Kolkata: Addressing his first rally in West Bengal’s capital Sunday since the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed into an Act, Union Home Minister Amit Shah took potshots at Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, calling him “Rajkumar (prince)”.
Shah said the next CM of the state would be a “son of the soil (bhumi putra)” who will “rise from the masses”, and not the Rajkumar.
Shah uncharacteristically refrained from making any direct attacks on Mamata, implying instead that 32-year-old Abhishek, the MP from Diamond Harbour, would be the Trinamool Congress’ CM face for next year’s assembly elections.
This signals the command that Abhishek has over the party — and also over the police — which political experts say is only by virtue of being the family member Mamata Banerjee is closest to.
The Trinamool Congress chief never encouraged any of her family members, including her brothers or other nephews and nieces to join active politics. Her brothers are fringe elements in the party and have never fought elections. It is not known why Mamata has indulged Abhishek so much, though on a few candid occasions, she has claimed he was always inclined towards politics.
From being a rabble-rouser during the 2018 Bengal panchayat elections to a more evolved and mature politician now, Abhishek is well on his way to changing his image and political outlook. Some of his recent speeches in Parliament on the CAA and other issues have gone viral among the youth on social media.
Senior Trinamool Congress leaders say his anointment is not far, and the MBA from the New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Planning and Management might soon be given charge of the party, and a few years later, of the state, as the 65-year-old Mamata turns her attention to national politics ahead of the 2024 general elections.
Wealth growing in ‘Leaps & Bounds’
Every time the chief minister is perceived to be going a little “soft” on the BJP, opposition parties like the CPI(M) and the Congress attribute it to a “deal with Modi-Shah” for her “nephew’s well-being”. Leaders of these parties have often come up with ‘Modi Bhai–Didi Bhai’ slogans, as well as a ‘Kotipoti bhaipo’ (crorepati or multi-millionaire nephew) taunt.
Such allegations have much to do with the wealth amassed by Abhishek, which is readily on display. Although no case has been registered against him and the Income Tax department has never issued a notice, opposition leaders have often questioned the source of such wealth.
Aunt Mamata has always lived a humble life, and she and her six brothers aren’t known to have inherited anything from their parents. However, her brother Amit and his wife Lata own three companies, according to the Registrar of Companies’ master data for Kolkata — Leaps & Bounds Infra Consultants Pvt Ltd, Leaps & Bounds Pvt Ltd and Leaps & Bounds Management Services LLP, incorporated in 2011, 2012 and 2017 respectively. The first two companies each have an authorised capital of Rs 4 crore, and all these ventures are still active.
According to sources in the party, Abhishek has been running all these companies.
ThePrint reached the MP through calls and text messages but there was no response until the time of publishing this report. It will be updated when he does.
A close look at Abhishek’s 2019 Lok Sabha election expenses also raises eyebrows, because he spent around Rs 64.22 lakh, according to documents available on the ADR website.
He spent around Rs 23 lakh of his own money, while another Rs 20 lakh was received from the party. Around Rs 18 lakh was received from companies and organisations, or in the form of donations.
Abhishek’s election affidavit also stated that he has close to Rs 1.38 crore of assets, and that he’s a salaried professional.
Apart from the documented wealth, he is known to live in a grand residence on Harish Chatterjee Street in south Kolkata, which has a permanent police cordon and outpost around it. However, the address mentioned in the affidavit is 30B, Harish Chatterjee Street, Mamata’s Kalighat residence.
Mamata’s affection towards Abhishek is such that despite her own austerity, she allowed him to host lavish functions for his wedding at five-star hotels in Delhi.
Mamata’s only weakness
PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Shah have called Abhishek out many times for running an “unchallenged empire of extortion and syndicates”.
However, despite there being no case against him, Trinamool sources say Mamata fears he’ll be the target of political vendetta.
A senior CPI(M) leader, who did not want to be named, said Mamata’s fight against the BJP gets weaker and slower every time it mentions Abhishek.
“A man in his early thirties and a two-time MP has gathered so much of wealth. An average citizen knows it. We can see it. But there is no income tax raid ever. Why and how? Who manages everything? Like us, people also have such questions in mind,” the leader said.
Control over police and cadres
Many senior Trinamool Congress leaders seem to have accepted Abhishek’s growing authority over the party, but there have also been allegations that some of them have quit the party or been sidelined because of him.
“He is getting mature. Now, he can handle several issues on his own. We all know he is Didi’s heir and we give him that respect. But that does not mean he does not pay attention to the veterans,” said one of the leaders.
In most political programmes, the likes of Trinamool general secretary Partha Chatterjee, national general secretary Subrata Bakshi, and veteran MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay routinely sing his praises.
Bringing in poll strategist Prashant Kishor was a call Abhishek took, also acting as the bridge between him and the Trinamool chief, according to sources. Now, Abhishek and Kishor are two of the five members of the party’s top decision-making committee, headed by Mamata.
His influence on the government and the police is unchallenged — Kishor, despite being a private entity and not a political person, has been given ‘Z’ category security cover, which is given to those whose lives could be under high threat. Abhishek himself is the only politician in West Bengal, apart from the CM Mamata, to have Z+ cover.
“This can only happen if ‘Yuvraj (prince)’ wants. There has been no such instance when a non-political or apolitical person was provided with a security cover by the state. No one knows about the security threat Prashant Kishor might have in Bengal,” said a source in the government.
Even among the party cadre, Abhishek now rules the roost. A couple of leaders tried to confront him, and ended up out of the party or sidelines. Mukul Roy, who joined the BJP, was one of them, and said Abhishek had been one of the reasons why he quit the Trinamool. He did say, however, that the main reason he quit were “ideological issues”.
Politics on a platter
Roy, former Trinamool general secretary and Union minister, said Abhishek is yet to be “judged” as a politician.
“He got everything ready on a platter. He was a student when the Trinamool spearheaded a movement against the Left parties, fought them and won. He actively joined the party in 2013, got an MP ticket in 2014. In a few days, he was made the president of Trinamool Yuva. When did he work or struggle like an average political worker?” he said.
“Since his win in 2014, he was known as the prince of Trinamool. His political acumen is yet to be judged. Amit Shah ji wanted to say that the state does not deserve such a dynast, but a leader who has worked for the masses,” Roy told ThePrint.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Congress’ leader in the Lok Sabha and senior Bengal politician, said: “We do not get to interact with him much in Parliament, nor did we see him part of any political movement ever. He got everything on a platter, unlike others who are still struggling hard to make space.”
Political analyst and professor Biswanath Chakraborti also echoed Roy and Chowdhury.
“All these regional parties run as personal property of their leaders. Trinamool Congress is no different; Abhishek is its heir apparent. He was given charge of 2018 panchayat elections, in which his aggression cost the party dearly. Eventually, the party was almost washed away in the western region in 2019 when five Lok Sabha seats were under his charge,” Chakraborti said.
“But now, he is being groomed under Prashant Kishor, and is evolving. The internal feud over his authority has almost died down, as Mamata Banerjee has made it clear on several occasions that Abhishek is her heir. In the last six years, he just made his way through competition inside the party, and that was done with the supremo’s help. I have a hunch that he will be made the national chairperson of the party soon,” he added.
Party leaders who have seen Abhishek copying of his aunt’s style of speaking at public rallies, now say that he is “sophisticated” when it comes to speaking in public forums. His speeches are well-scripted and devoid of rabble-rousing elements. He is mostly dressed in kurta-pyjama, having learnt to keep it simple like Mamata Banerjee.