“No one became a TMC leader overnight. No one took a parachute or a lift, please be aware. Had I taken a lift, I would have held 35 posts,” said Abhishek Banerjee, the nephew of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the chief of the youth wing of her party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
“If I were dropped on a parachute, I would have contested from South Kolkata Lok Sabha seat. I live in southern Kolkata but my party fielded me from Diamond Harbour in 2014 and I accepted the decision with all humility,” he said in an aggressive address to a public gathering at Satgachhina within his Lok Sabha constituency, Diamond Harbour on November 29.
Political observers read the references to ‘lift’ and ‘parachute’ in his speech as an unmistakable response to Suvendu Adhikary, the heavyweight TMC youth leader and minister who has fallen out with his party and resigned from all three ministerial berths, as well as the chairmanship of Hooghly River Bridge Commission and Haldia Development Authority.
The mention of Dakshin (or South) Kolkata was pertinent because Mamata Banerjee represented the constituency since 1991 until becoming the chief minister, and it implied that he did not inherit the party chief's constituency.
On October 31, Adhikary, addressing an apolitical organisation declared that he neither took a lift nor a parachute and that he had climbed up the stairs one at a time, an obvious reference to the meteoric rise of Abhishek Banerjee through the ranks of the party since the TMC came to power in 2011.
Adhikari was one of Mamata Banerjee’s frontline lieutenants since 2006, and helped the party grow in several districts after the TMC came to power. He has not yet resigned from the party’s highest decision-making body, the seven-member steering committee, but TMC leaders told Outlook on November 30 that the party ‘had very little hope’ of retaining him.
Abhishek Banerjee’s apparent response to Adhikari from the Satgachhia rally made it clear that the party chief was ready to let Adhikari go but not ready to compromise her nephew’s position, a veteran TMC minister said.
“The recent trouble in the TMC over the rebellion of Adhikary and some other MLAs, and most of the troubles over the past three years, have been trigged by the battle of succession. Mamata Banerjee has firmly installed her nephew as her heir and many old-timers who helped the party come to power are unwilling to accept his leadership,” said pshephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata.
“This is true for such heavyweights as Mukul Roy and Sovan Chatterjee, as also the likes of Saumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra,” Chakraborty added.
Roy, once known as Mamata Banerjee’s right-hand-person, is now a BJP national vice-president, and Hazra a national secretary, while Khan is a BJP Lok Sabha MP and state youth wing chief. Chatterjee, though he joined the BJP, has not been active so far due to some personal matters.
Abhishek Banerjee has been at the centre of many controversies over the past few years, and has been a central target of disgruntled TMC leaders and leaders from its rival parties – the BJP, the Left and the Congress.
“No one having any hunger for work can find a comfort zone in the TMC as long as there is the bhaipo,” said Khan, who was a TMC Lok Sabha MP and youth wing chief. Abhishek had replaced Khan as the youth wing chief in 2014.
“Everybody knows that in Bengal, only the aunt and her nephew have freedom of speech,” said BJP state unit president Dilip Ghosh.
The TMC government in the state has frequently been dubbed as ‘pishi-bhaipor sarkar’ or the government of the aunt and her nephew, by leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, Dilip Ghosh, the Congress’ Lok Sabha leader and state unit president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, and the Left’s leader in the state Assembly, Sujan Chakraborty.
From his Satgachhia rally, Abhishek took digs at all these leaders for referring to him as bhaipo. “You remember how Modi said during the (2019) election campaign that bhatija ka batti gul honey wala hain… BJP leaders of all levels talk only one thing – bhatija, which is bhaipo in Bengali. The bhaipo is at the centre of all the verbal attacks of the leaders of the Left, the Congress and the BJP. They dare not to name Abhishek Banerjee. Not even the prime minister has the guts to do that. It is because of your love that I receive. Whoever named me was dragged to the court and humiliated.”
“What’s wrong if we adorably call him the nephew?” asked Dilip Ghosh the next day. “In any case, Khokababu is the new name I have for him. He joined politics as a Mama’s Boy and he is still a lap child. Those who helped build the party have now lost relevance and that lap child became an MP.”
According to filmmaker and political observer Aniket Chattopadhyay, the exit of Mukul Roy has been a loss for the TMC, and it would be another blow if Adhikary deserts too. “Abhishek’s rising influence in the party caused discomfort to a lot of TMC leaders, including MPs and ministers. The BJP will try its best to exploit this internal trouble in the TMC over Abhishek, as at the present juncture the top-most priority of both the TMC and the BJP is to weaken the other by engineering defections using internal grievances,” Chattopadhyay said.
While Abhishek’s rise through the party ranks was meteoric, indeed, his grip over the party’s organisation tightened since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in which the party fared much below its own expectations, and Mamata Banerjee decided to devote more time in the government’s work to regain people’s trust before the 2021 Assembly elections.
“Abhishek brought poll-strategist Prashant Kishor to Mamata Banerjee and since then Kishor’s team is working in coordination with Abhishek’s office. The party entrusted Kishor’s organisation not only with a recovery of the public image of the party and the government but also with organisational restructuring at every level,” said a veteran TMC MLA who did not want to be named.
A Lok Sabha MP, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “Through the process of the party’s restructuring, which happened over the past few months, Abhishek’s grip strengthened across all districts of Bengal, as the organisational changes were made based on reports prepared by Kishor’s teams and submitted at Abhishek’s office.”
The recent jibes from a number of senior TMC leader targeting the interferences of Kishor’s teams were actually veiled attacks on Abhishek’s growing clout, felt a TMC district unit president.
Over the past couple of months, Hariharpara MLA Niyamat Sheikh, Cooch Behar Dakshin MLA Mihir Goswami, Shibpur MLA Jatu Lahiri and Barrackpore MLA Shilbhadra Dutta have publicly aired their ire over how Kishor’s teams were dictating terms for them.
“A professional agency has come to lecture me about winning elections. To what extent can this be tolerated?” said an infuriated Lahiri, who has been winning the Shibpur assembly seat since 1991, with only defeat in 2006. Goswami has already joined the BJP after alleging that the party was no longer ‘in Didi’s hands’.
Abhishek’s political launch was carefully curated. A mysterious platform named Yuva emerged ahead of the 2011 Assembly elections, putting up hoardings in different districts and Kolkata calling for a change in the government. After Mamata Banerjee came to power, the TMC launched Yuva, with Abhishek at its helms, as a platform for the youth.
Yuva was launched despite the existence of the Trinamool Youth Congress, which was headed by Suvendu Adhikary. After Abhishek became an MP in 2014, Adhikary was replaced by Saumitra Khan as the youth wing chief, and within six months, Khan was replaced by Abhishek. Yuva was merged with TMYC and Abhishek formally became the youth wing chief, a post he has been holding since then.
Abhishek has his well-wishers in the party, too. One Rajya Sabha MP, who did not want to be identified, said that Abhishek may have had the advantage of being the party chief’s nephew , but “he has worked really hard, he respects the elders and has been soft-spoken.”
“Abhishek Banerjee is the most popular youth leader in Bengal and that is why he is being targeted from all around,” said TMC MLA Manas Majumdar, who represents Goghat in Hooghly. However, a senior minister in the state government said that most of those who have built a good rapport with Abhishek has done so to please Mamata Banerjee and to use Abhishek as a channel to reach her.
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