Party crashers

Suvendu Adhikari's departure could open the floodgates for an exodus from the TMC

PTI19-12-2020_000180A Grand welcome: Amit Shah with Suvendu Adhikari at a rally in West Midnapore | PTI

Leaders leaving the Trinamool Congress is nothing new. In the early 2000s, several leaders revolted when Mamata Banerjee walked out of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, but she was not worried. She knew that many of them had returned to the Congress, which had a similar ideology, and realised that they would come back to her soon. Several did.

Almost two decades after, Banerjee now faces another wave of defections. And, unlike last time, she is worried. The leaders who have recently left are opting for an ideology that is far removed from hers.

It started when, in 2017, she lost her confidant Mukul Roy to the BJP. He was an astute political strategist and organiser who had broken the Congress’s spine by luring away most of its state leadership.

Since then, Banerjee lost many other party men to the BJP, including loyalist Sovan Chatterjee, and strong youth leaders such as Saumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra. However, Roy’s departure hurt her the most.

It is interesting that two MPs from Adhikari’s own family—father Sisir and brother Dibyendu—are yet to make a decision.

Today, when another strongman, Suvendu Adhikari, has left to join the BJP, she seems more worried than hurt. Adhikari, the second son of senior Trinamool leader and Banerjee loyalist Sisir Adhikari, is known to be a mass leader and a competent organiser. He was the man behind two of the strongest campaigns of Banerjee’s political career—the Nandigram land movement and the Lalgarh tribal movement. Both were movements against the left government, and played no small part in helping Banerjee win Bengal.

So, naturally, Banerjee had relied heavily on Roy and Adhikari. While Roy was her primary adviser on political matters, Adhikari was in charge of building the party at the grassroots level. He was also responsible for removing obstacles for the party in tough seats. For instance, he pulled down the organisation of Congress state president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury in Murshidabad. He also drafted most supporters of the powerful Ghani Khan Chowdhury family into the Trinamool. When the BJP made inroads into the Midnapore belt and north Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Banerjee turned to Adhikari. The Trinamool won the three byelections in the area soon after. He was, in a sense, the crisis man for Banerjee.

However, there is a feeling among Adhikari supporters that Banerjee only remembered him during crises. This, coupled with the growing clout of Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek, alienated Adhikari. He felt insulted. Even though he was a senior cabinet minister, he was reportedly kept out of the loop on many occasions. THE WEEK learned that Adhikari was not even consulted when Banerjee and Abhishek decided to bring in Prashant Kishor as the party’s poll strategist.

Kishor has been working closely with Abhishek and is observing organisational matters in the districts the latter controls. This created a power tussle between Abhishek and Adhikari, with the latter resisting any attempts at weakening his control over party workers. “How can an outsider give instructions to a leader like Suvendu Adhikari, who built the TMC in almost half of Bengal?” asked Kanishka Panda, an expelled Trinamool leader who recently joined the BJP. “The most surprising thing was that Mamata Banerjee was a mute spectator to Suvendu being deprived; her love for her nephew is blind. She cannot imagine what she has lost.”

Now with the BJP, Adhikari will team up with Roy, whom both Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda like. And this will be Banerjee’s biggest worry. The two men who destroyed the Congress and the left will now be gunning for the Trinamool.

But can the duo do it? “Why not? They can do everything they wish,” said Sunil Mondal, a Trinamool MP who recently joined the BJP.

Quipped Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury: “She (Banerjee) has now understood how it feels when someone’s party is broken. All the best for the rest of her political life.”

As of now, six Trinamool MLAs and even two from the left have joined Adhikari, along with two dozen district-level leaders. In fact, so strong is Adhikari’s clout that even six Muslim leaders have joined the BJP.

One of them is Kabirul Islam, who was general secretary of the Trinamool’s minority cell. “When your house catches fire, what do you do?” he asked. “You move out for a fresh life. We are doing it. Our patience ran out. One cannot stay in the TMC just because [one] is scared of the BJP. It (Trinamool) has the most unethical leadership.”

Adhikari is equally acceptable to Hindus and Muslims. He has a strong memory and reportedly remembers the names of all 200 who lost their lives in the Nandigram movement. And with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and the powerful Furfura Sharif of Hooghly fighting the upcoming elections, the loss of a “strong secular” leader such as Adhikari has been the biggest jolt for Banerjee.

Trinamool leaders, however, say Banerjee had given Adhikari everything, including three important cabinet portfolios, Z category security cover and chairmanship of a local cooperative bank. “What else could the party offer him? He received everything, but his expectations were skyrocketing,” said Subrata Mukherjee, state panchayat department minister.

Trinamool sources said that Adhikari wanted to be declared Banerjee’s political heir. He was unmarried, a full-time party worker and extremely popular among party workers. He drew the biggest crowds after Banerjee. In fact, in one meeting, Banerjee even declared that, in future, “Abhishek and Suvendu would run the party”.

Family matters: Mamata with nephew Abhishek Banerjee | Salil Bera Family matters: Mamata with nephew Abhishek Banerjee | Salil Bera

“But the way the party was functioning, it looked as if Abhishek was mentioned in her legal will as her political heir. And Suvendu, who is touching 50, could never work under Abhishek,” said a Trinamool leader who is currently exploring his options.

Will Adhikari’s departure open the floodgates for further defections? Some leaders have admitted that it might happen. “All the opportunists would go. Let them leave; the party will become clean,” said former MLA Madan Mitra.

With senior leaders like Mukherjee, Sougata Ray and Sovandeb Chattopadhyay in their mid-seventies, Mitra is the only popular leader still with Banerjee. The party has once again become Kolkata-centric, like it was in the 1990s.

While the addition of Adhikari is a boost for the BJP, it would be unfair to say that only he can help the BJP in the upcoming assembly elections. The last Lok Sabha elections were an indicator of the BJP’s growing influence in the state. Apparently, Adhikari has seen the writing on the wall.

He has recently said that he was with the RSS till the age of 16, and said he first met Amit Shah when the latter was BJP general secretary in 2014. “I was then an MP and a BJP leader took me to the Ashoka Road [office] where Amit bhai used to sit,” said Adhikari. “It was a small but clean room and we discussed a lot of things.” Since then, Shah has become the second-most powerful leader in the country. And now, he is tasked with dethroning Banerjee.

Perhaps Adhikari has a similar goal. And he has vowed to work 16 hours a day to achieve this. Apparently, he has also promised to not eclipse any BJP leader. His primary aim seems to be removing Abhishek from power.

At least seven cabinet ministers, six MPs (not counting Sunil Mondal) and 30 MLAs (apart from the six who have already left) are Suvendu loyalists.

Reportedly, the next round of defections will happen when Shah returns to Bengal, and would include Baishali Dalmiya, daughter of former BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya; former cricketer Laxmi Ratan Shukla; and cabinet ministers Rajib Banerjee and Chandranath Sinha.

However, it is interesting that two MPs from Adhikari’s own family—father Sisir and brother Dibyendu—are yet to make a decision. “I currently have no contact with my brother,” Dibyendu told THE WEEK. Will he and his father also jump ship? “We are in different parties now,” said Dibyendu. “I cannot say anything more about that as of now.”