Dropping of Partha Chatterjee as Cabinet minister, stripping of all government and party portfolios from him, and his suspension, all within nine days of his arrest in a school recruitment scam. The speed and unprecedented nature of the Trinamool Congress’s action against one of its topmost leaders has the fingerprints of Abhishek Banerjee all over it.
The TMC’s all-India general secretary and fast-rising star, Abhishek has been biding his time in the wings, mindful of aunt Mamata Banerjee’s old guard. But the embarrassment of Chatterjee’s arrest and the alleged crores pouring out of premises linked to him, coming on top of other setbacks to the TMC, have cleared an opening for him to move in.
Reacting to the TMC’s action against him, Chatterjee did not hide his displeasure Friday. “Mamata did the right thing, but I am a victim of conspiracy. What the party has done, time will tell whether it is right or not,” he said.
In the days following the TMC’s triumphal return to power in West Bengal last year, Abhishek had been tasked with primarily helping the party grow outside the state. However, that project has sputtered following the setbacks in Goa and Tripura, bringing Abhishek’s focus back to Bengal.
The image of Trinamool Congress is not based on individual follies.
Trinamool’s credibility is decided by the people and till the time people continue to put their faith in us, our image cannot take a beating.
We have taken prompt action and proven our allegiance to the masses. pic.twitter.com/Xr0IKtAaf4
— All India Trinamool Congress (@AITCofficial) July 28, 2022
In recent days, he has not been constrained by lack of seniority, and has taken on a public profile as the TMC’s main troubleshooter, and policy spokesperson. It was he who came out to make the surprise announcement that the TMC, which had taken the lead on a united Opposition candidate for president, would not back a joint vice-president nominee. Mamata, who Opposition leaders said had committed to standing with them, was nowhere to be seen.
After Chatterjee was removed as minister Thursday, it was Abhishek again who held a disciplinary committee meeting, where it was decided that the senior leader would also be removed as TMC secretary general.
The same day, Abhishek called up protesters agitating against the school scam, including those aspirants looking for jobs, to assure that the government was with them. On Saturday, he held a meeting with them.
A senior TMC leader admitted they were surprised at the pace at which things moved against Chatterjee, given that the party never reacted with such alacrity in similar cases before. “Even as the Opposition intensified the demand for Chatterjee’s expulsion from the ministry, similar demand rose from within the party. On Thursday morning, spokesperson Kunal Ghosh (seen as close to Abhishek) sought his removal. They said that the huge recovery of money (from premises linked to Chatterjee) had already tarnished the image of the TMC, and while his removal might not minimise that, at least people would know the TMC does not accept it. But, senior leaders of the party hesitated. Abhishek then quickly took the decision and succeeded in making senior leaders, including Mamata, understand that this is the only way now.”
In fact, for the past few months, the Abhishek camp has been at pains to project their 34-year-old leader as a crusader against corruption. This comes against the backdrop of cases against Abhishek and his wife Rujira in an alleged coal smuggling case.
Even Abhishek’s rain-drenched speech on the TMC’s July 21 Martyrs Day event – a highlight in the party’s calendar – emphasised that the party would crack the whip on wrongdoers.
While there was talk of some tension between Abhishek and Mamata earlier this year, around the time of the civic polls, party leaders say it would be foolhardy to believe the nephew’s purposeful stride now doesn’t have the aunt’s blessing. In case of Chatterjee for example, despite him being one of her closest and oldest lieutenants, Mamata has not made any overtures after the recovery of alleged crores made his position untenable. Sources in the Enforcement Directorate, which has the custody of Chatterjee, claimed that Mamata had ignored repeated calls from him.
In contrast, in May 2021, when the CBI had arrested top TMC leaders, including two ministers, in connection with the Narada sting case, Mamata had sat on a dharna demanding their release. The TMC did not take any action against other leaders such as MP Tapas Paul, out on bail after arrest in the Rose Valley ponzi scam case, and MP Sudip Bandopadhyay, also arrested in the case. Madan Mitra remains a minister more than year after he was arrested in the Sarada chit fund case.
Said a veteran TMC leader: “The message is clear, especially to old guards at the top. If you slip, the party will no longer be there to hold your hand. The recovery of cash allowed Abhishek to take charge, and through quick action, he is seen to have minimised the damage to the party’s image… Some leaders are unhappy and scared, but who will say that?”
This is a departure from January, when Abhishek’s Covid stance that was distinct from the TMC government’s and the touting of his ‘Diamond Harbour’ model – Diamond Harbour is Abhishek’s constituency – had caused the old guard to register their objections with Mamata. Prashant Kishor’s I-PAC, which had rubbed many of them the wrong way with its inputs, was also seen as Abhishek’s import to the TMC.
Mamata had finally dissolved all the national portfolios of the TMC, and as chairperson, formed a fresh national working committee. She had also ignored Abhishek’s suggestion that relatives of those with a tainted background not be given tickets for civic polls, or that the party implement a one man-one post formula, or that religious events be postponed on account of Covid restrictions. His talk of “coercion-free” civic polls at the time was seen as an endorsement of the Opposition’s accusations of high-handedness against the TMC.
The Opposition in Bengal has said action against Chatterjee was not enough and more heads must roll within the TMC. CPM leader Sujan Chakraborty said, “The money that we have seen is just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of crores were looted. That money should be recovered. Pending that, our movement will continue.”
BJP leader Amit Malaviya took credit for Chatterjee’s suspension: “BJP’s massive protest against #SSCScam shook Mamata Banerjee’s citadel and forced her to sack corrupt Partha Chaterjee from the Cabinet and party positions, after digging in heels for as long as she could,” he tweeted.