In Bengal, Abhishek Banerjee stamps his political authority

Kolkata: Widely perceived as the 67-year-old Mamata Banerjee’s political heir, Abhishek Banerjee, 34, the only son of her younger brother, Amit, and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) national general secretary, has stamped his authority in recent weeks.

Though Banerjee groomed Abhishek to lead from the front ever since he won the Diamond Harbour Parliament seat in the South 24 Parganas district in 2014, emerging as the Loka Sabha’s youngest member that year at 26, TMC apparatchiks say that current developments showed that the chief minister (CM) is now letting him take crucial decisions.

“This was quite inconceivable till a few years ago. After she broke away from the Congress and formed the TMC in 1998, Mamata Banerjee established herself as a stubborn leader who would take the call in every matter, even the most trivial ones,” a former legislator, who did not want to be quoted on the record, said.

That’s changed.

A new assertiveness

A set of significant cabinet appointments made by the CM on August 3, including that of former Union minister Babul Supriyo, and the reshuffling of portfolios among old incumbents are being interpreted as indicators of the TMC national general secretary’s growing influence.

A section of the leadership also feels that changes that the TMC supremo made at the organisational level on August 1 by appointing some new district unit presidents and chairpersons, coupled with the August 3 development, is part of an effort to revamp the party’s image before the 2023 panchayat polls and the more crucial 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

In both these polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to focus not only on the corruption charges against ruling party leaders, including Abhishek Banerjee, but also on flaws in governance.

The CM’s signal

“Things will definitely become easier for Abhishek if these strategies help the TMC retain control on the majority of the panchayats and wrest Lok Sabha seats from the BJP which won 18 of the 42 constituencies in 2019. So far seen as a young Turk pushing his ambitious expansion plans in other states, Abhishek appears to be heading for the position where the reins of the 24-year-old party will be in his grips,” a veteran TMC office-bearer said on condition of anonymity.

The office-bearer also pointed out that the CM had herself said in public innumerable times in the last couple of years that she is preparing for the next generation of leadership and her absence will not affect the TMC.

Political observers agree.

“Mamata Banerjee is on her way to form a dynastic rule. There is no doubt that Abhishek’s rise has taken place under her shadow,” said columnist and political commentator Suvashis Maitra.

The churn since 2019

It is an open secret in the TMC that it was Abhishek Banerjee who contacted election strategist Prashant Kishor after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in which the ruling party’s tally came down from 34 to 22. The CM agreed to sign a contract with Kishor’s company, Indian Political Action Committee, or I-PAC. The situation changed in the 2021 assembly polls in which the TMC bagged 215 of the 294 assembly seats while the BJP ended the race with 77.

Kishor’s role was acknowledged and in June last year Mamata Banerjee renewed the contract with I-PAC till the 2024 Lok Sabha polls in which she wishes to see her party play a bigger role in national politics.

Although Kishor quit I-PAC before the contract was renewed, he met several regional party leaders, such as Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, to help TMC build an alliance against the BJP prior to 2024. With the talks not succeeding, Kishor has since moved to Bihar, his home state, to pursue his own plans.

In a parallel development in June 2021, Abhishek Banerjee also resigned from the post of the party’s youth unit president and was made the national general secretary. He soon propagated the “one-man-one-post” policy which the TMC chairperson accepted, party leaders said.

Although the idea was reportedly conceived by Kishor to ensure a streamlined hierarchy and inclusion of younger people, many leaders say it clipped the wings of many old-timers and even some office-bearers recognised as close aides of the chief minister. They have been replaced by followers of Abhishek Banerjee.

The symbols of change

The TMC started implementing the policy at the district level last year in view of the civic body elections held earlier this year. The party swept the polls.

On August 3, Supriyo and seven other TMC legislators took oath as ministers while Mamata Banerjee dropped four ministers from the government. She also changed the portfolios of seven incumbents in the reshuffle that followed Partha Chatterjee’s arrest by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in the bribe-for-job scam that has rocked the state.

Supriyo, who was welcomed into the TMC by Abhishek Banerjee last year after he quit the BJP, was made a cabinet minister.

Banerjee put her old and trusted aide, Sashi Panja, a doctor and daughter-in-law of former Union minister Ajit Kumar Panja, in charge of the two departments of industry, commerce and enterprises and public enterprises and industrial reconstruction, that Chatterjee was heading.

However, the third department allotted to Chatterjee, information technology and electronics, went to Supriyo. The department of tourism, that deputy minister Indranil Sen was entrusted with, also went to Supriyo for whom Abhishek Banerjee campaigned during Kolkata’s Ballygunge assembly by-poll which was held because veteran TMC minister Subrata Mukherjee died last year.

Partha Bhowmick, an MLA known as an Abhishek-loyalist was made irrigation and waterways minister.

Snehasish Chakraborty, who too is seen in the party as a follower of Abhishek Banerjee, was given charge of the transport department.

Although the Diamond Harbour MP skipped the swearing-in ceremony at Raj Bhawan since it was a state government event, the three new cabinet ministers thanked him during their interactions with the media.

“I am grateful to Mamata Banerjee and Abhishek Banerjee. Our national general secretary always stood by us,” said Supriyo.

In the reshuffle, the biggest victim of the “one-man-one-post” policy was Kolkata mayor Firhad Hakim, one of the CM’s old and trusted aides. Hakim lost the transport department to Snehasish Chakraborty and the housing department to youth affairs and sports minister Aroop Biswas, a loyalist of both the chief minister and her nephew. Biswas is also in charge of the power department.

Hakim was arrested in the Narada case that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is probing. He probably saw his apparent demotion coming hours before the official announcement on August 3.

“I may not be there in this world tomorrow but the world will stay, so will Kolkata,” Hakim said at a transport department event.

Another senior minister, Moloy Ghatak, who was summoned twice by the ED in the coal scam case, was relieved of the important PWD department which went to Pulak Roy. Ghatak was left with the departments of law and labour.

Many in the TMC claimed that the arithmetic in the reshuffle reminded them of the tussle between followers of the chief minister and Abhishek Banerjee in February, days before the multi-phase civic body elections.

Mamata Banerjee had to empower her team of old aides and senior ministers to enforce her decision on selection of candidates for the state’s 108 civic bodies and overrule a second list that was uploaded on the party’s Facebook page and Twitter handle, allegedly without her consent. The list she approved was physically released by Partha Chatterjee and national vice-president Subrata Bakshi. The second one was uploaded almost simultaneously, leading to an unprecedented fiasco. Amid agitations across Bengal, Banerjee exercised her powers to stop the infighting between her followers and those who are loyal to her nephew.

Abhishek’s role after Partha Chatterjee’s arrest

After the ED arrested Chatterjee – whose importance in the cabinet was only second to the chief minister and who was secretary general of the party – the chain of events showed the emergence of a new command centre, TMC leaders observe.

Since Chatterjee was not the first minister to be arrested in connection with an alleged scam, the chief minister did not make any exception in his case for four days and let him continue as cabinet minister and secretary general.

However, it was Kunal Ghosh – the TMC state general secretary who is known to be close to Abhishek Banerjee – who announced before the media that the party would take act against Chatterjee if he was found guilty by the court.

“Instead of the chief minister calling top leaders to her Kalighat residence to formulate a strategy, Abhishek Banerjee summoned two meetings at his Camac Street office where the party’s stand on Chatterjee was decided. Ghosh and some other leaders started making public statements, demanding Chatterjee’s punishment. The message was loud and clear,” a TMC leader said on condition of anonymity.

The first cabinet meeting since the arrest was held on July 28. Chatterjee was dropped from the government and suspended from the TMC. “I am a victim of conspiracy,” he said while being taken to court for production.

Though not a part of the government, Abhishek Banerjee also personally met some of the victims of the job scam in which a few hundred unqualified people allegedly paid bribe to be recruited as teachers by the School Service Commission and primary education department when Chatterjee was education minister between 2014 and 2021.

Opposition targets Abhishek

The cabinet reshuffle has prompted the opposition parties to take potshots at the CM and Abhishek Banerjee.

Mohammed Salim, state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), said the exercise reaffirmed his party’s belief that TMC is a company by two people.

“Mamata Banerjee is the CEO of this company. Like a true CEO, she has employed executives who will bring in maximum revenue. After all, she hired Prashant Kishor to run the company,” said Salim, hinting at the corruption charges some TMC top brass members face.

Bengal BJP president Sukanta Majumdar alleged that dumping her loyalists was part of the chief minister’s plan. “The whole thing was arranged in coordination with Abhishek Banerjee,” Majumdar said.

TMC spokesperson Tapas Roy said such allegations are baseless.

“Mamata Banerjee is our supreme leader. Abhishek is also our leader. Even he says in public that she occupies the highest position in the party. Distribution of cabinet portfolios is her prerogative,” said Roy.

Columnist Suvashis Maitra said: “What impresses me most is the courage with which Abhishek Banerjee faces people despite the fact that he and his wife are suspects in the coal scam case and both have been questioned by central probe agencies. He appears to be fearless. This attitude probably makes him a target of the opposition parties.”