By Sujit Bhar
Is the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) going through a metamorphosis, or introspection, or a mere spring cleaning? Considering the fact that the party has just come through a landslide victory in the assembly polls and that it has also swept the recent municipal polls in some parts of the state, the morale should have been sky high. Instead, there have been blisters of dissent coming up like warts, and Abhishek Banerjee, anointed No. 2 in the party by his aunt, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, is seen to be at the receiving end of it.
Recently, Mamata called all top lieutenants, including Abhishek, at his residence in Kalighat, Kolkata and made it amply clear to all that she was, is and will remain the numero uno of the party. To drive home her point, she abolished all national designations of all party members – Abhishek, for example, was the national general secretary of the AITC – and brought in all powers and responsibilities unto herself. What Mamata has done is make a 20-member committee that will now look into national matters. The specific posts, if any, will be decided by Mamata later.
This has been possible within the set rules, because the AITC is yet to be recognised as a national party. If it were so, it would not have been possible to abolish a national general secretary post (that of Abhishek).
At the same time, the relationship with AITC’s established poll consultant, I-PAC of Prashant Kishor, is strained. The thread of the tie-up has not been snapped yet, but in hangs in the balance. The party has not clarified this.
The situation can be studied in two parts. First is the desire for the party to become a national power, combined with the possibility of Mamata leading a national front against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The second is the rationale of the party wanting to consolidate its own base, to reward long-time workers and to realise that those who have stood by the party for so long are not left in the lurch. Mamata does not want to make the mistake that the BJP did during the last assembly elections in West Bengal.
The first matter is somewhat strange. If you look at all the moves Mamata has made in the distant past, not much of it has been targeted towards a national presence. The first idea of the possibility of Mamata assuming a position of national importance (even the post of Prime Minister) was put into her head by Kunal Ghosh. That was before the last general elections. The idea went to Mamata’s head and she travelled the country, trying to portray herself as an alternative. Not only was nobody impressed, but soon after the elections, Kunal, a former journalist, was put behind bars on charges of being associated with the Sarada chit fund scam. That episode ended with Mamata returning red-faced. Thereafter, Mamata completely forgot the national front idea and concentrated on building her own fortress.
In her efforts, she promoted Abhishek over her own brothers and other senior party members. The murmurs died down quickly, in the face of Mamata’s sheer persona. However, as Abhishek grew in stature, so did his array of properties across Harish Mukherjee Road and Patuapara and Harish Chatterjee Road, all in south Kolkata, virtually adjacent to Mamata’s house. AITC members swallowed that as well. That was till Abhishek brought in Prashant Kishor and I-PAC.
It is difficult to tell if national ambitions were lying idle in Mamata’s head – Kunal had emerged from jail by then and had become a spokesperson, but was kept in check – or if it was actually redesigned and presented again before her by the Abhishek and PK duo. Whatever the reason, her own desire was clear from the time she started disregarding the Congress on the national stage. Old timers say this was ingrained in her by PK, who had had a falling out with Rahul Gandhi and the Congress.
It seemed Mamata was in some sort of trance. In the end, a few things brought her back to reality. The first was the complete drubbing the party got in the Tripura municipal elections (Abhishek was responsible for the Tripura campaign); the second was the excessive expenditure the party was experiencing in trying to move to the national stage and the third was the poor state of the party’s and the state’s treasury. Amit Mitra, the state’s erstwhile finance minister and a close confidant of Mamata, had enlightened Mamata of these perils. And Mamata places huge confidence in Mitra. There has been no growth in industry in the state, no big or even medium ticket investment, and the Covid pandemic completely exposed the poverty of the administration. Again, this was time for consolidation.
Two other things came to light. Firhad ‘Bobby’ Hakim, the mayor of Kolkata, is not only close to Mamata, he is also one of the main fund raisers of the party (having taken over the mantle from Mukul Roy). He had complained to his leader that Abhishek was entering his ‘zones’ and raising funds, and that he was losing out on established ‘sources of funds’. For AITC, the ‘established’ sources mean businessmen in mining zones, trading zones and realty zones. With realty having nosedived too, only a few sources of fund resourcing remained.
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Hence the cry for one-man-one-post was raised. Abhishek, the national general secretary, could not also be seen as a fund raiser, Hakim said.
The other, allied thing was the sudden discovery of massive coal stock near Murshidabad. The recruitments have already started and the state wants to make the best out of this find as Coal India Limited positions itself to start mining. This is a huge source for funds for the party, and Mamata is not too keen on seeing funds trickle away to national ambitions that look far-fetched as of now. She is pragmatic, but Abhishek and PK seem to have bigger plans.
In the midst, the lists for the municipal elections, threw more dust on the windshield. First, the second list was uploaded onto the party’s Facebook and other social media sites even before Mamata had vetted them, and secondly, the lists seemed to have omitted old timers of the party and had even included some turncoats, who had returned from the BJP. Some put in their applications as independents, and all hell broke loose.
All that started the big hue and cry. Finally, senior party members could gather courage to demand that Abhishek’s wings be clipped. In effect, though, Mamata has done a double deal. In abolishing all posts, he has freed Abhishek of the one-man-one-post trap.
The small ‘revolts’ in the party do not matter, and Mamata has made it amply clear that she will not tolerate any mutinous thought. She has handled over-ambitious people before, and she is not willing to give up her fighting stance. Not yet.
No, the AITC will not crumble like the Congress. But I-PAC might not be able to push through ideas more radical that Mamata has herself thought about. Remember, I-PAC survives on the merit of the political parties, and not the other way around.