Kolkata: No sooner had Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress sealed its third consecutive win in West Bengal than murmurs began about the chief minister’s future plans.
Within the party, there was talk that this election will likely set the stage for the further elevation of Mamata’s nephew and Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee in the Trinamool Congress as she turns her focus to the national stage.
Abhishek is seen to have played a key role in this election. The Trinamool Congress won 29 of 31 seats in South 24 Parganas, which is known to be Abhishek Banerjee’s fort. He was also given the charge of Jhargram district, where the BJP drew a blank in all four seats.
Abhishek Banerjee, 33, first became an MP in 2014. In less than a decade, the MBA holder has seen his profile in the state rise rapidly. His strengthening profile and power in less than a decade of being in active politics has exposed Mamata to opposition jibes about propagating dynasty politics, and some resentment within her party too.
Even so, Mamata has been unfazed. Trinamool Congress members now openly talk about Abhishek as the future of the party in Bengal. More discreetly, they point out that even those opposed to his ascent have fallen in line.
A senior Trinamool leader who did not wish to be named said they “look at Abhishek as the de facto state chief of Trinamool Congress”.
“Nothing has been officially announced now. But Didi will now concentrate more on national politics. We have got many messages from our friends in the national Opposition,” the leader added. “They want Didi to lead the battle against Modi-Shah. In this scenario, Abhishek has to carry the mantle.”
After Sunday’s win, Mamata did drop a potential hint about moving her focus from West Bengal.
“Bengal saved India, humanity and democracy. We will give free vaccines to all here and I will demand that the Centre should vaccinate 140 crore people of India free of cost,” she said. “If it does not happen, I will start a non-violent agitation near the Gandhi Murti.”
Taking a leading role
Abhishek’s authority became crystal clear to the cadres and people at large when he was made the second important star campaigner in the Trinamool structure, after Mamata.
Covering the election through Bengal, this reporter noticed hundreds of banners and posters with Abhishek’s picture along those of candidates in different constituencies. His posters could be spotted along roads, and even at party offices.
This is again a sign of the change being ushered in. Since 2011, when Mamata first came in, it was just her photos that occupied pride of place at Trinamool offices and along important thoroughfares.
In 2016, after the Trinamool Congress was voted to office, Abhishek was projected as the real “match winner”. When Mamata and 41 of her Cabinet colleagues took oath of office, the venue at Red Road was dotted with banners and placards hailing the young MP from Diamond Harbour.
He took the backseat briefly in 2019, as Mamata was unnerved by the BJP’s sweep in the Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore districts, where Abhishek was in charge. A major accident and some political factors played a role in keeping him away but he came back bigger than ever before.
This election, Mamata, allegedly left with an injury after a suspected accident (Trinamool claims it was an attack) in March, conducted the campaign in a wheelchair between 14 March and 26 April.
With her movement restricted, it was Abhishek who flew from one constituency to another to address election rallies, at least five to six a day.
A senior Trinamool leader said he also took many poll-related decisions as Didi was too busy to handle the “all-guns-blazing” campaign by Modi and Shah.
In a tweet Sunday, Trinamool MP and the party’s chief national spokesperson Derek O’Brien termed Abhishek passionate and dedicated.
This is an interview @abhishekaitc MP gave to a Bengali channel three weeks ago. (Rarely does)
I have seen first hand his passion and dedication to the people of Bengal. His opponents have maligned him endlessly.
Today he should stand tall. https://t.co/pxlW8NjphE
— Derek O'Brien | ডেরেক ও'ব্রায়েন (@derekobrienmp) May 2, 2021
On the campaign trail, Firhad Hakim, one of Didi’s closest aides and the state’s Urban Development Minister, told ThePrint that Abhishek is the “future of Trinamool Congress”.
Countering the opposition’s description of Abhishek as a “dynast”, he said, “I don’t think it should be called dynasty politics. Young leaders will come forward to handle the youth wing. Among the young prominent leaders, after Suvendu (Adhikari, now with the BJP), who anyway turned out to be a gaddar (traitor), Abhishek is next.
“The torch has to be carried. Someone will emerge from the next generation.”
Rise of the nephew
Within the TMC, top party sources said, there is a powerful group that was working “systematically” to project him as the leader and bring him at the helm of affairs.
“A veteran MP, who, a few months back, called Abhishek an entitled dynast, is now being seen praising him all the time. This is the change, and here comes the elevation plan,” another Trinamool Congress leader said.
“As Didi retains her government and saves her home turf, she is not going to be projected as the only formidable opposition to Modi. She will have national plans and Abhishek will be handed over the charge of West Bengal Trinamool Congress. This is just a matter of time,” the leader added.
There were rumours a few months ago that Abhishek may be made deputy chief minister or given an important portfolio in the cabinet. However, a top leader in Mamata’s core committee rubbished the news even as he acknowledged Abhishek’s future leadership role at the state level in the party.
“He did not even fight the election. There is no question of him being inducted into the cabinet. But we are expecting him to carry the mantle soon. There is no second opinion on that,” the leader said.
‘Will lead to more defections’
According to political analysts, Abhishek’s leadership will trigger more defections in the party, which saw many members join the BJP in the run-up to the assembly elections.
“The Trinamool Congress was not founded over an ideology. The party came into existence to oust the CPM-run government. Since then, Mamata Banerjee won elections and she remained popular. But it is not the same for her nephew,” said Biswanath Chakraborti, a political analyst.
“Eight years into active politics, Abhishek Banerjee is now going to own a party. His approach, as the party leaders admit in private, remains very different from that of his aunt. He has already created a coterie around him and some opportunists flock around him. But the Trinamool has some loyal and honest leaders, they will not be able to stick to the party in future,” he added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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