Days before the CBI came knocking at the door of Abhishek Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee had dared the BJP at an election rally to first fight her nephew before taking on her.
“All the time, they (BJP) harp on Didi-Bhatija. First fight the Bhatija (nephew). Fight Didi (elder sister) later. I challenge you, Amit Shah to contest against Abhishek,” she said on Thursday (February 18) at a rally at Pailan, a suburb on the southern fringe of Kolkata.
The jibe was an archetypal Mamata Banerjee style of taking head on the most potent weapon against her in this election — nepotism. After all, a large premise of her politics is based on the theory that the attack is the best form of defence.
By throwing down the gauntlet, she was trying to build a counter narrative where Abhishek is an innocuous victim of political shadow boxing.
“I feel sad because of me he has to face all this daily… If you (BJP leaders) want to hurl abuses, hurl them at me. I will tolerate it. But spare the wives and younger members of the family,” the Chief Minister said, knowing well she had a better chance in a direct battle than a shadow fight.
Even her opponents are aware of the fact that she is by far the most popular leader in the state despite some allegations of corruption, favouritism and highhandedness against her government.
“Didi really cares for poor people. Look at me, I could buy this commercial vehicle because of the loan provided by the state government,” said Ajay Naskar, who has attached his car to cab-service provider Ola.
He was referring to the Gatidhara scheme under which the state government provides loans to the unemployed youth to purchase commercial vehicles for income generation.
“Didi is working hard, but she is getting a bad name because of a few corrupt people around her,” Naskar said, echoing a general perception in the state.
This perception is also reflected in a survey done by the ABP News earlier this month which showed Banerjee as the most favoured chief ministerial candidate in the state.
To dent her credibility, her opponents, particularly the BJP, feel that it is more prudent to attack people close to her instead of abusing her directly.
The problem for the BJP is that after taking into its fold some of the scam-accused ministers and leaders of the TMC, it has itself blunted its corruption barb against the government.
Moreover, it also needs to justify its blatant poaching from the TMC camp.
In this grand scheme of things Abhishek fits in perfectly as a sudden rise in his wealth and other controversies around him could be leveraged to tarnish the image of Banerjee.
The 2019 election affidavit of Abhishek, who is an MP from the Diamond Harbour constituency, showed his assets and income had increased around 203 per cent since 2014, when he first contested the parliamentary election.
As per the affidavit he had close to ₹1.38 crore of assets. It showed his movable assets alone increased to ₹71.4 lakh in 2019 from ₹23.57 lakh in 2014.
The 33-year-old MP’s life-style, which is a contrast to his aunt’s humble living, has been providing fodder for controversy since his political debut in 2011, soon after the TMC first came into power in Bengal.
His spouse Rujira Banerjee too got embroiled in controversies time and again. A controversy involving her erupted in 2019 when she was allegedly detained by customs officials at Kolkata airport for carrying ‘illegal’ gold in her check-in baggage.
The Thai national holding an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card was also served notice by the Home Ministry in 2019 over alleged discrepancies in her documents.
A CBI team on Tuesday (February 23) questioned her for around an hour in connection with a coal smuggling case. Her sister Menaka Gambhir too was grilled by the investigating agency in the same case.
Incidentally, the CBI reached Abhishek’s house barely a couple of days after a Kolkata court on February 19 summoned BJP leader Amit Shah in a defamation case filed by the TMC MP in 2018.
Even Abhishek’s MBA degree from the now defunct Indian Institute of Planning and Management in New Delhi is also under a cloud.
Besides, Abhishek’s meteoric rise up the party ranks also earned him quite a few rivals within the TMC.
Many TMC leaders who defected to the BJP such as Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari, Dipak Kumar Halder and others cited Abhishek as one of the reasons for them to quit the party.
They call him tolabaz (extortionist), Kotipoti bhaipo (multi-millionaire nephew), rajkumar (prince) and so on and so forth.
“What we have been saying all these years is now being reiterated by many TMC leaders,” said state BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya.
It was Abhishek who brought in poll strategist Prashant Kishor to manage the party’s 2021 election affairs, much to the chagrin of many senior TMC leaders, including Adhikari, who had viewed the move as a ploy to undercut their power within the party.
In June last year he floated a parallel platform Banglar Jubo Shakti (BJS) to recruit youth volunteers to help people during the pandemic and also keep tabs on implementation of welfare schemes of the government, particularly Amphan relief.
More than 8.44 lakh youths have joined the platform that allegedly aims at empowering Abhishek to supervise the implementation of the government schemes amid allegations of large scale misappropriation of funds by TMC leaders.
Many including disgruntled TMC leaders see it as a ruse to amass disproportionate power within the party.
BJP leaders Amit Shah and others repeatedly allege that her only goal now was to make her nephew the chief minister, an allegation Banerjee vehemently denies.
“Abhishek does not get any special preference. Did I make him deputy chief minister? He did not even take the easier option of going to the Rajya Sabha. He chose to contest the elections to go to Parliament as an elected representative of the people,” she said at the Pailan rally.
The CBI action against Abhishek’s wife is a clear indication that the BJP government at the Centre will only intensify the heat on the TMC’s heir apparent in the run-up to the assembly elections. This is primarily because charges against him will have a greater chance of getting public acceptability. Moreover, it will have a larger impact on the chief minister.
“Kan dhore tanle matha asbei (Pull by the ear and the head is bound to follow),” BJP leader Babul Supriyo said, alluding that if Abhishek could be nailed it would automatically harm Banerjee.