Congress chief Sonia Gandhi on Wednesday (September 9) appointed the party’s leader in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the new president of West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee (WBPCC).
The appointment came over a month after the former state party chief Somen Mitra passed away on July 30. The appointment of Chowdhury assumes significance ahead of the 2021 state Assembly polls in Bengal.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury: A veteran leader
Chowdhury is one of two Congress leaders who won from West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, as the party as a whole performed disastrously across the country.
He is a five-time MP from Berhampore in Murshidabad district, and a former member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. The 64-year-old leader has earlier served as WBPCC president between February 2014 and September 2018.
In Parliament, besides being leader of the Congress in the Lower House, Chowdhury is chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee. He has previously served as Minister of Sate (MoS) for Railways in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s UPA-2 government from October 2012 to May 2014.
Chowdhury is the most popular Congress leader in Bengal now. He is also a strong critic of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her policies. Despite the Congress having been reduced to a fringe player in the state, Chowdhury has succeeded in protecting his citadel in Berhampore.
A firebrand leader, Chowdhury has never shied away from expressing his views and opinions fearlessly, inviting criticism from a section of party leaders.
Chowdhury was instrumental in forging an electoral understanding with the Left Front in West Bengal ahead of the 2016 Bengal Assembly polls. Although the Trinamool Congress retained power in the state, the Congress managed to win 44 seats under his leadership, and became the principal opposition in the state.
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Some recent setbacks
Following the Assembly elections, however, several Congress MLAs defected to the ruling TMC, raising questions on Chowdhury’s leadership qualities. He was criticised for not being able to retain these MLAs.
At present, the Congress has 24 MLAs in the West Bengal Assembly. While 17 of its MLAs defected to the TMC, one joined the BJP after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
In 2018, Chowdhury was replaced with veteran party leader Somen Mitra. However, this appointment failed to turn the tide in favour of the Congress as more party workers and local leaders continued to defect to the TMC.
Despite his best efforts, Mitra failed to forge an electoral alliance with the Left Front ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. As a result, the party could win only two seats from the state, and received a meagre 5.67 per cent of the vote, 4.03 percentage points less than what it had got in the 2014 general elections.
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Going into the Assembly elections of next year, the party needs a strong and popular leader to revitalise its organisation. Chowdhury fits the bill – he has shown the ability to fire up the party’s rank and file before an election.
Politically, Chowdhury’s appointment indicates that the leadership of the Congress is inclined towards seeking out an understanding with the Left Front for the 2021 polls. Chowdhury has always advocated an alliance with the Left rather than with the Trinamool.
However, it will be a daunting task for Chowdhury to manage his roles as Congress leader in Lok Sabha and Bengal Congress chief. As the Assembly elections approach, he will have to spend more time in the state than in the national capital.
It is clear from Chowdhury’s stance against the TMC government that no alliance would be possible between the two parties as long as he is at the helm of the Bengal Congress unit. The ruling party, which faces a powerful challenge from the BJP, will have to go it alone in the polls if the Congress and Left Front forge an alliance.
The BJP meanwhile, will have its own set of worries. A Congress-Left alliance will mean a three-cornered fight in the elections, a situation that does not favour the saffron camp. The BJP stands to gain from a division of votes – that was a contributing factor in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, in which the party won 18 seats.