A few days ago, Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee dared the Bharatiya Janata Party to take his name while hurling ‘baseless charges’. But after a CBI summon to his wife Rujira Narula this weekend, it is clear that Abhishek is fast becoming the Achilles heel of his aunt and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have already made Didi’s ‘bhatija’ (nephew) and corruption a poll issue in the state. Is he turning out to be the ‘Robert Vadra’ of the Trinamool Congress?
BJP leaders — from Union minister Babul Supriyo to Kailash Vijayvargiya — have trained their guns at Abhishek Banerjee. It’s also a clever strategy by Modi-Shah’s party to ensure that the TMC is left defending their own leaders at a time when many have jumped ship. And it is succeeding, to an extent. Senior Bengal minister and Mamata’s close associate Firhad Hakim accused the BJP of cowardice and taking the help of the CBI and Enforcement Directorate to attack family members of TMC leaders. Mamata Banerjee said that the BJP had been targeting her nephew because they were finding it difficult to attack her. Addressing a rally in South 24 Parganas, Mamata said, “Day and night they are talking of ‘Didi-Bhatija’. I challenge Amit Shah, contest against Abhishek Banerjee first, then me.”
But ever since the CBI news broke, Mamata has not spoken about her niece. Instead, more than two hours after the CBI went to Abhishek’s Kolkata residence, Mamata attended a scheduled public function on Language Day in the city. While addressing the gathering, Mamata did not utter a single word on her nephew. But she repeatedly asserted that the battle of protecting Bengal and Bangla should be given utmost priority and the ‘onslaught’ unleashed by the non-Bengalis (meaning the BJP) must be resisted at all cost. She called herself a goalkeeper. But no one knows Abhishek Banerjee’s role in this football field.
Her studied silence on the CBI and Abhishek is unusual. Only two years ago, when a team of CBI officers had gone to then Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajiv Kumar’s residence, they were promptly detained by state police forces. Mamata Banerjee rushed to his home to stall and resist any kind of investigation of Kumar in the Saradha chit fund case. Mamata did not stop at that — on the same night, she started a sit-in demonstration at Kolkata’s Esplanade area to protest against the Centre’s interference in the state’s affairs. Today, Abhishek Banerjee is left to defend himself and his family alone— apart from some TMC leaders—through tweets. Perhaps, Mamata wants to distance herself from the raging controversy around Abhishek and his family, lest it embroils her in it and queers the election-pitch for TMC.
Corruption at doorstep
In a state where Mamata Banerjee’s welfare programmes are all the rage, the BJP is hoping the corruption allegations stick. And there isn’t much the Trinamool can do if the charges are levelled directly at the house of Banerjee.
For the last two years, Amit Shah has led the attack on Abhishek Banerjee by referring to him as bhatija in a number of public meetings. The state BJP leaders followed suit. But most refrained from taking Abhishek’s name while raising allegations of coal pilferage, cow smuggling racket and extortions. In December last year, addressing a public meeting in Medinipur, Suvendu Adhikari, the recent convert from TMC to BJP, raised the slogan, “Remove extortionist nephew”. But today Adhikari is more categorical. In a public rally in January, he referred to a purported document showing money being deposited in a bank account in Bangkok every month. On 22 February, after CBI went to Abhishek’s residence, Suvendu referred to that allegation made by him and said, “The account belongs to one Madam Narula. Who is this Madam Narula? She is none other than the same person who was detained in Kolkata airport in 2019 for carrying gold,” Adhikari alleged. Incidentally, Abhishek’s wife Rujira Narula — a Thai passport holder— was detained briefly at Kolkata airport in 2019 while returning from Bangkok by Customs officials for allegedly carrying large quantities of gold but senior police officers intervened — a claim that Abhishek Banerjee refuted.
Allegations of corruption of TMC leaders and cadres have made news earlier too. Mamata herself admitted that some party workers were pilfering public funds and taking “cut money” from the poor beneficiaries of the state’s various welfare schemes. The BJP has been trying to raise this as a major issue in the coming election. With its known stance on Muslims as “illegal immigrants” and “termites” causing lot of damage in the state, the BJP wanted to highlight corruption to attack the ruling Bengal government. But the TMC, with its slew of welfare schemes for the poor, has been able to counter the attack. The muck has, however, now reached Mamata’s family. So, it would be difficult to launch a counter offensive.
Highlight dynasty, enter BJP
What is significant is that the rise of Abhishek Banerjee as TMC’s No. 2 was not done through any official declaration. Mamata Banerjee has the last word in the party, and Abhishek was hoisted after Mukul Roy left and joined the BJP.
In any big gathering in the state capital or in the districts, it became customary to display big cut-outs of Abhishek, vying in stature with only Mamata. But soon people in the party started grumbling about Abhishek’s highhandedness, and many pointed out that the situation had come to such a pass that without Abhishek’s nod, no one was able to get a proper role in the TMC. Senior leaders like Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee who left the TMC openly accused Abhishek of amassing disproportionate power. Then, allegations of extortion and involvement in coal smuggling started doing the rounds. But neither Mamata nor Abhishek ever tried to come clean on that. Remember Mamata refusing to answer a question on TV in 2016 on the sudden growth of real estate properties in Bhawanipore, her turf? It is true that Abhishek was steadfast in asserting that his wife did not have any bank account in foreign countries. But Mamata’s silence now is not helping her nephew.
BJP leaders know the potential of this ammunition. Mamata Banerjee is the chief campaigner of her party, and if her image could be even slightly tarnished, then the BJP would have a field day. By not dispelling the allegations before the CBI knocked at their door, Mamata and Abhishek have changed the political agenda of the coming election. Earlier it was Bengali vs non-Bengali (Mamata’s issue), TMC’s corruption and cut money culture (BJP’s agenda), and Sonar Bangla (BJP’s promise). The CBI raid at Abhishek Banerjee’s residence has now added new fire — because fighting dynasty is the BJP’s strong suit.
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.