This time a year back, after one of his stylish dinners at his 250 Chittaranjan Avenue penthouse, the barrister-turned-politician sipped a glass of French Bordeaux wine with the quip “let this one be for the longest road ever seen”.
It was prophetic. A believer in apparition and astrology, former external affairs minister of state Ajit Kumar Panja had a premonition his end was near. A few days later, he left for the US to get treated for pancreatic cancer. He returned a few months back, but his condition deteriorated. He was admitted to a Mumbai hospital and then shifted to a hospital here.
On Friday, his five-year battle with cancer ended. He was 72.
Since the mid-’80s, the Kolkata Northeast Lok Sabha seat was identified with Panja. He won the seat six times from 1984-99, losing to the CPM’s Mohammed Salim in 2004. His people loved him for his maverick politics and social commitments.
Before embarking on parliamentary politics, Panja was a member of the West Bengal assembly and a cabinet minister of judiciary and parliamentary affairs, health and family planning in the Congress government of S.S. Ray. After winning the Kolkata Municipal Corporation seat in 2005, Panja remarked he had the unique credential of winning elections on all levels. Also, he had the distinction of serving both the state and Union cabinets.
In his parliamentary career, he served under prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and A.B. Vajpayee. Rajiv and Vajpayee were his favourite PMs. He described the former as one of the most dynamic, talented and visionary PMs India lost prematurely. Vajpayee, who he rated as one of the wisest leaders, taught him “a smile helps in overcoming a crisis” in the worst of times.
He didn’t get along with Rao. His position in the Congress deteriorated in the ’90s. And along with Mamata, he left the Congress and floated the Trinamool Congress in 1998 and became its chairperson.
Apart from politics, Panja had many fascinations. He followed world politics; a lover of French wines, he recommended at least a glass of red after dinner to help digestion.
A terrific host, his dinner spreads were gastronomic delights. Guests were asked their preferences beforehand, but the table almost always had a surprise element — of his choice.
Panja was stylish and loved colourful pyjama-kurtas, his favourite colour being yellow. He also had a fascination for cars, watches, perfumes and pens.
Panja’s last public appearance was the 100th show of Noti Binodini. A devotee of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, he performed his role in the play. But even the makeup couldn’t hide his struggle to fight death. He was by no means ready to bring down the curtain.