Congress stalwart from West Bengal Somen Mitra died at a hospital here early Thursday. He was 78.
A three-time state Congress president, Mitra had been unable to prevent a split in the party, which resulted in the creation of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the decline of the Congress as a political power in Bengal. It was during Mitra’s second term as party president in the late 1990s that the Congress had to relinquish its position as the main opposition to the TMC.
Born in 1941 in Jessore district of erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Mitra began his political career as a student leader in the 1960s.
Groomed by Congress leaders like A B A Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Mitra became the youngest MLA in the state from Sealdah seat in 1972. He was 31. Except in 1977, Mitra continued to win the Sealdah seat from 1982 to 2006.
Fondly known as ‘Chhorda’ (younger brother), Mitra was viewed as one of the politicians of the 1960s and 70s who played a role in the fight against Naxalites in Kolkata.
He went on to become president of the Congress’s West Bengal unit for three terms — from 1992 to 1996, 1996 to 1998 and then from September 2018, and was instrumental in the party securing 82 seats in the 1996 Assembly elections.
However, as the Congress joined hands with Left Front at the Centre to back the United Front government, it lost credibility as the main opposition to the CPI(M) in West Bengal. It was then that Mamata Banerjee, who was then West Bengal Youth Congress president, began emerging as an opposition force.
There was an intra-party tussle between Mitra and Banerjee in the Bengal Congress unit. Relations between them soured further when Banerjee positioned herself against Mitra for the post of state Congress president. Mitra won the internal party election by 22 votes, during which there was much drama at Maharashtra Niwas in South Kolkata. It was learnt that he along with the then Congress national president Sitaram Kesari cornered Banerjee in the party, after which she broke away to form the TMC in 1998.
As the TMC sided with the BJP and replaced the Congress as the main Opposition to the Left Front government in Bengal by winning seven seats in the 1998 parliamentary polls, Mitra stepped down as state Congress chief. He left the Congress in 2008 and launched Pragatisheel (Progressive) Indira Congress. He merged his outfit with the TMC before 2009 Lok Sabha polls and won Diamond Harbour seat on a TMC ticket.
Mitra left the TMC in 2014 following differences with Banerjee and rejoined the Congress. He became Congress president again in 2018.
Mitra was one of the chief strategists behind the Left Front-Congress alliance in the 2016 Assembly elections. He was keen on such an alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but it could not materialise. Mitra, as well as Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, was opposed to any alliance with the TMC.
Mitra was admitted in Belle Vue Clinic for 17 days due to heart and kidney ailments. Hospital sources said he died following a cardiac arrest. Earlier, he had tested negative for Covid-19.
His wife Sikha told reporters: “He knew nothing but politics. His heart remained there. We told him to stay away from politics due to his deteriorating health. But he continued.”
Mitra is survived by his wife and son.
His body was taken to state Congress headquarters from the hospital, where party workers, leaders cutting across party lines, and admirers paid final tribute. The mortal remains were taken to the Assembly where MLAs paid their respects and then to his ancestral home on Amherst Street in the evening. The cremation took place at Nimtala burning ghat.
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