They call him ‘Yuvraj’. While his anointment may be a long way off, blessed by aunt Mamata, Abhishek Banerjee clearly is the rising star amid the TMC turmoil.
When Mamata Banerjee arrives in Delhi today to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to seek a debt waiver for West Bengal, she will stay at 183, South Avenue. Her belongings have already been moved there from Flat No. 181, and a room readied for her. Her stay is being coordinated by the occupant of Flat No. 184, on the floor above. From No. 181, Mukul Roy will be looking on forlornly.
To those watching the turbulence within the Saradha-scam plagued Trinamool Congress, the living arrangements say it all. If Roy finds himself in the doghouse, his fall within the TMC has coincided with the rise of the occupants of the other two flats. Particularly 183’s Abhishek Banerjee, ably chaperoned by Parliament colleague and upstairs neighbour Derek O’Brien.
Mamata, who once denounced dynasty politics, has not named nephew Abhishek, 27, as her political successor. But her former No. 2 has done it for her. Shorn of all responsibilities and powers within the party, many of which have moved on to Abhishek, Roy dealt the unkindest cut in early February. “In politics, there are ups and downs,” he said. “But it does not mean that one has to clip the wings of Ahmed Patel just to empower Rahul Gandhi.”
In end November 2014, Abhishek was made president of the All India Trinamool Youth Congress, replacing a party stalwart. Two months later, after Roy’s name was dropped from the eight-member party committee to formulate strategy in both Houses of Parliament, Abhishek was named to it as a permanent invitee. O’Brien is also part of the new panel. In recent weeks, Abhishek has moved into the room where Roy used to sit on the ground floor of the Trinamool Bhavan in Kolkata’s eastern suburbs. His position as the new focal point in the TMC is uncontested.
Abhishek was prompt in playing down Roy’s Rahul Gandhi comparison, saying he saw himself as just a “block-level” party worker “responsible to the people of Bengal”. However, ‘Yuvraj’ is a title that rests easily on the nephew’s shoulders, say party insiders in private.
Top TMC leaders talk of partymen, much older in age, having to stand up before Abhishek in a show of respect at his rallies. A ring of policemen and secretaries manages his sets of mobile phones. And despite being so new to the game, he is hardly accessible to the media.
All efforts by The Sunday Express to talk to him for this article proved futile. Abhishek remained inaccessible on the phone and questions sent to him by mail, on the advice of one of his secretaries, went unanswered.
Amused partymen have also noticed Abhishek’s copying of his aunt’s style while speaking at public rallies — like her, he paces up and down the stage as he strives to make a point. He is also almost always dressed in kurta-pyjama, having learnt to keep it simple like Mamata.
In Bengal, where dynastic politics is a one-off phenomenon, and in a party whose leader has had a long and hard struggle up from the grassroots, Abhishek has taken a remarkably short four years to be counted in the top league.
It was in 2010 that the MBA graduate from Delhi’s Amity University first surfaced on the TMC landscape. Abhishek is the son of Mamata’s second brother, Amit Banerjee. Abhishek’s mother Lata Banerjee is among the persons the Chief Minister is closest to in her extended joint family.
Around 2010, just a year before the 2011 state Assembly polls that she would sweep, Mamata floated an NGO-like organisation called Yuva. The ostensible goal was to draw talented youth to become more politically conscious through socio-cultural activities. Sons and daughters of several TMC leaders found place in the body. At the head of it was Abhishek.
As he operated from the Yuva office in South Kolkata, rising TMC stars such as O’Brien and Partha Chatterjee, among others, took Abhishek under their wings.
Soon it was clear that while Mamata had said that Yuva would not be an appendage of the TMC, it had effectively taken over the role of the All India Trinamool Youth Congress.
The president of the youth unit at the time was Suvendu Adhikari, a popular leader credited with being the architect of the Nandigram agitation that catapulted Mamata to power. Within the TMC, there was no dispute over who the better grassroots leader between Adhikari and Abhishek was. However, as Mamata clearly favoured Abhishek, the balance of power shifted. Relations between Abhishek and Adhikari have been strained, though Adhikari is now an MP and somewhat rehabilitated within the TMC after Mukul’s ouster.
By July 2012, Abhishek was formally in the TMC mainstream.
In November 2014, the moment Abhishek became the chief of the All India Trinamool Youth Congress, Yuva was dismantled and merged with it.
In the May 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Mamata fielded Abhishek from the Diamond Harbour seat long represented by veteran Somen Mitra (he has since then defected to the Congress). A special team was formed to “guide” him on the campaign trail and ensure his victory, including Sonali Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee and a host of South 24 Parganas district- and block-level leaders.
The Mayor, a close family friend of Mamata who had seen Abhishek grow up, would tell voters the TMC chief had raised him “with the warmth of a mother” and that as a three-year-old, Abhishek had seen Mamata been assaulted in August 1990. Abhishek had “stood speechless” as she recovered from the nearly 30 stitches on her head, Chatterjee would tell voters. In 1993 again, he would say, Abhishek had been around when his aunt came out from Lalbazar Police headquarters bruised after police manhandling.
Announcing his nomination, Mamata herself said: “Abhishek Banerjee could have been in some other profession. But he wanted to be in politics.”
While Abhishek won from the seat, becoming one of the youngest Lok Sabha MPs, he polled nearly 13 per cent votes less than Mitra had done in 2009.
In November 2014, Mamata cracked down for the first time on Roy, after news spread that he was to be summoned by the CBI in the Saradha scam. To ensure the party wasn’t stained with the stigma, Mamata divested Roy of all the responsibilities of looking after districts where he used to be the last word. The powers were relocated to Partha Chatterjee, Subrata Bakshi, Subrata Mukherjee, and Abhishek.
The swift rise of the 27-year-old hasn’t gone down well in a party where many leaders have slogged with Mamata for years without the expectation of rewards. When Abhishek went to Chandipur in East Midnapore to address a rally in the first week of January 2015, after his appointment as the All India Trinamool Congress Youth chief, he was slapped by a youth on stage.
Many saw it as a sign of the TMC power struggle. BJP national spokesperson Siddharth Nath Singh described it as “a civil war in the TMC that has broken out in the open”.
Adds BJP state chief Rahul Sinha, also drawing a Rahul parallel, “The turmoil in the TMC is an offshoot of Mamata’s attempt to thrust her nephew in the limelight. Abhishek does not have minimum acceptance among party workers. The TMC must take lessons from Rahul’s predicament in the Congress.”
CPM central committee member and former MP Md Salim says Mamata had introduced “a different ethos” in West Bengal politics by promoting her nephew. “The day Mamata Banerjee introduced him at a Brigade Parade Ground rally before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, West Bengal was witness to a new culture of dynastic politics. This was not seen even during the freedom struggle in Bengal. It is her whim that prevails.”
With Abhishek still surrounded by a “protective ring” of senior leaders, TMC leaders grumble that he doesn’t mix freely with party cadres and workers or understand the nuances of hardcore ground politics. Some smirk that he appears as an urban sophisticate at his rallies. “The Yuvraj always maintains a distance from the grassroots,” says a leader.
Mamata is still talked about as the leader who would respond to distress calls from party workers from anywhere and everywhere in an instant. Abhishek is yet to earn those stripes within the party.
Instead, so far, Abhishek’s responses to events have been calibrated and on most occasions pre-arranged. He hasn’t displayed any special political acumen or ability to handle crises. Or shown any great organisational skills as head of the Trinamool Youth Congress.
Taking another potshot at Abhishek recently, during an interaction with journalists, Roy said, “Lata and Lata-like voice are not the same. There is a loser’s club in Mumbai where sons of the greats like Amitabh Bachchan or Sunil Gavaskar are members. Abhishek Bachchan and Rohan Gavaskar did not get mileage just because their fathers were so famous.”
However, Sovan Chatterjee, who helped Abhishek’s initiation into politics, vouches for his “dedication”. “People might question his political maturity. But there is no denying that he has grown up in a political environment and seen his aunt in politics from close quarters.”
While Abhishek’s qualities as a mass leader are still debatable, he has proved a quick study as far as political oratory goes. Family members say he spends hours practising speeches and trying out voice modulation before rallies and often flashes the same fire as his aunt in speeches. His begins his addresses with “pranam, namaskar and salaam” to the assembled — thus accounting for both Hindus and Muslims — and spices them up with slogans such as “Har har janata, ghar ghar Mamata” to take on the BJP.
However, even as he takes leaps and bounds within the party, there is only so far or so fast Abhishek can grow in what essentially remains a one-woman show. He got a taste of it very early on at a rally in Barasat in North 24 Paraganas in 2013, where he was to be the chief speaker. The approach to the venue was bedecked with posters, festoons and banners with larger-than-life photos and cutouts of Abhishek.
Mamata, who chanced upon the posters while on her way to the airport, was furious at this overt campaign and directed that the rally be called off. All the cutouts were dismantled within hours and an order was issued that henceforth no TMC programme would bear the photo of anyone except Mamata.
In 2012, Mamata skipped the grand wedding reception of Abhishek, held at Delhi’s five-star Le Meridian Hotel, despite being in the Capital. The message went out that the scale of the celebrations went contrary to her long cultivated spartan image. Picking up the hint, TMC sources attributed the opulence to Abhishek’s Punjabi in-laws, who had hosted the reception.
Abhishek and his wife Jasmeet Ahuja a.k.a. Ruchika now have a baby girl, born soon after the demise of Mamata’s mother Gayatri Devi. Mamata, who was very close to Gayatri Devi, has told family members she feels her mother has been reborn.
Her fondness for Abhishek apart, while she may be positioning him for leadership, Mamata is clearly in no hurry. Party leaders give a time frame of 2021 for Abhishek to assume a leadership role. He would be 33.
THE NEW TMC
Derek O’Brien: The national spokesperson of the TMC is also the chief whip of the party in Rajya Sabha, as part of which he is in charge of floor coordination in the House. He also oversees the party’s organisation in the Northeast and Kerala, and has been given charge of holding talks with like-minded parties.
Subrata Bakshi: Has replaced Mukul Roy as party general secretary. One of the TMC founder members, his USP is his loyalty.
Subrata Mukherjee: TMC’s most mature and seasoned politician has been given the charge of Tripura and made president of the All India Trinamool Trade Union Congress. Mukherjee is also the party spokesperson along with Partha Chatterjee.
Firad Hakim: The Muslim face of the party along with Sultan Ahmed, he is a member of the national secretariat and the party’s 21-member national executive.
Partha Chatterjee: Seen as blessed by Mamata, he has seen his powers rise. He is a party general secretary as well as spokesperson and in-charge of media. He is also in the disciplinary committee.
Suvendu Adhikari: Has the charge of Assam and has been inducted into the national executive.
Dinesh Trivedi: Down and out once, he has been fully rehabilitated, and was recently appointed all-India TMC vice-president. The appointment came despite him praising PM Narendra Modi at a programme in Gujarat.
Mukul Roy: The Saradha-tainted MP has been removed from all posts and responsibilities. Even the BJP that recently taunted him with the slogan “bhag Mukul, bhag” won’t take him into the fold.
Subhrangshu Roy: Mukul Roy’s son, the MLA is facing disciplinary proceedings for his comments post the Bongaon Lok Sabha bypolls where he hinted at sabotage. Was earlier removed from a post in the Trinamool Youth Congress.
HumayUn Kabir: The former minister and Mukul Roy loyalist has got a showcause notice. Kabir had attacked a close aide of Mamata, Indranil Sen.
Shilbhadra Dutta: Another Mukul Roy loyalist, the MLA has been removed as parliamentary secretary. Dutta was found to be travelling frequently to Delhi to meet Roy.
Swapan Kanti Ghosh: The TMC MLA recently held a dharna in the West Bengal Assembly alleging that his complaints of siphoning off of funds from Suri municipality had not been looked into. He is believed to be inching towards the BJP.