The de facto number two in the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Abhishek Banerjee is viewed as the heir apparent of his aunt and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Though his rise has caused consternation among certain senior leaders of the party, the Diamond Harbour MP is trying to move beyond his recent troubles and consolidate his position and image both within the party and in the public.
Earlier this year, as Covid-19 cases increased, Abhishek’s constituency bucked the trend as the MP’s proactive measures — control rooms in every block, panchayat and municipal ward in South 24 Parganas, and the “Doctors on Wheels” service in five blocks — helped bring down the positivity rate from 20 per cent to one per cent in two weeks. Labelled the Diamond Harbour model of Covid management, the episode enhanced his image in the eyes of people. On the occasion of the Bengali New Year in April, the MP launched Diamond Harbour FC, a football club named after his constituency. At the event, reaching out to everyone across party lines, he said, “This is football. So even if you are from the TMC, the BJP, the Congress or the CPI(M), you are welcome here. If you are in politics, even if you are not, you are welcome here. This is football, which has no place for religion or caste.”
On Saturday, as he completed eight years as a parliamentarian, Abhishek launched an “Ek Daake Abhishek” helpline for the people of his constituency. The helpline is modelled on his aunt’s “Didi ke Bolo” initiative. The MP also released a report card titled “Nishobdo Biplab (Silent Revolution)” in which he enlisted the work done in the area during his time in Parliament.
But it has not been all smooth sailing for Abhishek. While he and his wife are under investigation in connection with a case of money laundering arising out of a coal scam, some in the TMC old guard have been left unenthused by his rise. This year itself, the MP took several positions that seemed to go against the official party narrative. Ahead of the civic polls, Abhishek suggested that relatives of leaders with a tainted background should not get tickets, but Mamata Banerjee ignored this demand. His demand for a ban on political and religious gatherings during a rise in Covid cases was also unheeded as the state government went ahead with the Gangasagar Mela.
Best of Express Premium
The rift between Abhishek and the old guard of the party widened over the candidates’ list for 108 civic bodies. The tussle came to the fore after two candidate lists were released for the polls. While one was published by the party’s senior leaders Partha Chatterjee, Firhad Hakim, Aroop Biswas, and Subrata Bakshi, another popped up on the party’s official website and was said to have been the one formulated by Prashant Kishor’s company I-PAC. The involvement of I-PAC in the TMC after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which saw the BJP make huge gains in Bengal, largely rested on Abhishek’s support.
Earlier this year, the Diamond Harbour MP’s actions and statements drew criticism from senior TMC leader and MP Kalyan Banerjee who called Abhishek’s statements a “challenge to the state government” and declared that he did not consider the 34-year-old his leader. Questioning the work Abhishek did in Diamond Harbour during the Covid surge, he said, “What model? There is only one model, which Mamata Banerjee has come up with … Abhishek is basically lending an advantage to the BJP. If Abhishek Banerjee can win Tripura and Goa, then I will accept him as a leader.”
As the internal discord increasingly spilled out into the open, Mamata Banerjee, in an effort to keep the old guard happy, dissolved all national-level portfolios in the party, including Abhishek’s portfolio of national general secretary that he had been elevated to following the Assembly election victory in 2021. The TMC chief then reshuffled party positions, appointing senior leaders such as Yashwant Sinha and Amit Mitra to the national working committee and making Sukhendu Sekhar Roy the national spokesperson. At the same time, she reinstated Abhishek as the TMC’s national general secretary and expressed her faith in him as the leader of the party’s next generation.
Abhishek has also had to contend with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and ED scanner on him and his wife Rujira in a coal scam case. “The CBI and ED are constantly targeting me but I have not lowered my head before them,” the MP said last month. “I am not afraid of any agency or investigation. The ED tried to harass me by calling me to Delhi twice. I have never run away from any agency. I told them if they want to interrogate me, they should come to Bengal. I am a son of this soil. I am ready to answer all questions.”
Some senior leaders said Abhishek was trying to follow in his aunt’s footsteps and develop an image of him being larger than the party itself in order to push his aunt to give him more responsibilities.
Speaking about Abhishek, a senior TMC leader said, “He is already number two in the party. But, he has to prove himself as a good administrator. That is why he is developing the Diamond Harbour constituency as a model constituency.”
The MP still enjoys the support of some of the TMC old guard. “Abhishek Banerjee is probably the most popular youth icon in India,” claimed veteran party leader and MLA Madan Mitra.
Taking a dig at the TMC MP over the report card he unveiled on Saturday, BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said, “Successors in dynasties always try to differentiate themselves from others. I do not know what he did in his ‘silent revolution’ but I know all teacher vacancies in West Bengal were silently sold.”