Is Mamata Banerjee Cutting Nephew Abhishek Down to Size?

A chain of recent developments has triggered speculations of a rift between the TMC chief and her heir apparent.

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Kolkata: On Monday evening, while leaving for Lucknow from Kolkata airport to campaign for the Samajwadi Party in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chairperson Mamata Banerjee said that she was not going to campaign for her own party in the Goa assembly elections, a state where the TMC is running a high-decibel campaign following its entry last year.

“Regarding Goa… somebody is doing, so I am not. I am going to other places… in greater interest,” she said, adding that she will also be visiting Punjab to offer her prayers at the Golden Temple.

This apparently harmless remark raised many an eyebrow in Bengal’s political circles. The person looking after the party’s Goa campaign is Abhishek Banerjee, the CM’s nephew and heir-apparent, depending mostly on the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), the political strategy firm mentored by Prashant Kishor.

Mamata referring to her nephew as ‘somebody’ struck as discordant, especially on a day when news of the possibility of the TMC prematurely severing its ties with I-PAC started doing the rounds. It was Abhishek who brought Kishor to his aunt in June 2019, struck a deal, and coordinated with him and his organisation since then.

One more news item had ‘broken’ shortly before. The state government had decided to withdraw the security cover of Jehangir Khan, the TMC youth wing president of the Falta area within Abhishek’s Lok Sabha constituency of Diamond Harbour. He had a ‘Y’ category security status, which meant a team of 9 policemen. Such security cover for a block unit youth wing president is unusual. But Khan was also known to have a good rapport with Abhishek.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), her principal rival at present, was quick to speculate. Amit Malviya, the party IT cell’s national head and a co-in-charge for Bengal, wrote in a tweet that the chief minister was “struggling to stave off the coup!”

Sharing a clip from a recent interview that Abhishek, the new all-India general secretary of the party, gave to a Bengali TV news channel, Malviya wrote, “Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s ambitious nephew, who is in a hurry to replace her as CM said in an interview, ‘There should be an age limit for politicians. I believe one shouldn’t engage in politics after 60-65/70.’ Mamata Banerjee is 67.”

TMC leaders that The Wire contacted did not agree to speak on the record on an issue involving the party chief and her heir apparent. Speaking on condition of anonymity, some of them said there were minor differences that are nothing to worry about, while some others said the media and the opposition are reading too much into unrelated affairs.

“She always cuts everyone down to their size. Remember how she publicly censured Mahua Moitra (in December), one of the leading faces of the party at the national level, regarding the party’s organisational affairs in Moitra’s parliamentary constituency,” said a Lok Sabha MP.

“Abhishek is no exception, irrespectively of how she has gradually installed him as the de facto ‘number 2’ in the party,” the MP added.

Another MP said, “Of late, Abhishek is trying to build his own identity, speaking of his differences with Banerjee in public. She may have noticed something.”

The remark that the MP referred to was made during a television interview, in which Abhishek said that he was against taking party deserter Sabyasachi Datta back to the TMC and rewarding him with a corporation election ticket. “It happened because Mamata Banerjee is benevolent; but I am practical, rational.”

New Delhi: TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee interacts with media after appearing before Enforcement Directorate (ED) for questioning in money laundering case, in New Delhi, Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. Photo: PTI

Old guard, new leader

In India’s political system, parties driven by personalities are not strangers to periods of struggle and disturbance between generations. The Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Shiv Sena’s Thackeray cousins in Maharashtra, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar have all had their share of trouble.

In TMC, too, old guards who have seen Mamata Banerjee as the only authority are having their own trouble with the emergence of a second authority, much younger to them in age and experience.

A veteran Bengal minister pointed at how Banerjee dealt with the issue when veteran leader MP Kalyan Banerjee, the MP from Serampore, rebelled against Abhishek, in January.

After Abhishek started highlighting his ‘Diamond Harbour model’ of COVID-19 prevention – an initiative that was also highlighted by the party’s social media handles operated by I-PAC –  it raised many discomforting questions for the state government and other Lok Sabha MPs.

A tweet by journalist Pooja Mehta aptly describes what people were asking. “Going by the trending ‘Diamond Harbour Model’ on Twitter – no political/religious gatherings for two months, why is the West Bengal govt not calling off the Gangasagar Mela & postponing civic polls amidst the third wave?” she wrote in a tweet on January 10.

Soon, Kalyan Banerjee publicly took digs at Abhishek, saying the all-India general-secretary was making comments that were against the policies of the state government – allowing the Gangasagar fair. After Kalyan said that he had only one leader and that was Mamata Banerjee, several Abhishek-loyalists, including Arambag MP Aparupa Poddar, publicly criticised Kalyan.

Abhishek-loyalists, such as Aditi Gayen, a niece of Mamata Banerjee and TMC youth wing leader, even started trolling Kalyan online, while Akash Banerjee, another nephew of the chief minister, demanded that Serampore gets a new MP. Abhishek, however, told the media that Kalyan Banerjee was absolutely right when he said that Mamata Banerjee is the only leader.

The party’s old guard, including secretary-general Partha Chatterjee, asked both sides to stop making comments in public but the message that Mamata Banerjee gave during a party meeting was worth reading into. She censured Poddar and announced that when it comes to the party’s organisation in West Bengal, she will be making all the decisions.

“The meaning was clear: let Abhishek look after the expansion drive outside the state, but here, in Bengal, she is the authority,” explained an MLA who had been very close to the party chief for many years.

According to political commentator Sambit Pal, author of the book The Bengal Conundrum, after the 2021 Bengal election victory, the TMC supremo needed Kishor mostly for the party’s national expansion drive. But so far, his efforts have not been successful in uniting other parties under the TMC’s leadership nor does the scene in Goa and Tripura look encouraging for the party.

“The whole rift is to pass on the blame of the failed national ambitions (so far) on Abhishek Banerjee, who was instrumental in hitching the deal with I-PAC. On top of that, he seemed to be in a hurry to undermine the old guard and reign in the organisation. Remember that Kalyan Banerjee had said he would accept Abhishek as his leader only after he ensures a victory in Goa,” Pal said.

Abhishek is known to have a good rapport with two of Mamata’s closest colleagues at present, Partha Chatterjee and Subrata Bakshi. But several leaders from the districts have been uncomfortable with his growing clout in organisational affairs.