The controversy over Suvendu Adhikari’s Friday meeting with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in her Vidhan Sabha chamber is not going to die quickly. Over the weekend, the Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, who was once a close aide of the TMC supremo before he joined the BJP and positioned himself as her bitterest rival, has been busy trying to explain why he met his former menoto. And unlike on Saturday, when it was leaders of Opposition parties the CPI(M) and the Congress who were accusing Suvendu and Banerjee of striking secret deals, this time, it’s prominent leaders of the BJP who are asking similar questions.
As a turncoat, Suvendu probably knew what he was getting into. Which is why, when he went to Banerjee’s chamber on Friday—for the first time since he became the Leader of the Opposition in 2021—he had in tow BJP MLAs Ashok Lahiri, Agnimitra Paul and the chief whip of the BJP legislative party, Manoj Tigga. Given the factionalism within the BJP’s state unit, the choices are interesting. Paul is known to be close to Suvendu, while Tigga, who has been in the RSS all his life, belongs to the “old BJP” camp of lifetime saffronites. While not being a dyed-in-the-wool saffron cadre, Lahiri is aligned with neither camp.
BJP leaders from Suvendu’s camp argued likewise, claiming that this incident won’t affect his political career. A close aide said, “Suvendu cleverly went to the meeting with Manoj Tigga, Agnimitra Paul and Ashok Lahiri. Tigga is a BJP veteran, Paul is a new-gen BJP leader, while Lahiri is close to our national leaders. Suvendu knew he needed alibis, and he chose wisely.”
But a wily Banerjee threw water over Suvendu’s elaborate alibi-building, when, in her speech in the Assembly, she called Suvendu her “brother”. Despite Suvendu’s subsequent explanation—“It was a courtesy call”—and Banerjee’s missive—“Called Suvendu to have a cup of tea”—tongues set wagging, especially after Suvendu’s younger brother Dibyendu invited Banerjee’s nephew and the TMC No 2 Abhishek Banerjee “for a cup of tea” on Saturday.
It bears recalling that two days before they met on Friday, Suvendu had skipped the oath-taking ceremony of the state’s newly-appointed Governor C V Ananda Bose, alleging that he had been purposefully seated between two turncoats who had joined the TMC after winning Vidhan Sabha seats on BJP tickets in 2021 at the insistence of the Chief Minister.
After Friday’s meeting, Suvendu was heard saying, “There will be courtesy in parliamentary democracy. So I went to meet the Chief Minister. But I won’t disclose what was discussed. That’s against the spirit of parliamentary democracy.”
Interestingly, although Suvendu confirmed Banerjee’s claim that she had called him for a courtesy “cup of tea”, they did not actually have any tea, as both were in a hurry to rejoin the Assembly session.
Sensing the mood in the BJP camp, especially among those who have risen through the RSS ranks and are angered by the importance given to recent joinees, on Saturday, Suvendu was back to his belligerent self, proclaiming at a public meeting in Thakurnagar, in 24 Parganas (North): “I’ve defeated Mamata Banerjee and I’ll soon ensure democratically that she becomes a ‘former chief minister of the state’. She has surrendered before the Opposition. We’ll keep building the pressure on her.”
But on Sunday, he was back elaborating on Friday’s incident while addressing a public meeting at Siliguri, indicating that the criticism had shaken him. He said, “While the Assembly session was in progress, a Marshall suddenly came up to me and said that the Leader of the House wanted to see me. I immediately thought there was some catch. Anyway, if I did go, the relatives of BJP workers who have been killed [by the TMC] in political violence in the state, and who are waiting patiently to meet us, would lose faith in me. So I told the Marshall that I’ll only go with some party MLAs. When the Marshall informed me that the Chief Minister had agreed to my condition, I had no option but to meet her.”
He added, “It was a courtesy call, because BJP believes in democracy. It is what PM Narendra Modi has taught us. So I went with three MLAs, but didn’t even sit down. The meeting was for just five minutes. You know that I’ll continue my fight against Mamata Banerjee and democratically force her to become a ‘former chief minister of this state’.”
All these elaborate and repeated explanations haven’t melted the ice with some BJP old-timers, though. They are back, cribbing about Suvendu getting promoted to Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly and the de-facto face of state BJP within months of joining the party, while lifelong RSS workers, like former BJP state president Dilip Ghosh and his followers are now cornered within the organisation.
Ghosh was in his usual mischievous self while commenting on the incident. He said, “Someone can have a personal relationship with another person. The Assembly is a place of courtesy, where constitutional traditions should be maintained. Everyone sits and talks there. So I didn’t think anything was wrong. I have myself been courteous to opponents.” He added, “They have an old relationship. Many people go to Kalighat to pay respect [to Benerjee]. He did not go there, but met her at the Assembly. It’s a private matter.”
Evidently unimpressed by Suvendu’s public proclamations of piety, a senior BJP leader said, “Within the organisation, those who are against Suvendu have always claimed he maintains a secret relationship with Mamata Banerjee. His public anti-Mamata posturing is a drama. After this meeting, those people are loudly claiming they have been vindicated.”
Already on Saturday, the CPI(M) labelled the meeting a “setting” between the BJP and the TMC. On Monday, a senior BJP leader said, “In politics, an image built with a lot of hard work can be tarnished within a second. Suvendu built his anti-Mamata image over months. But, if this five-minute meeting diminishes all that, it will be unfortunate for Suvendu.”
He added, “Suvendu is neither an old-timer, nor an RSS activist. In our party, veterans don’t like Suvendu. For them, Dilip Ghosh is the natural choice as leader. After Suvendu’s meeting with Mamata, Ghosh embarrassed Suvendu by hinting in his statement that Suvendu is an old Mamata acolyte.”