Life and times of Bengal’s ‘Subratda’ Mukherjee

In recent times, few Indian leaders have had the fortune of getting a chance to speak in the assembly, making a strong first impression as a promising politician. Late Subrata Mukherjee (75), who breathed his last on November 4, was one such leader

Subrata Mukherjee (1946-2021). Pic: Wikipedia

An advantage of writing about an unconventional political leader like the late Subrata Mukherjee, a senior Trinamool Congress leader, is that the facts can be arranged in a sequence without much of a trouble.

So, the Mukherjee ‘story’ begins from a convenient starting point.

In recent times, few Indian leaders have had the fortune of getting a chance to speak in the assembly, making a strong first impression as a promising politician. Late Subrata Mukherjee (75), who breathed his last on Thursday (November 4, 2021), was one such leader.

With formidable Left leaders like Jyoti Basu and Harekrishna Konar in their prime among his opponents, the West Bengal Assembly was certainly no bed of roses for this 26-year-old debutant Congressman, on March 13, 1971. As a Youth Congress leader, Subrata, rose to address a stormy debate. Seasoned Left hecklers like Biren Roy, Jatin Chakravarty and others did their best to cut him short, jeering and constantly interrupting, the pro-tem speaker trying to control them … Yet Mukherjee, Bengal’s youngest MLA on the day, went on to deliver a remarkable speech that left his opponents silent, however grudgingly.

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A brief description of the situation prevailing at the time would perhaps describe the persona of Mukherjee better.

With the pro-Indira Congress faction winning 105 seats against 113 by the CPI (M), the 1971 elections were the closest contest the State had ever seen. Then Governor, S S Dhawan, had not yet called upon any party to form a government. A few members of the Left Front were in jail. Led by Jyoti Basu, Left members strongly pressed for postponing the proceedings to enable the arrested members to attend the voting.

In such unusually testing circumstances, the new house was debating the Governor’s address prior to the formal election of a Speaker. Eventually, Congress, supported by its allies, carried the day against the Left, winning 139 votes.

As the young Subrata Mukherjee began speaking in a slightly croaking voice, which later became his hallmark, the turbulent house gradually calmed down. He had not, said Subrata, expected the Governor’s speech to address all of the major problems the state was facing then. He did, however, expect some official response to the long-standing demand of the Youth Congress for free education for children up to class VIII, along with fresh guidelines for the education policy in the new academic year, which did not reflect in the governor’s address, said Mukherjee.

Referring to the speeches made by veteran Left leaders, Mukherjee said, they had all aggressively criticised the government as expected, but failed to put up a single new proposal of their own. “Was it not time, even 24 years of independence, for leaders to start thinking in terms of national priorities, the basic requirements of people, instead of scoring cheap debating points?” asked the young Congress leader.

The writer, who had then attended the session, recalls how the angry opposition, which had shouted down every non-Left speaker including former Chief Minister Ajoy Mukherjee, gave young Subrata a patient, though sullen, hearing.

Subrata Mukherjee had arrived, with a bang! The beleaguered Congress benches, mostly on the defensive against the rampaging Left, had finally found a new spokesman, after a long wait spanning several years.

Over the years, Mukherjee would go on to deliver many equally lucid speeches in the Assembly, either as a non-Left Minister or as a member of the opposition. For, despite his brilliant debut, Mukherjee was destined to spend 34 years in the opposition ranks while enjoying only 15 years, in two spells, as a minister. His 51-year-old political career was never smooth, in the words of one observer, it was ‘bittersweet’.

The late sixties and early seventies had been, even by Bengal’s extreme standards, a time of excessive political torment and violence. This was the time when Mukherjee and his ‘Guru’, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi cut their political teeth at Chhatra Parishad and then at Youth Congress. The CPI (M) had suffered a split as Naxalite factions left them to form the CPI (M-L). Pretty soon, members of both parties were fighting, even killing each other all over the state, with the police mostly siding with the CPI (M). Between 1967 and 1972, Bengal saw four Assembly elections and spells of President’s rule in between as political violence continued unabated.

Earlier, police firing at hungry peasants, who had organised a protest in 1966, had resulted in the death of 66 people. In 1970, a total of 2,217 people were killed in political clashes involving the CPI and the CPI (M-L), Congress factions, the RSP, Forward Bloc and the CPI. The pro-Indira Congress faction was a favourite target for most Left parties.

For Munshi and Mukherjee, who stood up for a more ‘nationalist’ centrist political line while opposing the pro-Chinese Naxals and the Marxists, it was political baptism by fire. As the late CPI (M) leader Anil Biswas once recalled: “No praise is enough for the way these two (Das and Mukherjee) stood up against the mighty Left in colleges and Universities.”

Mukherjee’s strong survival instincts sustained him during the long years in political wilderness, beginning 1977, when the Left Front came to power and ruled for 34 years without a break. All these years, until 1998 when Trinamool Congress was formed after a party split, the badly divided Indian National Congress fought the Left Front on its own without much support from the party high command in Delhi. Mukherjee, like Mamata Banerjee, Somen Mitra and others, stood up against the Left, but none could rise above factionalism.

Wily Left leaders also encouraged this by favouring one or the other Congress leader, as part of their divide and rule policy. “It is common knowledge that Mukherjee was favoured by Left leaders like Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Both would openly say that Mukherjee was the only Congress leader with potential. The city and state police, which ruthlessly suppressed Congress demonstrations using lathis, never laid a finger on Mukherjee,” says Charubrata Ray, a veteran observer of Bengal politics.

Mukherjee, however, unlike other political leaders, was more forthright. “Yes, the police (under the Left) do beat us and our supporters during demonstrations,” he told this writer. “Some of our supporters have suffered permanent physical injuries and it is increasingly difficult to fund people to participate in our programmes,” said Mukherjee, who returned the compliment to the CPI (M) once he was elected Kolkata Mayor. Congressmen complained that while Mukherjee favoured Left Union leaders with various sops and concessions, promotions or transfers, he would not help his own party workers to the same extent.

As a scribe put it: “The Russians have the proverb, one hand always washes the other. Perhaps such tactics went well with Mukherjee’s first objective: to ensure his own political survival even as an opposition leader and then to retain a certain measure of political relevance as well. His stint as the city’s mayor was appreciated by both Left and non-Left camps, which is significant and speaks volumes of how Mukherjee always kept himself afloat and relevant in a political sense, while other Congress leaders simply became faceless during their long stint in opposition.”

On the other hand, Congress old timers, especially members of its trade Union wing the INTUC, warmly recall how Mukherjee’s single-handed efforts kept the Bengal unit of the organisation functional. “Ever since the Left Front rule began in Bengal in 1978, our fortunes went into a permanent decline. Our Delhi INTUC leadership was itself often short of funds. In Bengal, we had 16 full-time workers and part-timers who found it difficult to run their families. It was Mukherjee who got help from international agencies like the ILO and NGOs to ensure our office remained open and the few employees still working there could survive. No other leader did as much as our Subratada did for us,” says Ranjit Das, a former Durgapur steel plant employee.

Also read: One of the biggest losses in my life: Mamata after mentor Subrata’s death

This throws light on a different aspect of Mukherjee’s complex politically persona. As a senior trade unionist of long standing, he was not avert to concluding agreements with often controversial employers/mill owners who had a dubious record. But his objective to effect such deals was not necessarily financial gains for himself, but to ensure that the struggling workers suffered the least and got the best terms possible in difficult circumstances.

This is a characteristic which, to quote Charubrata Ray again, “He shares this with other leaders like Subhas Chakravarty, Somen Mitra and others. It is the quality of helping people without publicity and fanfare, even if this often involves entering into arrangements with local employers /industrialists who were not exactly Simon-pure. Such leaders always attract much criticism from among their own party men. On the other hand, look at the swelling crowds of poor harassed commoners who always turn up to pay their last respects to men like Mitra, Chakravarty and now Mukherjee. Some of them owe their lives and livelihoods to these leaders.”

Also unique was Mukherjee’s ability to sum up and give a definite opinion on extremely difficult and complicated matters/disputes. Mostly he would do this humorously, but his remarks turned out to be prophetic. Just to give an example, once the Supreme Court had disallowed bikers’ rallies on the eve of Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The state and city police did their best to crackdown on violators. Yet, bike rallies happened at some places. High-level meetings happened at the state and then the central level, but little changed on the ground. “Just what is going on here?” asked an exasperated visiting journalist from Delhi. All fell silent until Mukherjee, grinning, spoke up, “Oh, nothing much, I assure you. True, the court has spoken, so have our Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary…there have been warnings from the police…yet the rallies do happen…I think this will go on, the pattern will not change. The Supreme Court, the Centre, the state, the police — all are doing their duty.” After a pause, he added, “But so are the bikers!”

As things eventually turned out, he could not have been more right.

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