After Didi, it is now Bhaipo – the new dimension in Bengal politics
When chief minister Mamata Banerjee, then a Youth Congress leader, was injured after a Communist Party of India (Marxist) worker attacked her in August 1990, her two-year-old nephew, Abhishek, was among the ones to pick up a flag and raise slogans demanding answers over the assault.
Banerjee, who narrated this anecdote at a rally in South 24 Parganas, has insisted Abhishek does not get any extra privileges in the party. But Abhishek has risen swiftly to become a two-time Parliament member of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) at 33. In 2011, the party launched a new youth wing called Yuva even as it already had one under Suvendu Adhikari, who defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the West Bengal polls. Months later, the two wings were merged, and Abhishek was put at the helm.
The move did not go down well with Adhikari and other leaders such as Mukul Roy, who too has defected to the BJP. Many political experts saw it as an indication that Mamata Banerjee has chosen her heir.
A TMC leader, who did not wish to be named, said ideological differences were among the reasons for the exit of leaders like Roy. “[But] the common thread behind the exit of Roy and a few other leaders like Adhikari and Saumitra Khan was Abhishek Banerjee.”
Abhishek played a major role in the 2018 panchayat polls, but he came to the forefront only during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when BJP merged as the second biggest party in the state and TMC lost a dozen seats. Abhishek was instrumental in bringing in poll strategist Prashant Kishore to give the party a complete makeover. And now for the assembly elections, he has become one of the party’s chief strategists.
“Being groomed by Kishor, he [Abhishek] has changed a lot and has emerged more of a matured leader. The initial internal rumblings within the party have also settled down. He has fresh ideas and brings to the table what the party has been missing. He is a major crowd puller now after Mamata,” said a second TMC leader.
Now, Abhishek and Kishor are two of the party’s top decision-makers.
Amal Mukhopadhyay, a retired political science professor, said no monetary scams have been associated with Mamata Banerjee directly. He added but allegations of scams against Abhishek and being the only family member of Mamata in politics gave the BJP a chance to find a stick it could beat her with.
Even though nothing has been proved against him, allegations of corruption have been surfacing against Abhishek. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has questioned his wife, Rujira, and in-laws.
“This gave the BJP an opportunity which had been targeting Mamata. The party coined phrases like pishi-bhaipo [aunt-nephew] sarkar, tolabaz bhaipo [extortionist nephew] and attacked Abhishek and Mamata in a veiled manner on many fronts including [for] running syndicates, cut money, and extortion rackets. As Abhishek was almost handpicked by Mamata and introduced to politics, the BJP could raise allegations of dynasty politics,” said Mukhopadhyay.
The BJP has been sharpening its attack mostly on Abhishek rather than targeting the chief minister alone. Political experts said that one of the reasons behind this is her public image and the voters’ perception as there has been a little change in her simple lifestyle.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Shah have attacked Abhishek for running an “unchallenged empire of extortion and syndicates”. “The Modi government works for public welfare while the Mamata Banerjee dispensation is bothered only about nephew’s welfare,” Shah said.
Abhishek has dared the BJP to have the CBI and Enforcement Directorate conduct a probe. “If it is proved that I have made even a penny through corruption, you would not have to do anything. I will voluntarily walk to the gallows and hang myself,” he said earlier this year.
Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Choudhury said Abhishek got everything came on a platter. “Many allegations of corruption have cropped up against him. The BJP often uses these against him as an instrument to attack Mamata. Putting Mamata and Abhishek in the same bracket and attacking them becomes easier.”
Mamata Banerjee has also tried to defend her nephew by targeting Shah’s son, Jay Shah, the honorary secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. “You are constantly referring to aunt and nephew. What about your own son? We are very bad because we are in Bengal… How did he get so much money? First, reply to this,” she said.
Abhishek has been consistently attacking Modi and Shah as outsiders. He has challenged the BJP’s central leaders to speak in Bengali for two minutes while saying he would speak for an hour in Hindi without using a teleprompter.
Subhamoy Maitra, a political commentator, said in his recent public appearances, Abhishek’s speaking skills seem to have become more like a matured political leader. “He has also imbibed some of the characteristics of his aunt...like walking from one end to the other on the dias and throwing questions to the public and asking for responses during rallies.”
TMC leaders, who have been working with Abhishek, too, said he has emerged as a much-matured politician by balancing his attacks on Modi and Shah while projecting his aunt’s image. “He is a major crowd puller and is a close confidante of the TMC chief. Together with Kishor, he has been working to bolster the party’s campaign and strategy for the upcoming polls. Some of the recent campaigns... and the main slogan...has reaped benefits. They are the brainchild of Abhishek and Prashant Kishor,” said a TMC minister, who did not want to be named.
TMC lawmaker Saugata Roy said the BJP has been saying many things against Abhishek and Mamata Banerjee. “Have they been able to prove anything so far? The BJP is best in spreading false information and this time too, they are doing the same thing.”