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Inside TMC, Abhishek Banerjee puts his foot down and sets off a churn

More than a rift between the West Bengal Chief Minister and her heir apparent nephew, the tension reflects the friction within the TMC as the 34-year-old tries to find his feet, and the old guard resents his rise.

Written by Atri Mitra , Sourav Roy Barman | Kolkata, New Delhi |
Updated: January 19, 2022 7:30:07 pm
Since last week, the tension has spilled in the open, with TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee calling Abhishek's statements a “challenge to the state government” and declaring he didn't consider the 34-year-old his leader.

Between Abhishek Banerjee’s ‘Diamond Harbour Model’ and Mamata Banerjee’s Gangasagar Mela one, the Trinamool Congress can seem like speaking in different voices. However, more than a rift between the West Bengal Chief Minister and her heir apparent nephew, the tension reflects the friction within the TMC as the 34-year-old tries to find his feet, and the old guard resents his rise.

Anointed the unofficial No. 2 in the TMC after the party returned to power earlier this year, Abhishek has taken positions several times in the past few months that went against the official line: in the civic polls, where he suggested that relatives of leaders or those with a tainted background not get tickets, which Mamata ignored; in his demand that no political or religious gatherings be held amidst Covid, even as the Bengal government pushed ahead with the Gangasagar Mela; in seeking a “coercion-free” civic polls, seen as an acknowledgement of the accusations of high-handedness against the TMC; and lastly in holding a “record-setting” coronavirus testing drive in his constituency at a time when the state was being questioned by the Centre over its low numbers.

Since last week, the tension has spilled in the open, with TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee calling Abhishek’s statements a “challenge to the state government” and declaring he didn’t consider the 34-year-old his leader. Several party leaders took on Kalyan over the remarks; on Saturday, another nephew of Mamata put the family’s weight behind Abhishek. Akash Banerjee tweeted an image of a poster saying “Srirampur notun shangshod chay (Srirampur wants a new MP)”; the current MP from the seat is Kalyan.

Denying any differences between Mamata and Abhishek, MP and senior leader Sougata Roy says: “There is no clash between what Abhishek Banerjee has said and the TMC government’s approach regarding the pandemic.”

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However, since Abhishek took a measured stance on Covid, appearing as the voice of reason in a business-as-usual government, as Omicron surged, the Mamata government has taken his lead. The CM hit a cautious note at the launch of the Gangasagar Mela, which her government had earlier been gung-ho about, and soon after, urged the State Election Commission to postpone the January 22 civic polls in light of Covid, as well as introduced other curbs. On Saturday, the SEC put off the polls for three weeks, a decision welcomed by Abhishek.

In social media posts, TMC leaders have been fulsome in their praise of Abhishek. Many hailed him for the record Covid tests and ‘Diamond Harbour Model’, while party mouthpiece Jago Bangla called Abhishek “a man of his words”. Chandrima Bhattacharya, Minister of State in the Health portfolio held by Mamata, congratulated Abhishek, tweeting: “You are an inspiration for many.”

Kalyan Banerjee said Abhishek had breached party discipline. “What model? There is only one model, which Mamata Banerjee has come up with… Abhishek is basically lending an advantage to the BJP,” he said, adding: “If Abhishek Banerjee can win Tripura and Goa, then I will accept him as a leader.”

As the Opposition fished in the troubled waters, wondering what was brewing between Abhishek and Mamata, TMC state secretary Kunal Ghosh hit back at Kalyan, saying: “If a leader like Abhishek says something, we as soldiers of the party should listen to it silently.” Arambagh TMC MP Aparupa Poddar demanded that Kalyan step down as Chief Whip of the party in the Lok Sabha.

Insiders say the writing actually lies between the lines. The TMC old guard, which has been with Mamata since she was a Congress streetfighter taking on the CPM, has never been comfortable with Abhishek’s rise. One of the reasons for Mamata’s then No. 2 Mukul Roy and senior leaders Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee leaving the TMC was Mamata’s support for the nephew, as he climbed the ladder from youth leader to MP, to all-India general secterary. (Roy is now back in the TMC.)

Party leaders say the new rift is the second chapter of the above. A senior leader close to Mamata says: “Only Abhishek can tell her what to do or not to do. So, if Abhishek did something and was successful, do not think this happened without Mamata’s consent.”

The leader calls it “Track 2” politics. “Mamata cannot do many things being CM, but Abhishek easily can. So, all is happening with a pre-determined script.”

TMC sources say there is another angle to Kalyan’s unhappiness – a gradual sidelining as the Bengal government’s counsel-in-chief on legal matters. “Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha with TMC support in 2018, now appears in many of the cases of the state government… apart from advocate Sanjay Basu, who is close to Abhishek,” a senior TMC leader says. Meanwhile, in September, Kalyan’s confidant Kishore Datta resigned as advocate general of West Bengal.

Another leader says Kalyan is also smarting over candidates, allegedly handpicked by Abhishek, for the party in Hooghly district, where his Lok Sabha constituency Serampore falls. While Kalyan told leaders that most of them would lose, to his chagrin, the TMC did exceedingly well in the district. Kalyan could be next expecting the focus to move to him over the one man-one post drive spearheaded by Abhishek — “Kalyan is both the Chief Whip and the chairman of the Hooghly River Bridge Commissioners,” points out a leader.

A TMC leader, who has seen Abhishek hanging around Mamata since the time he was a college student, says Mamata is conscious of not rocking the boat — to a point. “After Abhishek was appointed the national general secretary, he made it a point to visit veteran leaders and touch their feet in front of TV cameras. That was an acknowledgement that his elevation needed to be handled delicately.”

But now, Abhishek doesn’t just want the title, he also wants the respect. He knows many seniors are dismissive of him as “baccha chele (he is a kid)”. As per insiders, that is why the repositioning — as a mature leader, capable of own decisions, more moderate than the TMC’s usual rabble-rousers, more polished than its hardscrabble footsoldiers. A source says Abhishek’s stand against gatherings was also aimed at preempting any criticism for a football tournament organised in his constituency just when Covid cases were rising.

For now, the dust seems to be settling. Ghosh says: “Mamata Banerjee is the leader and Abhishek is her lieutenant. There is no fight between them. All is well.”

Adds veteran Madan Mitra: “The TMC follows two rules. One, that our leader is correct. Two, if the leader is wrong, follow rule one.”

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