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Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019

Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi: Politician from the grassroots who mastered Parliament’s rules

Congress leader Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, who in coma since 2008 , died on Monday. He was 72.

india Updated: Nov 21, 2017 08:38 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Congress leader Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi passed away in New Delhi on Monday . He was  72.
Congress leader Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi passed away in New Delhi on Monday . He was 72. (PTI file photo )

When Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi became a father, he named his son Michhil (march in Bengali). He was then in his 50s. Fatherhood might have come late for Dasmunsi but he tasted political success at an early age.

He was 32 when he got elected -- the culture of nomination was yet to take root in the Congress – to the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s highest-decision making body.

The party was grappling with the aftermath of Emergency, when Dasmunsi, a firebrand leader, emerged as the face of the Congress in West Bengal.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the chief minister and party’s senior-most leader in the state, had blood on his hands after police gunned down hundreds of youth to combat rising Naxalism.

Dasmunsi’s oratory, organisational strength and youthful charm were a breath of fresh air in the gloomy, dark Congress quarters. He was popular and soon a member of CWC.

Till he suffered a stroke while celebrating Durga Puja ignoring a heart condition, Dasmunsi was one of the two most important Congress leaders in Bengal. Pranab Mukherjee, who went on to be the president of India, was the other.

While Mukherjee was the master strategist, Priyo da — as he was popularly known — was the grassroots man. Together with Subrata Mukherjee, who has since switched sides to the Trinamool Congress and is a senior minister in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet, Dasmunsi formed a formidable “jodi” that dominated the state’s youth politics almost 20 years. In the 70s and 80s, they often drew comparison with the successful Amitabh Bachchan-Shashi Kapoor pairing in Bollywood.

But unlike his peers, Dasmunsi’s journey didn’t stop at the Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground. His stage was national. A five-term member of Parliament, Dasmunsi became the union minister of state for commerce in 1985 and the party’s chief whip in the Lok Sabha in 1999.

When the Congress came to power in 2004, he joined the union cabinet as the minister for water resources. Next year brought a double promotion. He was given charge of information and broadcasting and parliamentary affairs.

It was in his small room in the Congress party office in Parliament that I met Dasmunsi for the first time. It was 2002. As I got up to leave, Priyo da smiled and said, “Don’t go to Pranab da (Mukherjee). He won’t give you news.” Mukherjee was then the deputy leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

Friendly as he was, Dasmunsi was also a consummate politician.

He would go through parliamentary records and dig up a remark, stirring trouble for a rival. Mamata Banerjee, his protégée turned bitter rival, experienced it first-hand when she made headlines for all the wrong reasons. He cultivated press by selectively leaking news on party’s floor strategy in the Lok Sabha, but drew a line at Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

His loyalty to the Gandhi family was complete. Long before Digvijaya Singh and Jairam Ramesh demanded Rahul’s elevation, Dasmunsi was one of the first to seek a greater role for the young Gandhi. “I had come through students and youth politics. I know what Rahul is capable of,” Dasmunsi would often say.

He took on rivals head-on but had his fears too. The biggest perhaps was of surgery. Doctors had repeatedly warned him to go for one for his heart condition but he chose to ignore them.

When the fell into a coma after the stroke in 2008, everyone hoped he would make a quick recovery. But even after several medical interventions and fervent prayers, he didn’t recover.

By his hospital bed, a TV would always play football matches or parliamentary proceedings — two things he was passionate about. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked Dasmunsi’s wife Deepa to take him to Germany for a stem cell treatment. But that, too, failed.

When Dasmunsi breathed his last in the Capital’s Apollo hospital 10 minutes past noon on Monday, Parliament lost a memorable orator. And the Congress, a brilliant student of politics.


First Published: Nov 20, 2017 20:24 IST

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