It took just about 24 hours for political equations in West Bengal to undergo a drastic change.
The ruling Trinamool Congress appeared almost invincible on July 21, the day a sea of crowd, braving monsoon rain, congregated at central Kolkata to mark the party’s annual Martyrs’ Day programme.
More than five lakh people attended the programme, which was more special this year being held after a gap of two years due to Covid-19-induced restrictions. It was also the first mega public event the party organised after it came back to power with an overwhelming mandate for the third consecutive term in May last year.
After conquering Bengal, it was time for the party to lay out its national ambition plan.
“The BJP will not get a majority in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Once it fails to reach the majority mark, the TMC will take the lead to unite the Opposition parties to oust the anti-poor BJP to save the country,” the TMC chairperson and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee told the rally.
Abhishek’s words come back to haunt party
Her nephew Abhishek Banerjee exuded confidence that the TMC would win all the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state and a few more outside Bengal.
“Not just in Bengal, the Trinamool now has its presence in Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura, Goa. Let me assure you, I will not rest till the party is firmly established across the country,” the party’s national general secretary and youth icon thundered, drenched in the torrential downpour.
The mood was clearly upbeat. Even the monsoon rain failed to dampen the spirit as Abhishek highlighted, amidst loud applause, a purification process the party had supposedly undergone.
“Today’s Trinamool is a different Trinamool. Traitors, self-seekers, scamsters have left the party…. The party has emerged as a pure iron…. To be in the TMC one has to be selfless, greedless and fearless in the service of the people,” he had said, little knowing his words would come back to haunt the party hours later.
Early the next day, sleuths of the Enforcement Directorate came knocking at the doors of senior TMC leader and Bengal Cabinet minister Partha Chatterjee’s residence in North Kolkata.
He was under their scanner in connection with a multi-crore school recruitment scam. The marathon raids at the residences of the minister and one of his female friends Arpita Mukherjee, unearthed the biggest shocker in Bengal politics.
Getting leads from the search in Chatterjee’s Naktala home, the ED recovered from the apartment of Arpita Mukherjee, a model-cum-actor, mounts of cash and pieces of jewellery, an unprecedented spectacle that sent shockwaves across the state.
It took about six days for the TMC to recover from the shock to launch a damage control exercise. Chatterjee was stripped of all his ministerial responsibilities as well as party posts amidst demand for his ouster from a section of the party and the oppositions launching statewide protests against alleged unabated corruption during the TMC regime.
“It has severely dented the party’s image and taken the steam out of our narrative that the BJP-led central government is using agencies against our leaders as part of its vendetta politics,” a senior TMC told The Federal.
He pointed out that when the CBI arrested Cabinet ministers Firhad Hakim and late Subrata Mukherjee and former minister and TMC MLA Madan Mitra after the Bengal Assembly elections, the party was able to convince the people that it was just a BJP ploy to harass the party for its spectacular electoral victory. More so as the central agency did not act against BJP leader and TMC turncoat Suvendu Adhikari, who was also one of the accused in the same Narada scam.
The scenario is completely different this time. Not only people of the state but also a section of the TMC functionaries, including leaders, believe that the minister is culpable. Many of them publicly became vocal, seeking action against Chatterjee.
The recovery of about ₹50 crore in cash and several kilograms of gold ornaments from the residences of the former minister’s close aide also dented the image of Mamata.
A rejuvenated Opposition now launched a vitriolic tirade against her alleging that such a massive corruption could not take place without her sanction.
“The people of Bengal are not fools to believe that Mamata Banerjee was unaware of such a huge graft taking place under her nose,” said CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty.
Another perception is that if she was unaware then definitely, she has been losing her hold on her party colleagues. All these years the popular perception was that nothing happened in the TMC without her consent.
Since Abhishek took over as the party’s national general secretary in June last year, there have been talks of two distinct groups within the TMC. One group comprising old guards is close to Mamata whereas the new-age leaders have the blessing of her nephew.
The generational tussle within the party came out in the open when Abhishek tried to enforce a one-person, one-post policy, except for making concessions for Mamata.
The move did not go down well with many senior leaders who were holding multiple posts in the government as well as the party.
TMC’s generation next
As the tussle led to a war of words among the leaders representing two camps, Mamata intervened to relax the policy allowing many party ministers and legislators to contest the civic body polls so that they could become councillors as well, much to the chagrin of the Abhishek camp and advantage to the old guards.
After the arrest of Chatterjee, TMC sources said, the generation next is once again trying to take the upper hand.
The way the new generation leaders backed by Abhishek became vocal for the removal of Chatterjee, a close confidante of Mamata, and the former (Abhishek) took lead in the party’s damage control exercise, a power shift in the TMC is evident more than ever before.
Many senior TMC leaders were in tears, when a party disciplinary committee meeting on July 28 decided to remove Chatterjee from all the party posts and suspended him from the party till the investigation into the recruitment scam was over, said a party source.
Abhishek on Friday (July 29) also met a delegation of protesting panelists of the State Level Selection Test (SLST) — who have been agitating near the Gandhi statue on Mayo Road for over 500 days alleging corruption in the teachers’ recruitment process.
Emerging from the meeting, the leader of the protesting aspirants Sahidullah said Abhishek assured them that he would try and solve their problem.
“He (Abhishek) told us that there are administrative and legal hurdles that will have to be sorted out. We will have our next meeting with education minister Bratya Basu on August 8,” Sahidullah said.
The latest development clearly gave Abhishek an edge over the party’s old guards. But the question now is can he steer the party clear of one of the biggest crises it has been facing since its inception in 1998.
Left Front can claim credit
The recruitment scam has brought the CPI (M), which failed to win a single seat in 2021 elections, back into the reckoning.
It is the party’s dogged persuasion that brought the scam to the light. CPI-M Rajya Sabha MP and senior advocate Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya took up the plight of the aspirants to the Calcutta High Court, which directed a CBI probe into the scam.
Naturally, the CPI (M) led Let Front can claim some credit for unearthing the scam and the arrest of Chatterjee. Seeing it as an opportunity to turn its electoral fortunes, the CPI (M) led LF is consistently hitting the streets ever since the ED made the startling recovery.
Its protests are also getting a good response.
The BJP which has also been in total disarray ever since its drubbing in the Assembly elections, too is hoping to gain from the TMC’s trouble.
But its credibility as a clean party in Bengal is under severe question because its Nandigram MLA and leader of the Opposition Suvendu too is accused in Narada and chit-fund scams.
Moreover, senior party leader and former governor Tathagata Roy himself accused that the party tickets were allotted during the 2021 Assembly elections in exchange for “money and women.”
The BJP’s anti-corruption protests have also so far failed to get much response. Nevertheless, the BJP would try to take advantage of the situation to weaken the TMC.
“The tainted leaders in the TMC may now be lured to join the BJP hoping to get immunity from investigations,” said political commentator Nirmalya Banerjee.
Mithun Chakraborty’s claim
This possibility has been further fuelled by actor-turned-politician Mithun Chakraborty, who has been entrusted by the BJP high command to rejuvenate the demoralised party.
He claimed earlier this week that 38 TMC MLAs are in touch with the BJP and of these, 21 are directly in touch with him.
Other BJP leaders, however, said it was Chakraborty’s personal claim.
“I am not aware of this. It is his personal claim,” Suvendu dismissively said.
Though other state BJP leaders did not give much credence to Chakraborty’s claim, his assertion was indicative of a changing political equation in the state.
Apart from Mamata’s direction, if anything the TMC supporters were anticipating ahead of the Martyrs’ Day rally this year was who all from the BJP would join the party at the function.
Their expectation was not completely without basis. Many BJP leaders, including legislators and parliamentarians, had already jumped the ship. Many more were in touch with the TMC for a switchover.
“If we (TMC) open our door, the BJP will be emptied out,” bragged Abhishek not too long ago.
The expectation was further fuelled when two BJP leaders Maneka and Varun Gandhi reached Kolkata on the day of the event. It’s an open secret that the two Uttar Pradesh MPs were in talks with the TMC in a bid to change sides.
Ultimately though no induction ceremony was held, the TMC looked stronger and more confident to rule the roost in the state.
Not any longer.