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What the elevation of an unrelenting Mamata critic in Bengal Congress means for 2021 polls

Adhir Chowdhury has been Bengal Congress chief before but his elevation now is significant as it comes ahead of 2021 polls and is further proof of Gandhis' confidence in him. 

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Kolkata: For 21 years, Congressman Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has been an MP from West Bengal’s Berhampur parliamentary constituency — even surviving the two Modi waves in 2014 and 2019. 

But for much of his five terms, the West Bengal Congress leader had never held any substantial post in the party or in the government. All that started to change in 2019, when he was first appointed as the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha and then made chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. 

On Wednesday, Chowdhury’s career graph took another turn northward — he was appointed the West Bengal Congress president, over a month after the post fell vacant following the death of Somendra Mitra. 

Chowdhury has held the post before, between 2014 and 2018, but his elevation this time is significant on two counts — it comes ahead of what promises to be a tantalising assembly election in 2021, and is also further evidence of the Congress high command’s growing confidence in the West Bengal leader.  

“I already have important responsibilities, so I initially resisted this appointment and suggested other leaders’ names,” Chowdhury told ThePrint over the phone. “But madam (Sonia Gandhi) called me and asked me to lead the party in the state.” 

A Mamata nemesis

The elevation could be a huge setback for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who had been looking to reach out to the Congress. Mamata was among the seven chief ministers who attended a meeting called by interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi.  

But Chowdhury is the only Congress leader in the state who has unapologetically and consistently remained the worst critic of the chief minister. 

On Friday, he made no bones of the fact that his priorities lay in taking on the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). 

“The BJP is, of course, the main challenger, but we must not forget, this is our chance too. The votes that the BJP got last year (Lok Sabha election) were not the BJP’s votes,” he told ThePrint. “It was anti-Mamata votes that went to the BJP. We can hold ground in our strong belts and become the kingmaker. I will lead the party in that direction.” 

A senior Congress leader, who did not want to be named, told ThePrint that Chowdhury’s reasoning is that for the Congress to do well in the 2024 elections, it needs to corner Mamata Banerjee in 2021. 

“The calculation goes like this. An electoral set back for Mamata paves the way for the Congress in 2024 elections,” he added. 

Another state Congress leader said Chowdhury would never allow Mamata to have the “desired support of Congress workers” and would try to ensure maximum damage to the chief minister. 

For the Trinamool Congress, Chowdhury’s appointment has been a dampener. “We were expecting some Congress leaders to speak up for us and against the BJP. But with Adhir in charge, it will never happen,” a senior Trinamool Congress leader said.

“The fight will be between Trinamool and BJP. This Adhir-led third force may reduce the margin for either party in some areas. Now we have to see how it will play out for us.” 

The CPI(M), however, has welcomed Chowdhury’s elevation, and hopes it will enhance the prospects of a Congress-CPM alliance.  

“I want to thank Soniaji for making Adhir babu the PCC president. He is the only person who can take on Mamata Banerjee and BJP in Bengal,” said the CPI(M) Politburo member Mohammad Salim.

“We worked together closely in 2016 and got a considerable vote-share. However, in 2019, the alliance didn’t happen and we suffered a setback. The Congress-CPM alliance will always push back the forces like the Trinamool and BJP.” 

Also read: Why Puja bonus for cops seen as another Mamata move to gain ‘absolute control’ ahead of polls

Battlefield Bengal 

Chowdhury’s appointment further muddles the electoral pitch in West Bengal. While the Congress has been losing ground in the state, it still holds 44 assembly seats, which it won under Chowdhury’s leadership in the 2016 assembly elections. 

The party is still the main Opposition in the state legislative assembly in terms of numbers of seats. 

While Chowdhury’s previous stint as state Congress chief ended unceremoniously, following a war of words with the chief minister, but even his critics admit that he is now the best man to take over.  

“There were serious complaints against him for encouraging factional politics and creating groups,” a senior PCC leader said. “But after Somenda’s death, he is the only leader who can run this party here. Moreover, he is now one of the dearest leaders of the Gandhis. He also remains a leader who does not mince his words.”

Experts, however, say he has a lot of ground to cover. The Congress’ vote share, which was around 13 per cent in the 2016 assembly elections, had dropped to 5.5 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — the party was left with just two Lok Sabha seats . 

“Adhir Chowdhury has excellent leadership qualities. But his influence is mostly restricted to a couple of districts,” said Prof Samir Das, a Kolkata-based political analyst.

“The party needs to be organisationally strong to regain its lost support base. Meanwhile, it seems, he has earned the confidence of Sonia Gandhi. His leadership might reduce the margins for Mamata but his party needs to be on the street to be a decisive factor in the elections.”  

Das further added that the “non-functional alliance” between the Left and Congress has damaged both the parties. 

“The Congress for its own sake should now go it alone,” Das said. “But it is also true that the both parties together may work as a third force, which may harm the interest of either competing parties — Trinamool or BJP.” 

Also read: Bengal BJP chief declares state Covid-free, says Mamata lockdowns only to stop BJP rallies


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