Cracks in Trinamool Congress

As the ruling party continues to dominate West Bengal politics, speculation about a rift between Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee has given rise to confusion and bickering within the party.

Published : Feb 25, 2022 06:00 IST

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee at her Kalighat residence after her thumping victory in the byelection from the Bhabanipur Assembly constituency, on October 3, 2021.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee at her Kalighat residence after her thumping victory in the byelection from the Bhabanipur Assembly constituency, on October 3, 2021.

O n February 14, the ruling Trinamool Congress continued its victory streak by winning all four important municipal corporations of West Bengal —Siliguri, Bidhannagar, Asansol and Chandannagar—that went to polls on February 12 and appeared poised to dominate in the upcoming elections to 108 civic bodies across the State on February 27. With the opposition in the State all but decimated, never has the Trinamool in its 11 years in power appeared as invincible as now.

Yet, at the height of its power, the party is facing one of its most severe internal crises. Differences in party policies and factional hostilities have come to the fore amid speculation of a growing rift between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, long considered her heir apparent in the party. Top leaders have been seen openly savaging each other verbally and through social media.

At the same time, relations between the Trinamool and its political adviser, Prashan Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), have turned frosty. Matters came to such a head that Mamata Banerjee had to dissolve all national party posts, including that of Abhishek Banerjee who had been recently made the all-India general secretary of the party, and constitute a new national working committee.

What has been most alarming for the party is that a section of the leadership known to be close to Abhishek Banerjee was perceived to be trying to undermine Mamata Banerjee’s supreme authority. Ostensibly, the issue of implementing the policy of ‘one person one post’ within the party has been the crux of the strife; but political observers suggest that the problem may be more complex.

Mamata Banerjee had initially welcomed the ‘one person one post’ policy, which Abhishek Banerjee advocated strongly soon after the Trinamool returned to power in 2021. Differences arose within the party when it became clear during the nomination of candidates for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections that Mamata Banerjee had changed her opinion on the policy. According to sources, she overruled many of the recommendations made by Abhishek and I-PAC and hand-picked her loyalists and their family members, including six MLAs and one MP, to contest in the elections. A clear message that Mamata Banerjee’s word was final was sent across to I-PAC and Abhishek, who had both played key roles in the Trinamool’s massive victory in the Assembly election.

‘Diamond Harbour model’

Following the ruling party’s overwhelming victory in the Kolkata Municipal (KMC) election on December 21, 2021, as the Trinamool geared up for elections in the Siliguri, Asansol, Chandannagar and Bidhannagar municipal corporations in the midst of a COVID surge, certain statements and actions of Abhishek Banerjee appeared to subtly undermine and even embarrass the government.

Even as the Chief Minister was determined to allow the Ganga Sagar Mela to take place in the State and also hold the civic elections, Abhishek publicly said that it was his “personal” opinion that all political and social events should be postponed until the pandemic situation improved. He was widely lauded in social circles for this statement.

He also projected a model of COVID management in his own Lok Sabha constituency of Diamond Harbour, which focussed on increased testing and vaccination. Many, including Trinamool leaders loyal to Mamata Banerjee, felt that this promotion of the “Diamond Harbour Model” was a deliberate attempt to project the State government’s COVID management in poor light.

War of words

Two distinct camps within the party suddenly came to the fore, and a no-holds-barred war of words ensued. Senior leader and Lok Sabha member Kalyan Banerjee questioned the so-called “Diamond Harbour Model” and emphasised that the party had only one leader and that was Mamata Banerjee. Almost immediately, posters demanding Kalyan Banerjee’s removal appeared in his constituency of Serampore. A section of young Trinamool leaders known to be close to Abhishek Banerjee sprang to his support and openly questioned his exclusion from the State’s administration. On February 2, Mamata Banerjee was re-elected as party chairperson unanimously and unopposed.

According to the political observer Biswanath Chakraborty, the “clash” between Mamata Banerjee and her nephew had as much to do with “emotional issues” as with power politics.

“It is not as if Abhishek is going to take over from Mamata Banerjee any time soon. But she cannot accept that the Diamond Harbour model is more successful than her own handling of the pandemic; nor can she approve of someone in her party expressing in public an independent opinion regarding the need to postpone religious functions because of the COVID situation; nor can she tolerate any snubbing of old-timers loyal to her; nor can she accept Prashant Kishor’s team deciding everything within the party on behalf of Abhishek Banerjee. She is apprehensive that someone else will take away her thunder. That is why before any announcement her party leaders invoke her name and end by mentioning her again. She is sending a warning to Abhishek to not undermine her. It is basically a family melodrama,” he told Frontline .

The situation worsened during the nomination of candidates for 108 election-bound civic bodies across the State. A list of candidates that Mamata Banerjee had apparently not approved was posted on the party’s social media handles, leading to widespread protest and confusion among Trinamool workers and leaders. Party activists burnt tyres and staged violent demonstrations against their own party, and leaders had to be deployed to different parts to quell the unrest. Finally, the situation was resolved when a new and “official” list was drawn up, under Mamata Banerjee’s supervision, and signed by two most senior leaders, Partha Chatterjee and Subrata Bakshi. I-PAC was accused of posting the first list without the party’s approval. I-PAC’s close ties with Abhishek are no secret, and for long there has been a growing resentment among a section of the leadership against the organisation’s “interference” in the party’s internal political matters.

Raging controversy

In the prevailing confusion even sections of the top leadership turned upon one another openly. A statement by one leader was almost immediately refuted or condemned by another, and certain statements appeared to be made in a calculated manner to embarrass the party. Amid speculation about an open rift between I-PAC and the Trinamool, the senior leader and Lok Sabha member Sougata Roy said: “I do not know what the contract with I-PAC was, but that contract does not exist anymore. It may not be a major loss for the party, but it is certainly a setback… I-PAC played a significant role behind the Trinamool’s victory in the Assembly elections.” He also stated that he “completely endorsed” the ‘one person one post’ policy, which seemed to be the key issue behind the Trinamool’s internal crisis. In the midst of the raging controversy, a new problem emerged in the form of a social media campaign in support of ‘one person one post’ by a section of leaders close to Abhishek Banerjee. Even members of Mamata Banerjee’s family joined the campaign.

Mamata loyalists condemned it and said it was against the party’s interests. Chandrima Bhattacharya, Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare, even alleged that I-PAC had uploaded the #OnePartyOnePost campaign on her social media profile without her permission. “A Twitter account in my name was created by I-PAC before the elections. Today, it posted something about one person one post without my knowledge. I strongly oppose it,” she said. Hours later, I-PAC countered in a social media message: “I-PAC doesn’t handle any digital properties of @AITCofficial or any of its leaders. Anyone making such claim is either uninformed or is blatantly lying. AITC should look into if and how their digital properties and/or that of their leaders are being ‘allegedly (mis)used’.”

The developments indicated that there were concerted attempts to highlight the campaign on social media and even Ministers were not spared. Finally, Firhad Hakim, senior Cabinet Minister and Mayor of Kolkata, had to go on record saying that the Trinamool as a party did not endorse the “one person, one post” campaign. “This campaign which is being run on social media to confuse people…. is not in the interest of the party. There is also another resolution, that is, the chairperson’s decision is the final,” Hakim said at a press conference. Even after Hakim’s statement, some of the leaders did not change their social media status in which they voiced their endorsement of the ‘one party one post’ policy.

The situation seemed to degenerate into a free-for-all in which unrelated issues and old grudges started surfacing. Party spokesperson Kunal Ghosh suddenly turned upon an ailing Mukul Roy, who had switched back to the Trinamool from the BJP after the Assembly elections. “CBI & ED should arrest BJP leader Mukul Roy in Saradha and Narada case. I have already sent them a letter praying joint interrogation with him. He is an influential conspirator. He has used different parties only for his personal protection. Mukul Roy should not be spared,” he said on social media. It must be remembered that Kunal Ghosh himself was behind bars for around three years for his role in the multi-crore Saradha scam in which lakhs of poor people were ruined.

A patch-up?

Mamata Banerjee called an “emergency meeting” with seven top leaders of the party on February 12, in which she dissolved all national posts of the party, including that of Abhishek Banerjee who was present at the meeting, and set up a new 20-member National Working Committee. Abhishek Banerjee was included in the new Committee.

Six days later, on February 18, Abhishek Banerjee was re-installed as all-India general secretary. With his reinstatement to the top post, it may appear that the situation within the party is returning to normal. However, many political observers feel that the emotional scar left within the party may still take some time to heal.

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