Subrata Mukherjee (1946-2021): Political all-rounder

Print edition : December 03, 2021

Subrata Mukherjee. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

For five decades, Subrata Mukherjee (1946-2021) was one of the most influential political leaders in West Bengal even though he spent most of his career in the opposition.

ON the night of Diwali, November 4, West Bengal lost one of its most colourful and popular leaders. Subrata Mukherjee, the State’s Panchayat Minister, passed away in Kolkata after a heart attack. He was 75 and is survived by his wife. Mukherjee was one of the most important and influential political figures in the State, starting out in the Congress and then joining the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Right until the end, he was never out of the political limelight, not even during the 34-year rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front.

A visibly upset Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said of her old mentor: “I have faced a lot of setbacks in my life, but Subrata da’s death is a huge setback. I doubt whether there can be another person like Subrata da: so cheerful all the time, so dedicated to his work.... I was told he was getting better and would be released from the hospital the next day, but then suddenly he had a massive heart attack, and despite all the efforts made by doctors he could not be saved.... I will not be there at the funeral because I cannot bear to look upon Subrata da’s dead body. I love him very much. I could never imagine that on the day of Kali Puja, with so much light, such darkness would descend upon us.”

Mukherjee had spotted Mamata Banerjee’s potential while she was still a student leader at Jogamaya College and he was president of the Chhatra Parishad. Later, when Rajiv Gandhi wanted a strong woman candidate for the Jadavpur Lok Sabha seat to take on the formidable Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI(M), it was Mukherjee who proposed Mamata Banerjee’s name. When Pranab Mukherjee asked Subrata Mukherjee whether she was up to the task, he had replied that she was the only one who would be able to pull it off, and he was proved correct: she created a sensation by defeating the veteran Communist heavyweight. “Our relationship was never like that of a Chief Minister and her Minister. I always looked upon him as my elder brother, who would rectify my mistakes,” said Mamata Banerjee. Right until the end of his life, he remained one of her most trusted advisers and one she would always turn to in times of crisis. Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, Lok Sabha MP and all-India general secretary of the TMC, described Mukherjee’s passing as the end of an era. “He was like a guardian to all of us, like the roof over our head. The void he has left behind can never be filled,” he said.

Young Turks

Mukherjee burst upon the political scene in the late 1960s as a young firebrand student leader who had the confidence of the Congress high command that he could take the party to greater heights. Mukherjee was one of the three young Turks in the Congress—the others being Somen Mitra and Priyaranjan Das Munsi—who were perceived as the future of the party in the State. So close was he to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that there was this saying within the West Bengal Pradesh Congress: “Indirar dui putra: Priyaranjan o Subrata” (Indira has two sons: Priyaranjan and Subrata). Although Mukherjee shared a deep personal friendship with Priyaranjan Das Munsi, there was a cold rivalry between him and Somen Mitra.

With Mukherjee’s death an important chapter in the history of the Congress in Bengal comes to an end. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, a stalwart Congress leader from the State and Leader of the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha, said: “This is the end of a generation of leaders.... The great trio of the Congress, Subrata da, Priya da [d. 2017] and Somen da [d. 2021] are no more, and this is a matter of great sadness for us.”

Born on June 14, 1946, in Sarengabad, South 24 Paraganas, Subrata Mukherjee graduated in anthropology and got a master’s degree in archaeology. He cut his teeth in politics as a student leader in the late 1960s and, at the age of just 25, became an MLA after he won the Ballygunge seat in the 1971 Assembly election. This was the beginning of an outstanding legislative career during which he lost only twice, in 1977 and 2006. In 1972, at the age of 26, he became the youngest person ever to assume the office of a Minister in Bengal (he was given charge of the portfolios of Home and Information and Culture under Chief Minister Siddartha Shankar Ray). After losing in 1977, he bounced back by winning from the Jorabagan seat in the next Assembly election, in 1982. He retained the Jorabagan seat until 1996, after which he changed his constituency to Chowringhee.

Joined the Trinamool

After more than 30 years in the Congress, in 2000 Subrata Mukherjee joined the TMC under his former protege Mamata Banerjee. In the municipal elections the same year, the TMC won, and Mukherjee became the first non-Left Mayor since the CPI(M) came to power in 1977. In 2005, he quit the Trinamool after differences with Mamata Banerjee and established a new political platform, Paschchim Banga Unnayan Mancha, forging an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress. Subsequently, he went back to the Congress only to return to the TMC in 2010. In the intervening years, his political career hit a low patch. His political front flopped, and he lost in the Assembly election from Chowringhee. In 2008, Mukherjee and Mamata Banerjee buried the hatchet, and he was seen at her protest site in Singur, where she was carrying out a prolonged agitation against the State government’s forcible land acquisition to set up the Tata Motors’ small car factory. In 2011, he contested from his old constituency of Ballygunge on the Trinamool ticket and won. Nearly 40 years after he first became a Minister, Mukherjee once again had an important place in the Cabinet. Interestingly, for all his success in Assembly elections, Mukherjee was singularly unlucky when contesting for the Lok Sabha. His three attempts at getting elected as an MP—in 1994, 2009 and 2019—met with failure.

Mukherjee was also widely appreciated for his remarkable administrative abilities, his pragmatism and his efficiency. As the Mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, he pushed through reforms to rid the KMC of corruption and make it a smooth-running organisation. Mukherjee was also a great survivor who never lost his relevance in the politics of the State even though for most of his political career he was in the opposition. He could never be kept down for long and always found a way to bounce back into prominence some way or the other. From being the youngest ever Minister in the State, he asserted himself as a key opposition leader, the Mayor of Kolkata, a trade union leader and president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, and a Minister in the TMC government from 2011. He had encyclopaedic knowledge of parliamentary politics, was an excellent orator, a connoisseur of food and sweets, and a raconteur par excellence. He even acted in a television series. He was a person full of joie de vivre and never allowed politics to get in the way of some fun and pleasure. Adhir Chowdhury said: “Wherever there was Subrata Mukherjee, there was fun and laughter, but there was also serious talk. He was not only a cheerful person himself, he could also make others happy.”

Mukherjee’s political career had its fair share of controversies. In 2016, just ahead of the Assembly elections, a video of a sting operation carried out by the news portal Narada News showed several top Trinamool leaders, legislators, Ministers and MPs accepting cash on camera, Mukherjee among them. In May this year, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested him, along with Cabinet colleague Firhad Hakim, TMC MLA Madan Mitra and former TMC heavyweight Sovan Chatterjee, in connection with the case. All four were later granted bail.

One aspect that stood out about Mukherjee and endeared him to the public irrespective of political affiliations was his affable nature. Always with a smile on his lips and his ready wit, Mukherjee’s popularity never waned in the more than 50 years he spent in the public eye. His detractors called him an opportunist, always looking for a way to come out on top, and neither was it unnatural for him to conveniently switch parties when it suited him. He was once famously labelled a tormuj (watermelon)—green outside but red inside—which was an indirect way of accusing him of being secretly in league with the CPI(M). But Mukherjee never seemed to be affected by the personal attacks and barbs. Not only did he take them in his stride, he also gave back as good as he got with his scathing wit and sometimes acerbic humour.

His personality and loveable character made him a popular figure cutting across political party lines. Even when he was the most bitter critic of the CPI(M), he shared a warm friendship with Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. After Mukherjee’s death the political parties of the State set aside their differences and came forward with rich tributes. Biman Bose, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Left Front chairman, said: “Subrata Mukherjee may have been with the Congress and then the Trinamool, but he maintained relations with everybody.” Dilip Ghosh, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader and Lok Sabha MP, said: “Just as he would regale us with his humour, there was also a lot to be learnt from him. The death of such a figure will undoubtedly leave a big gap in the world of politics.”

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