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TMC’s Expansion Beyond Bengal put on Hold as Mamata Drafts Abhishek to Streamline State Unit

Several reasons have prompted a change in Mamata Banerjee’s strategy as her comfortable win in 2021 has not ensured smooth innings for her government.
Mamta Banerjee

Representational use only.Image Courtesy: ANI

Kolkata: There are definite pointers that the Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee now wants to put on hold her plans for establishing TMC as a multi-state party and emerge as a factor in national politics.

Mamata Banerjee had earlier given her nephew and Lok Sabha member Abhishek Banerjee the responsibility of expanding TMC’s presence beyond West Bengal; an objective she has been pursuing for the past few years. Compulsions of domestic politics seem to have forced her to revisit that objective. Her moves in recent weeks suggest an emphasis on image make-over and streamlining of the state unit.  

She has assigned the new responsibility to Abhishek Banerjee, who is already recognised by the party rank and file as de facto number two in the organisation. A major indicator of his growing stature and the party’s image make-over bid is seen through hoardings that were put up across South Kolkata, promising the emergence of a new Trinamool - “just as the common people want”-  in the next six months. A more significant factor is that the hoardings had the picture of only Abhishek Banerjee, who is the party’s national general secretary and Lok Sabha member from Diamond Harbour constituency in the South 24 Parganas district.

There are several reasons that have prompted a change in the strategy of Mamata Banerjee, who registered a comprehensive victory in the 2021 Assembly elections and began her third term as chief minister on May 3 last year. However, the comfortable win has not ensured smooth innings for her and the TMC.

The last 16 months have seen several law and order issues crop up, with instances of alleged acts of corruption and nepotism resulting in the arrest of senior TMC functionaries and several such cases being handed over to central agencies by the Calcutta High Court for investigations. The seizure of crores in cash and high value jewellery has proved embarrassing for the leadership. Nonetheless, the party chief and chief minister continues to accuse the Centre of misusing investigation agencies and charge the Opposition with mounting a politically motivated vilification campaign against the TMC.

Yet Mamata Banerjee continued to pursue her plans for expanding TMC’s footprint in other states. TMC took the plunge in the Goa Assembly elections held on February 14 and four Assembly bye-elections in Tripura on June 23. In Goa, the TMC tied up with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and fielded defectors from Congress and other outfits. Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and poll consultant Prashant Kishore played a key role in enlisting the support of the local media group O Heraldo (the English daily that still uses the original Portuguese masthead). But, amid Goa’s volatile politics, the TMC failed to register with the voters and could not win a single seat in the 40-member House. In keeping with Goa’s tradition of defection, as soon as the results were out on March 10, TMC, which secured only 5.21% votes, itself became a victim of defections, and two legislators from its ally MGP gave their support to the BJP, which retained power. The poor showing apart, defectors accused the party and the consultant of failing to clear the dues of vendors and suppliers. The presence of ex-Congress veteran Luizinho Faleiro, who joined the TMC and became a Rajya Sabha member before the elections, did not help in this regard. 

The TMC also failed to register its presence in the four Assembly bye-elections in Tripura. It got just 1.81% votes. It remains to be seen whether Mamata Banerjee decides to take the plunge again in March when the regular Assembly election is due in Tripura. If she does, it will be on consideration of the fact that it is a neighbouring and small state, and Bengali is the language in vogue. But, as of now, the party is in a mess in Tripura with several leaders defecting to the Congress.

Interestingly, one recent defector, Baptu Chakraborty has termed the TMC as BJP’s “B-team”. The refrain is that it is not possible to fight the BJP by being members of the TMC, said knowledgeable quarters.

The TMC has recently removed its Tripura unit president Subal Bhowmik but has not named his successor. The party affairs have been left to Rajib Bandyopadhyay of West Bengal and Sushmita Dev of Assam, who defected to the TMC from the Congress about a year back. Bandyopadhyay is a former minister who had switched over to the BJP before the 2021 elections but returned to the TMC after losing.

In both Goa and Tripura, the TMC was generous in spending on popularising Mamata Banerjee, whose desire for a key role in national politics had by then become part of the political narrative. According to informed sources, the party got chartered flights for the two destinations and put up its leaders at top hotels.

But the TMC’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in the subsequent months; so much so that Mamata Banerjee is now forced on reconsidering her expansion plans and recuperating the party’s image that has taken a beating because of corruption and law and order issue-related investigations.

Some six months back, the gruesome incident at Birbhum district’s Bogtui, in which several persons were charred to death following disputes over sharing of spoils of illegal transactions, had raised serious doubts over the efficacy of the intelligence gathering mechanism under the watch of the CM who also holds the home ministry portfolio.

Embarrassment for the TMC has provided space for the Opposition to launch agitations against it and programmes are being chalked out to take the protests to the districts. The generous grants that the chief minister has announced for the community Durga Puja have drawn flak from large sections of the people. This has given the Opposition and trade unions one more reason to step up agitations. They have pointed out that the chief minister is being irrational and unsympathetic as the state government has failed to clear its employees’ Dearness Allowance dues for a long time.

Moreover, MGNREGA workers are not getting wage payments since the last week of December as the Union rural development ministry has detected several deficiencies in abiding by the legal provisions, and has, therefore, withheld the funds. The ministry recently deputed 15 teams for on-the-spot verification of claims made by the state government. The teams have in their reports pointed out serious slippages on several counts. Cornered, the chief minister has assured speedy action to rectify matters and sought early release of funds for MNREGA wage payments.

In her previous two terms, under the then prevailing circumstances, she was not required to pay as much attention to the state party machinery as she is now in the face of adverse circumstances. In a matter of months, the state will have panchayat elections, which will be crucial not only for the TMC but also for the Left Front, Congress and BJP. This time around, the Opposition will make all-out efforts to prevent the TMC’s malpractices.

Arrests of active functionaries, particularly of TMC’s Birbhum district strongman and a ‘valuable’ contributor to party funds, Anubrata Mondol, will impact the party’s ability to garner resources. Attempts to establish presence in Goa and parts of the North-East, including Tripura, have proved costly exercises. So, further deployment of funds for expanding presence beyond West Bengal is becoming a difficult proposition for the fund managers, say party insiders.

In these circumstances, Mamata is depending upon her nephew to streamline the state party affairs. For the politically ambitious Abhishek Banerjee, this is a welcome opportunity to help the party out of the difficulties and assert his authority. He is already making changes in the districts, has put an alternate management team at strongman Mondol’s place, without removing him. This is in stark contrast to the suspension of education minister Partha Chatterjee, who along with his aide, has been identified by the investigating agencies as the brain behind the teacher and non-teaching staff recruitment scam.

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