Kolkata: For years, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, arguably the last stalwart of the Bengal Congress, has held the reputation of being one of the harshest critics of Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo serving as the state’s chief minister since 2011. During the run-up to the recently-concluded assembly elections, Chowdhury, the Bengal Congress president, was seen reserving most of his salvos for Bengal’s ruling party instead of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the Congress’s principal opponent nationally.
Chowdhury, holding positions at the national level – leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha until March 12 and still the chairman of the public accounts committee in the parliament – did, of course, target the BJP, but to a lesser scale than the TMC, an analysis of his social media posts and public speeches reveal.
But new political equations seem to have dawned on him since the assembly election results were declared on May 2, the day that also announced the fall of Chowdhury’s fortress of Beherampore in Murshidabad district, with seats going mostly to the TMC and the rest to the BJP.
In the five-time MP’s Lok Sabha constituency, six of the seven assembly seats went to the TMC and Beherampore, where Chowdhury lives, his closest aide Manoj Chakraborty came third as the BJP defeated the TMC. The Congress, for the first time since 1952, failed to send a single representative to the state assembly, as did the Left, their one-time rival and alliance partner in the 2016 and 2021 assembly elections.
Since then, Chowdhury’s pitch against the BJP, which bagged one-quarter of the state’s assembly seats at the cost of the Left and the Congress this time, has gone higher, while his tone against the TMC has gone softer.
May 2 and thereafter
On May 4, two days after the results, while answering questions by the Bengal Congress’s social media wing, he said that the results of the election had increased his respect for the people of Bengal.
“I want to express my respect and trust in the people of Bengal. They have proved that this state believes in communal harmony and the politics of peace and that this state rejects narrow and communal politics. We have been able to place a special character of Bengal in before the nation,” he said, ostensibly referring to the BJP’s defeat.
This was a softened stance, considering that even on May 2, the day of the results, while crediting “Mamata Banerjee’s populist programmes and Prashant Kishore’s strategies” as a “formidable combination”, he did also criticise Banerjee for carrying out a campaign on communal lines while seeking votes against Prime Minister Narendra Modi during her three-day stay in Murshidabad, Chowdhury’s home district.
His next post on Facebook was a statement on May 8 in which he targeted the Centre over COVID-19 mismanagement. “Where is the Rs 35,000 crore allotted for vaccines? What’s the need of spending Rs 20,000 crore for the Central Vista at a time when people are not getting vaccines for free? Where will the downtrodden and the marginalised go? We demand free vaccines for all. I have written to the Centre requesting that the West Bengal government be liberally and adequately helped with regard to vaccination,” he wrote.
That same day, he also posted another statement, saying that he had written to the district administration a year ago to utilise the entire unused funds from his MP LAD allotments (previous tenure) for installing an oxygen plant in the district, launching two COVID-19 special ambulances and purchasing a few ventilators, but this did not happen. “It’s not time for shooting letters. So, I am appealing to them publicly,” he said.
On May 17, when the CBI arrested two Bengal ministers, Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee, TMC MLA Madan Mitra and former minister Sovan Chatterjee, in connection with the Narada cash-for-favour case of 2016, Chowdhury questioned the role of the central agency.
“When people are in an utter mess over this pandemic situation, when there is shortage of oxygen, ventilators and vaccines, when serving the people should have been the priority, such arrests are raising questions in my mind,” he said.
Then, ostensibly referring to the fact that the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari, also accused in the same case, had not been arrested, Chowdhury said, “’Some will be held and some will be spared’ cannot be called an investigation.”
He also said that those arrested were “Bengal’s senior politicians” and their health, safety and security was a matter of concern. “Keeping in mind the prevailing situation over the pandemic, the timing of the arrests is questionable,” he said.
That came as a real surprise for the state’s political observers, because Chowdhury in his previous avatar was expected to congratulate the central agency for putting allegedly corrupt TMC leaders behind bars.
Then, after a month-long silence, Chowdhury posted another video clip of him interactions with local journalists in Murshidabad district, during which he lambasted the BJP for its leaders’ statements seeking the partition of Bengal.
Addressing the media in the aftermath of BJP’s Alipurduar MP John Barla demanding a separation of north Bengal and Bishnupur MP Saumitra Khan threatening to press for carving out a separate state out of southwestern Bengal, Chowdhury said, “A conspiracy is underway to divide Bengal again!! Not being able to accept defeat in recent elections, BJP is trying to divide state by playing a narrow political card with the people of N. Bengal. The CM should look into this very seriously.”
However, at a press meet in Murshidabad district on June 25, he lambasted the state government and the ruling party over the recently-busted fake vaccine racket run by a man impersonating an IAS officer.
“Bengal’s image has been tarnished by such a massive fraud in broad daylight. The chief minister must herself explain before the people how this could happen,” he said.
He also said that the Speaker of the Bengal assembly should respect the convention of appointing the chairman of the public accounts committee (PAC) from the opposition party. Chowdhury holds this post in the parliament because Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla adhered to the convention. But in Bengal, Mukul Roy, who switched over from the BJP to the TMC, seems all set to be appointed as the chairman of the PAC, as the chief minister herself has endorsed the idea. The speaker has the final word on this.
At the same time, Chowdhury also demanded that the Centre brings some special legislation to allow unelected ministers to get elected in a by-election within one year from swearing-in, instead of the present rule of six months, due to the prevailing situation over COVID-19.
This is a crucial issue because chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who lost the election in the Nandigram assembly seat, has to get elected by the first week of November to continue as the chief minister. Banerjee had recently said that she had requested the prime minister to clear the issue of by-elections, since the second wave was coming under control in the state. Thereafter, the third wave that is expected to hit around September-October could make by-elections impossible at that time.
By-elections in seven assembly seats in the state are due to be held in the next six months due to the deaths and resignations of winners and Banerjee is set to contest from Bhawanipur, her previous constituency. The sitting MLA, also a minister, has already resigned. If by-elections in the state are not concluded by November 5, Banerjee may have to resign.
However, one of Chowdhury’s statements that drew everyone’s attention was that he was in favour of not fielding a candidate against Banerjee when she contests the by-election. On June 4, he said, “In my opinion, we should not field a candidate against the chief minister. The government had just returned to power with a large majority and its chief minister will be contesting. Under these circumstances, whatever votes the Congress may get, we should not field a candidate.”
Later, he also stood by his opinion while talking to TV channels, informing them that he will keep the Congress high command apprised of his views. “We fought against her in the elections. Now that the elections are over, we should show some courtesy,” he said.
Due to Chowdhury’s stance against the TMC, the state’s ruling party leaders have repeatedly accused him of trying to serve the BJP’s cause. Notably, Chowdhury’s Facebook posts and statements used to be shared by hundreds of social media users who seemed to be BJP supporters.
His statements shared from his Facebook and Twitter accounts from the pre-May 2 days reveal a contrasting picture. During March-April, he rarely used Facebook to post statements. Rather, photos and videos of his rallies and speeches were shared.
In his speech at Raghunathganj in Murshidabad district on March 5, Chowdhury spent the first seven minutes of his 37-minute speech lambasting the local MLA, Akhruzzaman, a turncoat who won on a Congress ticket in 2016 but joined the TMC in 2018. He targeted the TMC for the next seven minutes. Then, for five minutes, he targeted the Modi government at the Centre before shifting his focus on the TMC again for another three minutes, following by a five-minute span during which he criticised both the BJP and the TMC.
He praised the Congress for one minute, only to resume targeting the TMC and the BJP alternately – though predominantly the TMC – for the last nine minutes of his speech, apart from highlighting a few points from the Left-Congress alliance’s manifesto. Bengal was the worst-performing state in the country in terms of jobs and industries, he said.
Taking his speech at Nawda in Murshidabad district on April 1, a day before the second phase polling, as another example: in a 35-minute speech, Chowdhury starts with Nawda and his relation to the area for four minutes before targeting, though without naming, his one-time aide, Abu Taher Khan, who won the 2016 election on a Congress ticket but switched over to the TMC, then won the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on a TMC ticket and went on to become the TMC district unit president, for another two minutes.
At the seventh minute of his speech, he started talking about the BJP, describing it as a ‘divisive force’ trying to destroy the basic tenets of the country, lambasted Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath for his speeches in Bengal and criticised the BJP for mixing religion with politics for 10 minutes. Then, for 18 minutes, he targeted the TMC, chiefly blaming them for the rise of the BJP in Bengal and their previous electoral tie-up with the BJP, and one phase of Muslim appeasement followed by another phase of Hindu appeasement, corruption and misgovernance, before concluding his speech highlighting his party’s poll promises for another two minutes.
Yet another example is his speech on April 13 in Uttar Dinajpur district. He used the first two minutes for a general introduction with the audience, criticised the BJP between the third and 13th minute of his speech, and for the next 27 minutes he mostly criticised Banerjee’s rule, interrupted by brief spells of criticising the BJP.
Perhaps, the change of stance has been caused by the election results. Going by the assembly election statistics, Chowdhury will find it a herculean task to make his way to the Lok Sabha for a sixth straight term. As per the seven assembly seats within his constituency, the Congress was trailing by 225,813 votes behind the BJP, which came second, and by 479,126 votes behind the TMC. This gap of 4.79 lakh votes with the leading party looks almost unsurmountable.
“Chowdhury is visibly trying to make peace with the Trinamool Congress for his own survival. Trailing by over 4.5 lakh votes behind the TMC, he has no way but to cosy up with the TMC to survive,” said psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University.
Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata, agreed with Chakraborty. “Chowdhury is trying to keep Mamata Banerjee in good humour because it has become evident now that it is impossible for him to win the next Lok Sabha election without the TMC’s help,” he said.
Chowdhury did not take calls from The Wire.
However, when asked to comment on Chowdhury’s perceived softening of stand against the TMC, veteran Congress leader Abdul Mannan, who was the leader of the opposition in the last assembly, said, “Those within the Congress who think that Mamata Banerjee can resist the BJP are more than welcome to leave the Congress and join the TMC. We believe it is the Congress that can remove the BJP at the national level and that the BJP’s fall will be brought in by Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.”
“We believe that the Congress in Bengal has to fight both the BJP and the TMC, as both are fascist forces in nature, the difference in only in magnitude. Both parties have tried to and are still working to weaken the Congress,” Mannan added.
The change of stance has not gone unnoticed by the followers of Chowdhury’s social media page. If the comments on his post-May 2 posts on Facebook reflect anything, most are upset and some even asked when he will be joining the TMC.
One of his close aides in Bengal Congress said, “There is no question of him joining the TMC. But, of course, he has now realised the threat he faces from the BJP, while earlier he was mostly concerned about the threats he was facing from the TMC.”
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.