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As Abhishek Banerjee Lies Low, Rumours Rife on Aunt-Nephew Tension Within TMC

Abhishek's distance from Mamata's dharna in Kolkata, despite senior leaders joining the CM to spend multiple nights at the campsite, suggests a power struggle or a difference in strategies for the upcoming Lok Sabha election.
Abhishek Banerjee (L) and Mamata Banerjee. Photos: Official X accounts

Kolkata: With the Lok Sabha elections looming large, whispers of internal discord within the Trinamool Congress (TMC) are growing louder. At the centre of this speculation lies the relationship between party supremo Mamata Banerjee and her nephew, the perceived heir apparent, Abhishek Banerjee.

Abhishek’s low profile fuels rumours

For the past six weeks, Abhishek has maintained a noticeably low profile, primarily limiting his activities to his own constituency, Diamond Harbour. While he did participate in Mamata’s interfaith ‘Sanhati Yatra’ on the day of the Ram Mandir consecration ceremony, his conspicuous absence from the ongoing protest by the chief minister against the denial of funds to the state has further fuelled rumours of a rift within the party.

This absence is particularly striking given Mamata’s personal commitment to the dharna in Kolkata. Despite instructions for all party MPs to participate, Abhishek remained in Delhi for parliamentary sessions.

While serving his constituency actively, his parliamentary engagement remains low. Abhishek’s attendance record reflects this, standing at 14% compared to the national average of 79%, and participation in two debates versus the national average of 45.1.

His distance from the dharna, despite senior leaders joining Mamata to spend multiple nights at the campsite, suggests a power struggle or a difference in strategies for the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

Clash with the old guard

The tensions initially started in 2022, when two conflicting candidate lists surfaced for the municipal polls. One list was backed by party veterans Partha Chatterjee and Subrata Bakshi, and the other made by I-PAC, patronised by Abhishek. Mamata initially endorsed the Chatterjee-Bakshi list but faced challenges from Abhishek, who overruled her in several municipalities and favoured I-PAC-recommended candidates.

This discord led to discontent among senior leaders like Chatterjee and Bakshi, who even threatened to step down. Caught between the old guard and rising aspirations, Mamata dissolved key party committees, as well as Abhishek’s national general secretary position. However, he was later reinstated, solidifying his prominence and his de facto No. 2 status within the state.

Since then, Abhishek has been advocating for a possible retirement age for politicians, mirroring practices in other sectors. This further ruffled feathers among seasoned party members, who perceiving it as a veiled message targeting them.

As the 2019 Lok Sabha elections drew closer, the debate resurfaced. Senior leaders like Subrata Bakshi, Firhad Hakim and Sudip Bandopadhyay expressed differing views. While Bakshi openly encouraged Abhishek to contest the Lok Sabha election, Hakim stressed the importance of younger leaders learning from the party’s history. Bandopadhyay’s comment about potential chaos after Mamata’s departure further fuelled speculations.

This sparked a counter-offensive from Abhishek’s camp, with spokesperson Kunal Ghosh advocating for retiring older leaders and promoting younger, tech-savvy individuals. While officially, Abhishek claimed to be an “obedient soldier of Trinamool Congress”, he reiterated his position on the age debate.

“As there is a certain age of retirement for every sector, it should be the same for politics as well. Yes, I said that, but what is wrong with it?” declared Abhishek.

Mamata was became inadvertently swept into the discourse, as there were questions about whether Abhishek’s proposal indirectly targeted her.

At a public rally, she announced, “We do not believe in showing the door to anyone who reaches the age of 60.” This statement, drawing parallels with her policy of utilising experienced bureaucrats beyond retirement, was interpreted by political observers as a message of confidence in the “old guard” and an implicit rebuke to those proposing an age limit.

Power struggle or strategic difference?

In April 2023, just before the panchayat poll, Abhishek undertook a mass outreach programme, the ‘Nabo Jowar Yatra’, crisscrossing the state for 51 days with road shows and public meetings. While he is largely credited with TMC’s success in the panchayat poll, a significant portion of the party remained hesitant to accept his growing influence.

TMC’s victory in the panchayat election, securing 51% of votes and winning all districts, was not without controversy. There was widespread violence resulting in the loss of over 50 lives. The opposition raised allegations of the party using government resources and undue influence from Block Development Officers (BDOs) to sway the results. Over a thousand legal cases challenging the election’s legitimacy have been filed in the Calcutta high court.

Many within the party, accustomed to Mamata’s leadership, view the party as synonymous with her. Abhishek’s selection of candidates based on vote count, alleged ballot rigging and formation of his own youth-led teams during the panchayat elections sparked criticism and accusations of sidelining established members. Abdul Karim Choudhury, the TMC MLA of Islampur in North Dinajpur, openly rebelled and fielded independent candidates against his party’s official list.

“He should not have been given so much responsibility. He does not understand anything about politics,” said Choudhury, taking a potshot at Abhishek. “I will again become inactive if one particular leader tries to control the party.”

A few days ago, Abhishek’s cousin Aditi Gayen wrote a cryptic social media post, hinting at a potential difference within the family. Gayen has been actively sharing numerous posts and reposts related to Abhishek, but there’s a noticeable absence of any reposts featuring the party supremo on her feed.

On Monday, Mamata  abruptly cancelled her scheduled Delhi trip, citing budget-related responsibilities. A section of the Kolkata media is saying this is due to her reluctance to share a roof with Abhishek, as she typically prefers to stay at his official residence during her visits to the capital.

Officially though, the party is denying any possibility of a rift between the aunt-nephew duo.  “Abhishek Banerjee is in Delhi, and could not take part in the Kolkata dharna. Even Mamata Banerjee did not attend Abhishek’s dharna a few months back over the same demand. It’s not always that one has to be present to show support,” clarified Trinamool Youth Congress leader Sayani Ghosh, known to be close to Abhishek.

Veteran political analyst and the author of Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC Sambit Pal echoed Ghosh’s statement. “If there were a rift, Mamata would have taken drastic actions, such as removing Abhishek, and would not remain silent when spokespersons like Kunal Ghosh constantly attack senior leaders. It appears that Mamata is aligning herself with the veteran leaders, but she is also signalling that Abhishek Banerjee has control over the organisation by not taking any action against him.”

In recent times, several senior leaders have openly pledged their allegiance towards Mamata, indicating a fissure within the organisation. Abhishek, backed by I-PAC, attempted to revamp the organisation and build his own loyal base, but his efforts have seemingly resulted in the emergence of two distinct factions across districts.

“Abhishek is still overseeing the organisation, but he is also attempting to manage it more corporately by removing senior leaders and avoiding any sympathetic sentiments. Mamata Banerjee had to step forward to resolve the discontent between the senior and junior members,” observed Pal.

Impact on Lok Sabha election

Dipak Adhikari, the actor-turned-MP widely known as Dev, has stepped just down from all governmental roles in his constituency. Speculation is rife within the political circles of Kolkata about the potential defection of another veteran should he be denied tickets in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Since the 2021 election victory, the TMC has faced a barrage of corruption allegations, impacting its image. The arrest of former education minister Partha Chatterjee and seizure of crores in cash, followed by the detention of party heavyweight Anubrata Mondal and his daughter in a cattle scam, have jolted the party.

The recent arrest of state minister Jyoti Priya Mallick and a series of raids by the Enforcement Directorate have further rattled the party. Mallick’s arrest, in particular, is seen as a significant blow to TMC’s organisational strength in the upcoming elections due to his influence in the North 24 Parganas district. Adding to the woes, Abhishek himself faces investigation for money laundering. This relentless onslaught of corruption cases, coupled with internal strife over succession, has left many party insiders apprehensive about the party’s preparedness for the upcoming elections.

“I still maintain that there is no coordination within the party in my district. Whatever you call it, young or old, there is no coordination between the team. You know how many times I have said this upstairs. If Congress and CPM fight together in Murshidabad, we will have a tough battle. I don’t know why I-PAC isn’t working in full swing this time like in other elections, but they’re doing surveys,” said outspoken MLA Humayun Kabir from Murshidabad.

However, political observers are still putting the TMC ahead of the BJP, Congress and the Left – the three opposition parties in the state.

Political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty predicts a strong showing for the TMC in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, drawing parallels between their tactics and the BJP’s success, “The Trinamool Party stands on a few pillars like the BJP. The pillars are Beneficiary, Religious Vote, Administration, Money and Muscle Power. Trinamool is the second richest party after BJP and gets massive electoral bonds. They fight elections on these pillars. They will do much better than the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.”

“She does not want the party to divide along these lines before the crucial Lok Sabha polls. Mamata knows, as does Abhishek, that people will vote for her regardless of the election. She is the sole face of the TMC,” summed up Pal.

Translated from Bengali by Aparna Bhattacharya.

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