Inside story of a defection: How Sushmita Dev switched from the Congress to TMC

Updated on Aug 19, 2021 05:17 AM IST

The surprising switch of Sushmita Dev, who was known for her emphatic defence of the party leadership even as the Congress faced multiple crises, came after a summer of disappointing election performance in her home state of Assam and active wooing by both the BJP and TMC

Sushmita Dev’s father, former union minister Santosh Mohan Dev, seen here with then Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. (Sourced) PREMIUM
Sushmita Dev’s father, former union minister Santosh Mohan Dev, seen here with then Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. (Sourced)
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

How and why did a Nehru-Gandhi family favourite and the most prominent of next generation women leaders of the Congress move to the Trinamool Congress (TMC)?

The surprising switch of 48-year-old Sushmita Dev, who was known for her emphatic defence of the party leadership even as the Congress faced multiple crises, came after a summer of disappointing election performance in her home state of Assam and active wooing by both the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) along with the TMC.

While those familiar with the developments suggest that the BJP had been sending feelers to Dev since March this year, it was a family connection between Dev and TMC’s Derek O’Brien, that led to the former Silchar parliamentarian finally switching teams.

HT spoke to a range of political actors from all three parties (The Congress, TMC, and BJP), most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, to piece together the latest high-profile defection from the Congress.

Also Read | ‘No issues with Sonia, Rahul; joined TMC unconditionally’

The optics of the switch

Dev’s party, the Congress, knew she had been unhappy but was caught off-guard by the switch. But the transition has been less acrimonious than usual, perhaps because, as a person familiar with the development said, Chief Minister (CM) and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee made it clear that the induction must not hamper the recent friendliness and the desire of the Congress and TMC to work together.

When the CM, along with the party’s national general secretary and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, met Dev on Monday, she told Dev that she was attending Sonia Gandhi’s meeting with opposition leaders on Friday and they couldn’t afford to queer the pitch.

This was reflected in Dev’s messaging after her decision. She both sought Sonia Gandhi’s blessings for the next stage of her public life in her resignation letter and did not attack her former party.

“The Congress gave me many opportunities as a member of Parliament (MP) and as president of Mahila Congress too,” Dev told reporters at her meet-the-press. “I believe whatever responsibility was given to me, I worked on it fully. And if there have been some lacunae in my work, I hope its president will forgive me.”

The roots of the shift

The TMC’s move to recruit one of Congress’s most prominent women leaders started in April.

A month before that, according to a top BJP leader familiar with the development, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had conveyed to Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma (who was then not the CM but still the BJP’s key political manager for the Northeast) to reach out to Dev too.

In some ways, Dev was an obvious choice for those looking for new faces. As the daughter of veteran Congress leader and union minister Santosh Mohan Dev, her name evoked instant recognition had in Assam’s Barak valley, which is dominated by Bengalis but also has a sizeable Muslim population.

Dev’s position had become tough after the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Her party strongly opposed the law, but her base of Bengali Hindu constituents were among the most vocal constituencies in favour of the law. Passed in 2019, CAA seeks to grant expedited Indian citizenship to persecuted minorities belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who entered India on or before December 31, 2014. Before that, Dev had already lost the 2019 elections to the BJP’s Rajdeep Roy, a local doctor from a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh family.

The political crisis for her persisted through 2020 and then in 2021, during Assam’s assembly elections, Dev failed to have much influence within her party in terms of alliances and ticket distribution. In fact, rumours started circulating of an imminent exit in March when she walked out of a ticket distribution meeting that was officiated by the general secretary incharge, Jitendra Singh. He didn’t respond to queries.

It was around that time that the PM is understood to have expressed an interest in bringing Dev to the BJP fold. According to the BJP leader quoted above, the party felt that Dev’s exit would signal a true end to the Congress’s dominance in the Barak Valley, which comprises two Lok Sabha seats of Silchar and Karimganj and 15 assembly seats.

“During Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi’s time, Santosh Mohan Dev was seen to be a leader who had their ear. This gave importance to Bengalis in Assam too and that gave the Congress a major resonance in the region. CAA changed the dynamic and altered the loyalty of the people in the area,” said a Congress leader who didn’t want to be identified.

According to the Congress, the party tried to make up by offering Dev prominent national roles but for Dev, Parliament seemed far more attractive. Two persons familiar with the development confirmed that she wanted to go the Rajya Sabha route after the Lok Sabha poll defeat. In March 2020, the Congress and All India United Democratic Front nominated an anti-CAA voice Ajit Bhuyan. Out of the two seats that are up for grabs soon from the state, the BJP is expected to nominate former CM Sarbananda Sonowal for the first seat. The second seat may see a tough fight, and so both the Congress and the BJP couldn’t offer Dev that as a clear option.

The terms and timing of the switch

Even as Dev was weighing her options, her sister’s friends, the O’Briens, stepped in. At one such family get together, in the midst of the Assam elections, Derek O’Brien and Dev spoke about future plans, but postponed it till after the election results.

With the TMC’s growing influence after the Bengal win, and a possibly larger role in a 2024 coalition, Dev appears to have calculated that the switch would serve her looked her career.

The final details were sorted out on the last day of the Parliament session last week when it was decided that Dev would send in her resignation on Independence Day. The TMC has a pending vacancy in Rajya Sabha with Manas Bhuyan having become a minister in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet. For the record, both the TMC and Dev have said there is no such arrangement, and her joining was unconditional.

On Monday, soon after the photo-op with Dev, Mamata Banerjee called up Dev’s mother. “She told her — from now on, Sushmita is my responsibility,” said a person aware of the details. This was an emotional assurance that the family appreciated, especially in light of the past association of Santosh Mohan Dev and Banerjee.

“We have a bigger plan for you,” Abhishek Banerjee is said to have told Dev. Could this mean a role in Tripura, where the TMC has expansion plans even as CM Biplab Deb fights his own intra-party battles? Many believe that Dev would fit into the state quite comfortably as her father won Lok Sabha polls twice from Tripura.

But the TMC may well be looking to be a viable option in the Barak Valley itself. Indeed, CM Banerjee asked Dev to head to the Barak Valley when they met on Monday. “Go and travel in your area. Let us speak in a week or so.” When the CAA protests were on in August 2018, the West Bengal CM sent a high profile group of MPs who staged a very raucous protest at Silchar airport, which resulted in even physical jostling between Mahua Moitra and security forces. Just as Moitra has become the CM’s fiery representative in the lower house, will Dev be a candidate for such protests in the Upper house?

The impact of the switch

But the shift will bring in its own challenges — for instance the fact that the TMC is staunchly opposed to CAA, just as her previous party was, will make it difficult for Dev to navigate the landscape of Barak Valley.

Bhubaneswar Kalita, a prominent former Assam Congress leader and the party’s whip in the Rajya Sabha who turned to the BJP in 2019 and is an MP from the party, claimed that Dev’s transition may not be easy, and that it may even help the BJP. “This move will help the BJP. In Silchar, the fight was between Congress and the BJP and this time, there won’t be any fight. BJP’s road is clear. She was in-charge of everything there, and so the Congress will be rudderless there.” He added, “The problem for her is that despite being in Congress, she supported CAA. Now, she will have to toe the party line. It is an awkward position. The TMC MLA from Barak valley has also joined the Congress. So, she will have to organise from scratch.”

However, the biggest loss seems to be for her parent party. While the Congress has played down the electoral impact of her exit and blamed it on regional infighting, they acknowledge that Dev’s exit has been a psychological setback.

So close was she to the Gandhis that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra singled out her constituency to campaign ahead of the 2019 elections — when her primary focus had remained Uttar Pradesh. When the group of 23 leaders raised questions about the functioning of the party, it was Dev who vociferously attacked the G 23 at the Congress Working Committee meeting, making her points in an articulate way internally and publicly. Rising quickly within the ranks, Dev is now being tagged as wanting too much too soon but as those close to her explain it, she had to move to survive. And TMC provided an option that was ideologically close to the Congress

“She is a close colleague and I’m furious at her for abandoning Sonia Gandhi at this critical juncture,” said Congress MP from Assam, Gaurav Gogoi. When asked if this would impact the party, all he said was that the party had made arrangements for leadership in the Barak Valley.

However, the party will have to do more to solve an image crisis — the impression that the inner circle, and those closest to the leadership, are leaving because they don’t see a bright future ahead doesn’t bode well for either the party’s morale or its revival plans.

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    Sunetra Choudhury is the National Political Editor of the Hindustan Times. With over two decades of experience in print and television, she has authored Black Warrant (Roli,2019), Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous (Roli,2017) and Braking News (Hachette, 2010). Sunetra is the recipient of the Red Ink award in journalism in 2016 and Mary Morgan Hewett award in 2018.

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