The recently concluded “Trinamooler Nabo Jowar”’—a 50-day outreach programme undertaken by the Trinamool Congress general secretary and Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee—has been at the centre of West Bengal politics for the past two months. Nabo Jowar (new tide) was a multi-pronged strategy designed to not only enhance Abhishek’s personal brand in Bengal politics, but also salvage the Trinamool’s battered image and bolster the flagging spirit of its workers. However, while it strengthened Abhishek’s position as heir apparent, it nevertheless brought to the fore the fissures and weaknesses in the party.
Abhishek’s novel political initiative, which stretched from April 25 to June 16, needs to be understood in the context of two other ongoing developments that have been instrumental in eroding the Trinamool’s reputation. The first is the CBI and ED investigations into cases relating to cattle smuggling, the School Service Commission recruitment scam, and the municipal corporation recruitment scam. The second is the charge of violence and intimidation levelled against the Trinamool in the run-up to the panchayat elections, which are scheduled for July 8.
Lingering memories of the violence and rigging in the 2018 local body elections, and allegations of widespread corruption against the ruling party at the grassroots level have only made things worse. In this situation, the Nabo Jowar appeared to be a last-ditch attempt at an image makeover before the general election next year. Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool hope to play a key role in taking on the BJP at the Centre in 2024. Announcing the Nabo Jowar, Abhishek said: “Panchayat is the backbone of administration. Through the establishment of a clean panchayat, a new Trinamool will reveal itself.”
Passing of the baton?
Interestingly, for the first time since the formation of the Trinamool in 1998, Mamata Banerjee was not at the centre of a party programme, perhaps an indication of the passing of the baton. According to the political observer and academic Surajit C Mukhopadhyay, the Nabo Jowar was nothing more than Abhishek attempting to come out of his aunt’s shadow and assert his own identity. “The panchayat election was an excuse for him to strike out on his own. It was also a desperate measure to shrug off the old corrupt legacy. It is a political strategy of survival,” he told Frontline.
Mamata, who had attended two of the Nabo Jowar events, also made it clear that her nephew was the undisputed heir to the topmost party post. “There are those who allege that Didi made her nephew an MP. But the fact is that he was involved in politics from the time he was two years old,” she said on the last day of the Nabo Jowar. She added that after she was brutally attacked by CPI(M) activists in 1990, the infant Abhishek played at staging protests and raising slogans against the CPI(M).
Enhancing Abhishek’s brand value
Travelling across the length and breadth of West Bengal, meeting district and grassroots leaders of the party, interacting with common people, addressing huge crowds, Abhishek has undoubtedly used the Nabo Jowar to enhance his brand value. Yet, the project has also exposed the factionalism, indiscipline, avarice and disregard for party authority within the Trinamool. Abhishek’s idea of allowing local party members to choose their candidate for the elections through a secret ballot turned out to be disastrous. Party workers tried to rig the internal elections, violent factional feuds broke out, and the police had to be deployed after appeals from district and regional leaders failed to quell the unrest. The Trinamool’s political opponents pointed out that the party was incapable of conducting any election, even an internal one, in a free and fair manner.
If Abhishek tried to foster unity within the party through holding primaries, the project received another setback once the nominations for the elections started. Several ruling party MLAs, including the well-known Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari (Balagarh MLA) and Abdul Rahim Qazi (Badura MLA), voiced their discontent and expressed support for independent candidates—Trinamool workers who decided to contest though they were denied the party ticket.
On June 16, after the nomination process was over, 16,293 independent candidates, mostly from the Trinamool, remained in the contest. The existing fissures within the party appear to have deepened and the gulf between the old guard and the Young Turks, which had begun to surface with Abhishek’s swift ascent, was getting wider rapidly. A section of workers, which has been with the party from the early days, may be feeling a little left out, and may be a little hurt, said a party source while expressing confidence that under the leadership of Mamata and Abhishek these issues will be smoothed out.
- Naba Jowar has established Abhishek Banerjee as the undisputed political heir of his aunt, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
- However, the spiralling violence in the run-up to the panchayat elections scheduled for July 8 has also shown that a new and cleansed party set-up is an illusion.
- The Naba Jowar was also not able to do anything about the loss of face suffered by the Trinamool-run government after the Supreme Court upheld the High Court order regarding the deployment of Central forces for the panchayat elections.
Illusions of change
The professed intention of the Nabo Jowar was to establish a “clean” panchayat system through a violence-free and fair election. But the unchecked violence right from the nomination phase destroyed any illusion of an impending change. Abhishek had given an assurance that there would be no bloodshed in the elections. But as he travelled from district to district, the nominations began and ended with death. Between the first day of the filing of nominations (June 9) and the last day for withdrawal (June 20), eight people were killed in violence. Pockets of the State were practically war zones. The opposition parties alleged that the Trinamool was using terror tactics to prevent their candidates from filing nominations.
One of the worst-hit regions was Bhangar in South 24 Parganas: for six days, Trinamool workers and activists of the Indian Secular Front (ISF), the party set up by the influential Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui ahead of the 2021 Assembly election, were locked in a deadly struggle in which at least two people lost their lives. The bombings and bloodshed continued unabated in the area even as the Nabo Jowar entered South 24 Parganas. Both Abhishek and Mamata maintained that the violence was precipitated by the opposition, and that the number of nominations filed was testament to the opposition being allowed to participate in the elections.
“Abhishek (Banerjee) was involved in politics from the time he was two years old.”Mamata BanerjeeChief Minister, West Bengal
But on June 15, the Calcutta High Court directed the State Election Commission (SEC) to requisition deployment of Central forces within 48 hours for the elections. The government challenged the order in the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully.
The government and the SEC were in for more embarrassment when the High Court, on June 21, directed the SEC to requisition 82,000 Central forces personnel, holding the SEC’s decision to deploy 22 companies (22,000 personnel) to be “thoroughly inadequate”. The Division Bench of Chief Justice T.S. Sivagnanam came down heavily on the SEC, saying: “We fail to understand why the State Election Commission is still not taking any independent decision on the matter.”
However much Abhishek may have tried to turn around the party’s image with the Nabo Jowar, subsequent events betrayed the fact that change is still a distant reality for the Trinamool. Yet, a section of political observers also sees the Nabo Jowar as a masterstroke in political strategy. The well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out that the corruption issues following the recruitment scams had become such a burning point that it was difficult for local-level leaders to continue functioning in the public eye.
“With local leaders and several influential MLAs in jail, and the public greeting the Trinamool with shouts of ‘chor! chor!’ the programme provided a much-needed boost for party workers. It provided a timely fillip to the grassroots leadership and oiled the party machinery ahead of the elections. I feel this will bear dividends in the panchayat elections,” Chakraborty told Frontline.
Central forces for West Bengal panchayat polls
He also believes the exercise somewhat shifted the political discourse in the State, which for the past one and half years was centred on corruption and the raids and arrests carried out by Central investigating agencies. “Though there turned out to be many a slip between the cup and the lip, it was a refreshing change, and it strengthened Abhishek’s position in the party even more. Most importantly, the opposition parties had no counter. For 50 days they were mere spectators,” Chakraborty said.
In the midst of the Nabo Jowar, Abhishek was summoned by the CBI on April 20, in connection with the School Service Commission recruitment scam. He was questioned for more than nine and a half hours. Later he addressed the media and claimed that the CBI was being used by the BJP to scuttle the momentum of the Nabo Jowar.
He challenged the CBI to arrest him: “I challenge the CBI, show your power by arresting me if you can. They tried to trap me in scams like Saradha, Narada, coal-pilferage or cattle-rustling, but could not find anything against me. They did not even spare my family, my wife, my lawyer and private secretary. They simply could not find anything,” he said after the interrogation.
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Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay pointed out that one of the reasons behind Abhishek projecting himself as a mass leader through the Nabo Jowar may also be to deter the Central agencies from considering taking any action against him. “It is as though he is flexing his muscles to show the Central agencies that all hell will break loose in the State if he is arrested,” said Mukhopadhyay.
In the last lap of the Nabo Jowar, Abhishek was summoned again, this time by the ED. He refused to respond, saying that he would go only after the panchayat elections.
Whether the Nabo Jowar will ultimately pay political dividend in the Trinamool’s hour of need, or whether it was just an ego-driven political exercise, time will tell.
Whatever be the larger political fallout, one thing is certain: Abhishek is all set to inherit the political legacy of his aunt, Mamata. Not that it was ever in doubt.