Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram was heckled outside Calcutta High Court on 4 April. Chidambaram was representing Keventer Agro, in a PIL filed by Congress MP and West Bengal PCC President Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury over the WB government's sale of its stake in Metro Dairy to a private party (Keventer Agro Ltd.).
The curious part was that the ones heckling Chidambaram were members of his own party (reportedly members of the West Bengal Congress' legal cell).
He was called a 'TMC stooge' whereas he was not representing the TMC or WB government. Behind this bizarre incident lies a strange phenomena in West Bengal politics: the cult of Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.
We say "strange" because of two contrasting trends. First, while Chowdhury commands fierce loyalty from a sizable section of party cadres in West Bengal, this isn't reflected in the electoral fortunes of the party in the state.
Second, due to his repeated wins from the Berhampore Lok Sabha constituency (five times in a row now) Chowdhury has risen rapidly in the Congress, even becoming the party's Lok Sabha leader in 2019. However, his rise in clout in the last three years has also coincided with a massive decline of the Congress in West Bengal.
As the president, most of the blame has been directed towards Chowdhury. On several occasions, he has been accused of overruling the high command and taking decisions on his own, during his tenure as president.
While it is true that Chowdhury remains a steadfast opponent of CM Mamata Banerjee, his critics argue that his personal hatred for the TMC may have opened up space for BJP in the state.
2021 Elections Reveal a Pattern
For the Opposition, the 2021 elections represented the perfect opportunity to get rid of the Trinamool Congress. On one hand the BJP was assiduously working towards consolidating Hindu votes, on the other hand, the Congress, Left and ISF formed an alliance that aimed at consolidating minority votes as well as secular votes from both communities.
Whether this formation was by default or design is anyone's guess but Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury did get accused of trying to corner the TMC, even if it meant BJP emerging as the largest party in Bengal.
A few local adjustments further pointed in this direction.
In the 2021 Assembly elections, the BJP did not field a candidate in Baghmundi in Purulia, a seat from where INC’s Nepal Mahato was contesting. Mahato is known to be a very close aide of Chowdhury. This was also the only seat where the BJP did not field a candidate.
Then, Mosharraf Hossain Mondal, once the right hand man of Suvendu Adhikari right hand man in the TMC, had left the party to join the Congress before the elections. He was given a ticket to contest from Nowda.
Meanwhile, two-time sitting MLA from Burwan Pratima Rajak was dropped by the Congress for newcomer Shiladitya Halder, another one of Adhikari’s close aides.
Rajak even wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi alleging that she was dropped on the pretext of being pregnant and wanting to focus on her family. She said that that was not the case, and she was dropped for political reasons.
In the 2019 elections, Nilanjan Roy, one of Chowdhury’s lieutenants was given a ticket by the BJP to contest against Abhishek Banerjee from Diamond Harbour. This was within six months of him switching over from Congress.
More so, many of Chowdhury’s former aides, and even those of Congress leader Abdul Mannan are with the BJP now, specifically with Suvendu Adhikari.
The other relevant piece of data from the 2021 Assembly elections is from Chowdhury's own constituency Berhampore. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Chowdhury secured close to 46 percent votes, the TMC was at 39 percent and BJP at 11 percent.
However, in the Assembly elections, if one combines the votes in all seven assembly segments falling under Chowdhury's Berhampore seats, it emerges that the Congress fell from 46 percent to just 15 percent, TMC increased from 39 percent to 50 percent and BJP increased from 11 percent to 32 percent.
So it seems that while the TMC did gain a bit at the Congress' expense, the bulk of Congress votes seem to have shifted to the BJP between 2019 and 2021.
Opposition to Any Tie-Up With TMC
As the BJP toppled Congress state after state, there was immense pressure on Chowdhury to perform well in Bengal in the 2019 General Elections.
While an alliance with the Left was proposed by the high command, Chowdhury allegedly ruled it out saying that he can retain Congress bastions Behrampore and Jangipur with Left support. Sources say that he was confident that he could steal Murshidabad and Raiganj (Md. Salim’s seat) from the CPI(M).
However, it must be noted that while Chowdhury may have had a say in the potential alliance, the final decision was taken by then PCC president the late Somen Mitra.
In the end, Congress only won Behrampore from which Chowdhury himself contested and Malda Dakshin.
For the 2021 elections, several leaders including Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury and Pradip Bhattacharya pushed for an alliance with Trinamool. But Chowdhury vehemently opposed it.
Sources close to the party said that Mamata Banerjee was ready to offer the Congress 50 seats, which could have been negotiated to 60 seats had Sonia Gandhi spoken to Banerjee, but Chowdhury was adamant about not tying up with the TMC.
Despite an alliance being ruled out, national leaders including Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi went soft on the TMC but hard on the BJP, in the hope for an opposition alliance in the 2024 General elections.
On many occasions, they would even skip bad-mouthing the TMC altogether and focus only on the BJP.
However, Chowdhury and Abdul Mannan went tooth and nail against the TMC in the campaign.
Studies of Chowdhury's social media posts and rally speeches show that he attacked the TMC more than he attacked the BJP in the run up to the 2021 Assembly Elections.
Mixed signals from the state and national leadership, a faulty alliance with the Left and ISF where they couldn’t figure out seat-sharing equations effectively, not only led to several local leaders jumping ship, but also alienating voters.
Data shows that the anti-TMC vote shifted from the Left front alliance to the BJP, which had a more focused ideology and game plan. On the other hand, minority votes and secular votes from both communities decisively shifted to the TMC.
The Congress won zero seats in the 2021 Assembly Elections.
No Love for Trinamool
Chowdhury doesn't share a very kind relationship with Mamata Banerjee after she had left the Congress party to form the TMC. While it might be too far-fetched to call it hate, one can settle for personal rivalry.
His over two year stint as the Congress party's leader in the Lok Sabha has been lacklustre and the TMC has often accused him of not co-ordinating enough with other Opposition parties. Parties have alleged that they would just be told when to ‘stage a walkout’.
He has also been accused of not enjoying a great relationship with his party peers on a national level too.
This has led many to speculate that making Chowdhury the leader in the Lok Sabha may not have been a wise decision for the Grand Old Party and his rise has become a hurdle in reviving the Congress' relationship with the TMC.
His supporters would even attack Congress lawyers when they represented Mamata Banerjee or any party related to her. The recent heckling of P Chidambaram outside Calcutta High Court is just one such example. Previously, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Kapil Sibal have been faced with such objections too.
Chowdhury, in his rivalry towards Mamata Banerjee has sometimes echoed the sentiments of the BJP, when attacking her.
After Mamata Banerjee was allegedly ‘attacked’ in Nandigram when she went to file her nomination, Chowdhury called the incident a ‘drama’ to gain ‘public sympathy’, like what the BJP called it too. He even went to the extent of demanding that Banerjee produce an X-Ray to prove she was injured.
The national leadership immediately distanced themselves from the comment and chose to condemn the attack.
Chowdhury and the BJP have shared similar sentiments over lawlessness in the state. Both demanded the imposition of article 355 in the state.
Chowdhury even alleged that ‘Al-Qaeda terrorists’ are crossing the border and entering Bengal, pushing a narrative that is often used by the BJP.
The leader's stance had ‘softened’ a little post the elections, which many speculated was because due to the party's national priorities as well as the change in dynamics in his own constituency.
A Change in Dynamics
Chowdhury had written a letter to then president late Somen Mitra in March 2020 recommending 15 candidates for the Kolkata (nine names) and Howrah (six names) Municipal corporation elections.
This was before the pandemic had hit India and the KMC elections were postponed indefinitely.
When Chowdhury took over from the late Somen Mitra as the PCC President, he had apparently changed the way things worked in the Bengal Congress. He finalised only five out of the nine names that he had recommended for the KMC elections.
Several leaders deserted Chowdhury’s camp due to disagreements.
They allege that Chowdhury chooses to spend most of his time previously focusing on the Lok Sabha and now in Murshidabad, and hardly ever visits the Bidhan Bhavan.
The Opposition space is presently in a flux in Bengal, with the BJP declining from its peak of 2019 and the Left showing some signs of revival. It remains to be seen whether Chowdhury and the Congress are able to set their house in order anytime soon.