Kolkata: For now, Abhishek Banerjee, second-in-command in the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), is certainly on the backfoot. If what has happened over the past three weeks, including the initial silence of TMC supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her subsequent assertive clarification, are read between the lines, this conclusion is unavoidable, say political observers who have tracked TMC politics.
In a sense, this is the second big development in TMC after the party registered an emphatic victory in the March end-April 2021 Assembly elections, for which it was the highest spender at Rs 154 crore, as per details released by the Election Commission.
Politically, Mamata Banerjee became more powerful as she thwarted an aggressive bid to capture ‘ Bangal’ by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which competed well with TMC in poll spending -- Rs 151 crore.
After settling down in her third term as chief minister, Banerjee’s new priority came to light -- to emerge as the face of the Opposition at the national level and to this end, establish TMC‘s footprints beyond West Bengal. This was the first major development.
But, what has happened in recent times shows there is growing dissent and discontent in the party, particularly among seniors, “over the over-assertiveness” of Abhishek, TMC’s national general secretary, Lok Sabha member from Diamond Harbour constituency and, of course, the nephew of Mamata Banerjee. The last mentioned fact has been the reason for him to emerge as a heavy-weight in the party.
However, matters erupted on January 8 when Abhishek said that social, religious and political crowd-pulling events, including civic elections, scheduled for January 22, should be deferred by two months. Significantly, he added: “This is my personal view”.
But, this view had its own political implications because the chief minister, for reasons best known to her, was allowing the events to take place on schedule, including civic elections. What followed made things clearer.
Kalyan Bandopadhyay , senior TMC leader, Serampore Lok Sabha member and the party’s chief whip in Lok Sabha, used strong words: “As the party’s national general secretary, which is a full-time assignment, he (Abhishek) cannot express his personal views publicly. I, too, have personal views, but I follow party discipline and do not air those views publicly.”
Bandopadhyay’s second outburst was related to Abhishek’s administrative meeting on COVID management at which the district collector was present. “Over 50,000 persons were subjected to tests. How were so many (testing) kits managed?” he questioned. His strongest words were: “My leader is only Mamata and no one else”.
The Serampore MP’s remarks irked TMC loyalists and party spokesman Kunal Ghosh said if things continued like this, surely the party’s disciplinary action committee would act.
This brought into the scene another senior TMC leader, Madan Mitra, who wondered if indeed there was such a committee and if so, he would like to be enlightened about it.
Eventually, TMC’s secretary-general and industry minister Partha Chattopadhyay stepped in and said: “How much more do you want to see the party’s image tarnished?”
Informed quarters told NewsClick that Bandopadhyay has been nursing grievances against Abhishek Banerjee for quite some time. A recent reason was the re-entry of former minister Rajiv Bandopadhyayay, who was MLA from Domjur Assembly constituency in Howrah district, which is part of Serampore Lok Sabha constituency. Before the last Assembly election Rajiv had joined BJP and lost. He had been trying to rejoin TMC but the Serampore Lok Sabha MP was against his re-induction. Abhishek Banerjee re-admitted Rajiv.
As these developments were taking place, Mamata Banerjee kept her cards close to her chest and many within TMC veered round to the view that it was all stage-managed. The Serampore MP (Kalyan) could not have gone that far against the Diamond Harbour MP (Abhishek) without the chief minister’s tacit support. Significantly, the nephew sought to close the chapter from his side saying: “Kalyanda has said Mamata is his supreme leader; I also say Mamata is my supreme leader”. This has convinced political observers and activists to infer that the nephew certainly is on the backfoot.
On Thursday, Mamata Banerjee reinforced this impression when at a meeting with Parliament members, she said: “I am the last word in organisational matters. It will be wrong on the part of any person to think he has become a big leader just because he has worked for some years in the party”. She also advised members about whom they should take their grievances to for redressal. Abhishek’s name, who was present there, was not one among those named.
Asked to give an assessment of the goings on in TMC, senior Congress leader Arunava Ghosh told NewsClick: “Abhishek certainly is on the backfoot. Also, perhaps, for the first time, it looked not as a party matter, but as a family matter. The nephew controls party funds; much of the influence he wields stems from this arrangement”, said Ghosh.
TMC Lok Sabha member and national party spokesperson Saugata Roy said matters had been sorted out. When NewsClick asked him if what has been happening in the party in recent times indicates that many senior leaders are aggrieved because of the nephew’s highhandedness, Roy said: “There are a few seniors who, you may say, find it difficult to reconcile”.
Meanwhile, on the COVID front, the situation over the past 7-10 days is that the count of affected persons is decreasing and the positivity rate, too, is showing a downward trend, But, the fatalities, when related proportionately, are on the higher side, compared with what it was, say, up to mid-January.
Doctors are of the opinion that it is too early to infer that West Bengal could now heave a sigh of relief. There is some evidence already of the state authorities not being as serious as it was earlier on conducting tests. Coupled with this is the tendency of people to ignore symptoms and avoid tests.
Dr Hiralal Konar, one of the joint conveners of the Joint Platform of Doctors, West Bengal, told NewsClick that in the prevailing circumstances, the state authorities must involve epidemiologists and public experts in tracing “where and how enemies are hiding and what should be the strategy to eliminate the risks of their reappearance.”
“The decline in caseload so soon after several crowd-pulling events at relatively short time gaps may, therefore, appear to be intriguing”, Dr Konar suggested.
The case for the state government to take the help of epidemiologists and public health experts becomes stronger in view of the note of caution sounded on Thursday by the Union health ministry: The more virulent delta is still in circulation here and there and West Bengal figures in the list of three states [Maharashtra and Odisha are the other two] which need close watch. Certain patients with co-morbidities may be at risk of severe disease.
Of late, the state is witnessing an almost strident demand for reopening educational institutions. The Students Federation of India (SFI), an arm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has been voicing this demand for the past several days and SFI activists even held symbolic open-air classes at select places on Thursday.
The prolonged dependence on online classes has been triggering drop-outs, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas, where affordability is an important issue. Those strongly favouring early re-opening of educational institutions have been arguing that in the final analysis, online classes cannot substitute classroom teaching.
Supporters of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, also hit the streets on Thursday on the same issue.
Meanwhile, West Bengal’s education minister Bratya Basu has said that the matter is “engaging our serious attention; but let us not forget the prime concern is the wellbeing of students. A decision in this regard will be made by the chief minister”.
The writer is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist.