month and yet, he was never seen to be doing anything to promote any of the newspapers or channels owned by it. In fact, except for the printline, Ghosh did not like to be referred to as CEO of the Saradha group. In a Bengal Post news report immediately after he became MP, he was introduced as CEO Saradha group and he promptly lambasted the editor and told him to refer to him only as MP.
Sudipto Sen’s disclosures have brought out more skeletons from the Saradha scam cupboard
The only other time we saw Ghosh was in early 2012 when he forced Sen to hold a day-long Saradha media conference in Kolkata. More than a 1,000 journalists from the Saradha group’s media stable around the country were invited. Ghosh took the stage and then dramatically took out his mobile phone and asked: “Do you know who I have just received a SMS from? Yes, it’s Didi. She has congratulated me for holding such a good event and expressed her apologies for not being present.” He, then, went on to issue veiled threats to all journalists and Sen saying if they did not toe the Mamata line, they would not be allowed to function in Bengal. By this time, Sen had become tired of the Ghosh-Srinjoy duo and their reported attempts at “squeezing him for money” and wanted to be rid of them. But he was afraid of Didi’s wrath.
Before Sen could do anything about the situation, Srinjoy and Ghosh parted ways acrimoniously. With nowhere to go, Ghosh landed at Sen’s doorstep, along with nine “trusted” colleagues Srinjoy had thrown out of Pratidin along with him. Overnight, the staff in Sakelbela, the Saradha-owned Bengali newspaper, were made homeless as Ghosh and his cronies took over their offices. Suddenly, Ghosh was promoted to executive chairman of the Saradha group and his salary was rumored to have been doubled. It was around this time that salaries of all the other media employees began to be delayed, and eventually, stopped.
By March 2013, Sen began winding up his media outfits, claiming lack of money. Before going on the run, he sent a confessional letter to the CBI accusing Ghosh and Srinjoy of blackmailing him. When the details of the letter emerged in the press, Ghosh defended himself by saying that he was “just a salaried journalist”. But his salary was very high even by national standards. Even Srinjoy, the owner and editor-in-chief of Sangbad Pratidin, paid himself a salary of only Rs. 5 lakh a month.
Though Ghosh would flaunt his proximity to Mamata, he found her distancing from him as investigators into the chit scam turned up the heat. In November 2013, as Ghosh was being arrested, he threatened that if he went down, he would take others with him. In jail, he wrote a long letter to the CBI, implicating Srinjoy and many others in the TMC, including Mamata, in the scam. He definitely managed to bring down friend-turned-foe Srinjoy, who was finally arrested on November 21, 2014. Srinjoy had claimed that he had a business arrangement with Sen, whereby he would be paid Rs. 60 lakh a month for giving editorial support to Channel 10. However, investigators found that money paid officially to Sangbad Pratidin spiked in 2011-12 at Rs. 6.26 crore, more than media turnover of Saradha.
Each time Ghosh is taken to court, he creates a scene. Either he alleges mistreatment by the police and demands that he be allowed to address the gathered press or sits on the ground outside the courts refusing to go in, forcing officers to drag him inside, shouting and screaming. The jury is still out on whether Ghosh really tried to commit suicide in Presi-dency Jail on November 14 or whether it was just another plea for attention.
But one thing is for sure, Ghosh certainly has a stomach for drama.