The anointment of Abhishek Banerjee as Trinamool Congress (TMC) national general secretary, on June 5, couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the party. Emboldened by her landslide election victory that gave her a third term on the trot, Mamata Banerjee wasted no time initiating a revamp of the TMC and entrusting her 33-year-old nephew with the task of taking the party beyond the borders of Bengal. The project, which was to begin with the Northeast and parts of Uttar Pradesh, had gone into cold storage with Mukul Roy’s exit from the party in 2017.
Under Abhishek, the TMC’s expansion drive might be more watchful and result-oriented than anything his predecessors have attempted. He says the party will not enter other states for a token presence or just a few assembly or Lok Sabha seats—it will go for victories when the time is right. A larger aim is to challenge the BJP at a national level.
“He says little but he makes sense,” says Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, TMC Rajya Sabha MP, who is part of Abhishek’s inner circle (see graphic overleaf). Lavishing praise on Abhishek, Ray says he has rarely, in his 50-year-long political career, seen a young leader of such maturity. Like him, many others in the TMC see Abhishek as the natural inheritor of Mamata’s political legacy, though Didi has never made her succession plan public. It’s not likely she will. Mamata would rather have her party organically pick its future leader, and by delegating key organisational and other responsibilities to Abhishek, she is hoping to see him grow into roles.
The BJP calls him a “dynast”, the “Rajkumar of Trinamool”, but Abhishek watchers say he has earned his stripes in the party, having stopped the saffron juggernaut and surviving a concerted vilification campaign by the opposition that included personal attacks and grave allegations of corruption and extortion. Mamata rose to his defence only in the last leg of the assembly election, but Abhishek neither buckled nor left the arena. He quietly went about strengthening the party at the grassroots for the assembly poll by consolidating the cadre, ramping up booth-level presence and appointing young, energetic leaders as block and district presidents.
The TMC old guard cried foul and there was even talk of a generational tussle within the party, but in hindsight, it all seems to have paid off. “Abhishek involved one and all who mattered in organisational work by giving them some party post. Twenty-five spokespersons were put on the job, which goes to show that he was accommodative and inclusive,” says a Trinamool leader, requesting anonymity.
A NEW TRINAMOOL
Ray says Abhishek made his presence felt during his years in the TMC steering committee and various core committees, which are critical decision-making bodies in the party. While Mamata, as TMC chairperson, would have the final say on issues, Abhishek took to restructuring the party organisation. He ended the system of district observers, a post seen to be encouraging nepotism and coteries. Instead, he decentralised power by appointing a 21-member state coordination committee and 25 spokespersons, with a seven-member steering committee above them. The committees, a mix of senior politicians and young leaders, were made accountable for the party’s affairs in the districts. Young office-bearers, handpicked by Abhishek, were tasked with wooing the young voter. Among them is Debangshu Bhattacharya Dev, the TMC spokesperson whose ‘Khela Hobe (Game’s On)’ song became an instant hit among first-time voters during the assembly poll campaign.
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THE RUMBLINGS WITHIN
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On April 8, Deepak Solanki, resident of Bagratawa, a village in Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district, tested positive for the coronavirus. Two days earlier, Solanki and his wife Anita developed a fever and other flu-like symptoms, but they thought it was likely just about of common flu—it hadn’t yet sunk in that Covid was no longer the urban phenomenon they imagined it to be. However, an RT-PCR test, done on the insistence of Deepak, 45, a district medical representative, proved otherwise. Deepak was admitted to a private medical facility the same day and Anita two days later. Their children—two daughters, aged 18 and 15, and a son, 12—were left in the care of their nephew Shrikant Solanki. All three children, too, had tested positive.
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