Just behind West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s famous Harish Mukherjee Lane address in south Kolkata, there is another house that seems to have emerged as the second power centre in the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
The resident of this heavily fortified house is Abhishek Banerjee, the 33-year-old parliamentarian from Diamond Harbour. But it’s not this identity that has brought him to the political centre stage in this election season. Rather, it’s his family ties with the CM — Abhishek is her nephew — that has become a major talking point.
As Bengal votes in the third round of the eight-phase elections today (April 6), the spotlight is on Abhishek. For all 31 seats in the politically crucial South 24-Parganas will go to poll over the third and fourth phases. The district is considered a TMC stronghold with the party winning 29 seats here in 2016. It is also the area where Abhishek has a significant influence; his Lok Sabha seat falls in this district.
Abhishek chose his aunt’s footsteps to join politics; his critics say he did not have to learn the hard way unlike many other TMC leaders. He joined the party in 2011, the year Banerjee became the CM after ending a 34-year Left rule. He was made the president of the TMC’s youth wing the same year, causing heartburn among many in the party.
In fact, several TMC leaders who have defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) allege that this post was a springboard for Abhishek exercising his clout in the party and becoming Banerjee’s heir-apparent.
As his influence grew and he became a constant in all important party meetings alongside seniors, murmurs began on his meteoric rise with some leaders feeling side-lined. There is a hearsay that Abhishek, at 26, was fielded to fight the Diamond Harbour seat in 2014 at the insistence of Mukul Roy, once the de-facto number two in the party. According to this hearsay, Abhishek was eventually one of the reasons behind Roy’s desertion.
Roy was not alone. Suvendu Adhikari’s clout was growing and, as the local legislator, he was hugely popular in Nandigram and surrounding areas. Abhishek was made the TMC youth wing president by replacing Adhikari. After quitting the party in December 2020, Adhikari said he “climbed the stairs” to reach a position of political prominence and that he “did not take a lift”, an obvious reference to Abhishek.
“We did warn her (CM) in a veiled manner, but she didn’t understand that Abhishek could be her nemesis,” a senior TMC leader says.
It’s this rise of this controversial bhaipo (nephew) that has given the BJP ammunition to target Banerjee’s clean image. The street fighter CM who lives alone after her mother’s death suddenly finds herself facing allegations that she was practising dynasty politics and nepotism.
Central investigators questioning Abhishek’s wife and sister-in-law in a coal scam case gave more ammo to critics earlier this year, though the TMC accused the BJP-led Centre of using federal agencies to silence rivals.
Banerjee says she won’t be cowed down due to pressure; she even visited Abhishek’s residence once before the arrival of a central probe team there in connection with coal smuggling case.
But the BJP’s repeated attacks — it calls Abhishek tolabaaz bhaipo (extortionist nephew) — posed a tough question before the TMC. Now, there are signs that the party is deliberately avoiding bringing the aunt and her nephew together on the dais this election season.
For instance, in Kolkata’s Hazra area, Abhishek organised a road show, which the CM decided to attend. But Abhishek was seen in that programme only after Banerjee had left the venue. Even in Nandigram, where the CM is contesting against Adhikari, Abhishek was absent, To be sure, Banerjee kept most of her party colleagues away from the high-profile seat that voted on April 1.
Sources say Abhishek has been advised to concentrate on his Diamond Harbour area, an attempt at blunting the BJP’s “bhaipo” barbs and corruption allegations. Nonetheless, Abhishek is one of the star campaigners of the TMC and has been crisscrossing the state to bolster the party’s prospects. Despite all criticism, a section in the TMC believes his perceived appeal among the youth will earn the party rich dividends.
“All this distancing doesn’t matter. People have seen how he called the shots, and there) has been corruption to benefit his businesses…the Bengal government played along,” BJP state president Dilip Ghosh says.
While the BJP accuses Abhishek of corruption, trying to portray him as a liability, the TMC officially says he is in fact a political asset. “Abhishek Banerjee is one of our brightest leaders and there is no question of him being a liability. The charges and tapes (controversial audio tapes alleging corruption) are unsubstantiated and we will take appropriate action,” TMC leader Bratya Basu says.
Come May 2 and people will know whether the voices backing Abhishek in the TMC will grow louder or fall silent.