When a Ponzi scheme goes bust, widespread collateral damage is inevitable. But when a whole bunch of media persons find themselves caught in the middle of the disaster, it isn’t merely small ripples that are set off. Full-blown turbulence is the result.
Besides swindling the poorest of the poor in Bengal and its neighbouring states and pushing several hapless agents and investors to the brink of suicide, the disgraced Saradha boss has left a whole bunch of unsuspecting print and television journalists in a professional cul-de-sac.
In fact, this was infinitely worse than the collapse of the infamous Sanchayita chit fund business in the early 1980s. Back then, it was essentially the middle class that was affected. People who invested in that scheme were from the salaried segment and some even got back a fraction of their money even though one of the promoters committed suicide, another was declared insolvent, and the third one is still at large.
This time around, an overwhelming majority of the victims are from the ‘grassroots’ – not surprising in a state that is ruled by the ‘Trinamool’ Congress – and are now in the care of a government that has lame damage control measures that are destined to go up in smoke.
Senior journalist Seema Guha, who was from the outset in the Delhi bureau of The Bengal Post, has since written: “…Very early on it was clear that this organization was different from any other newspaper outfit any of us had worked for previously.”
Sen’s ways with money were, to say the least, cavalier. After all it was other people’s money that he was playing with. The finances of the man’s fly-by-night financial operation, which flourished under the patronage of several influential Trinamool Congress leaders, including journalist-turned-CEO-turned-Rajya Sabha MP Kunal Ghosh, were never above board.
For the journalists trapped in Sen’s web, the writing was up on the wall when their salaries began to get delayed. He was basically a small-time operator with ambitions that far outstripped his abilities. To make matters worse, he had “no clue about running a media business”. His hit-and-run tactics had utter incompetence written all over them. He lurched from crisis to crisis until his misdeeds eventually blew up in his face.
Why, then, did so many hard-nosed journos get sucked into the vortex of an empire that clearly had no future? It was probably Sen’s initial burst of success that misled many. The Saradha Group launched its flagship venture, Saradha Realty India, in 2008. In 2009, Mamata Banerjee’s TMC joined the UPA-2 government at the Centre and Sen’s meteoric rise began.
His group was primarily a non-banking finance company that was, into chit funds. More and more people reposed faith in his schemes and he was flush with ill-gotten cash. So even seasoned journalists had no way of fathoming what lay in store for them when The Bengal Post was launched in mid-June 2010.
The under-wiring of Sen’s core business was pretty uncomplicated but clearly designed for unabashed exploitation: engage unemployed people to serve as agents of the company. These agents would snare depositors by holding out the promise of fabulous returns, the kind that no conventional bank or financial institution could possibly match.
To buttress his credibility and secure political support, Sen launched a slew of newspapers in English, Hindi, Urdu and Bangla. He also acquired several existing television channels, including Tara News and Tara Music. He also launched a 24x7 news channel, Channel 10.
In quick succession, Sen launched Sakalbela, a Bengali daily published from Kolkata, Siliguri, Agartala and Guwahati; Azad Hindi, an Urdu daily; Kalam, an Urdu periodical; Prabhat Barta, a Hindi daily; Paroma, a women’s magazine in Bengali; and Seven Sisters Post, an English daily in Guwahati. By 2012, he owned as many as 18 publications and TV channels that employed a total of over 1,000 media personnel, besides hundreds of non-journalistic employees.
Although Sen kept a low profile and was rarely seen in public events, he went about cultivating senior TMC leaders. Bengal transport and sports minister Madan Mitra was roped in to head the association of Saradha’s agents. TMC spokesperson Mukul Roy, too, was known to be close to the Saradha Group. Bengali film actress and Lok Sabha member Shatabdi Roy became Saradha’s brand ambassador.
In his signed confession to CBI, Sen has named many who allegedly had associations with him. Among them is Assam’s health and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, a known Congress dissident leader who does not see eye to eye with chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav Gogoi. Sen has claimed that he paid Rs 3 crore to Sarma, who is also the owner of News Live channel, for unspecified favours.
Any media venture that is designed to serve a purpose other than what it is essentially meant to be – a platform for objective dissemination news and views – is destined to run into trouble. While even the mainstream media in India today is a seriously compromised entity, the spate of newspapers and channels launched in recent years by real estate tycoons and other non-media entrepreneurs have only muddied the waters further.
On Tara Music, a popular channel owned by the Saradha Group, tearful anchors announced that they would not be on air anymore as the plug had been pulled on the service. The last nail has been driven into the coffin of Saradha’s print publications and no tears are being shed for the robber baron.