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The Old vs New Fight Within TMC is Not Mamata vs Abhishek

The Bengali media is brimming with reports on verbal duels between the pro-Abhishek and pro-Mamata camps.

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During her last visit to Delhi, Mamata Banerjee was suddenly asked by a journalist if she had any plans to take a page out of Mayawati’s book and declare her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, the only member of her family who is in politics, as her successor.

The question was triggered by Mayawati formally naming her nephew, Akash Anand, son of her younger brother Anand Kumar, as her successor a week or so earlier. But it was still a timely and pertinent question considering the sharp spurt in feuding and squabbling in the Trinamool Congress between Mamata and Abhishek loyalists. And there is no denying that the factionalism is showing the party in rather poor light at a time when it should be putting its best foot forward.

Mamata coolly replied that Trinamool Congress is like a family, and when the time comes the whole family will decide on who would inherit her political mantle. I think that Mamata, unlike Mayawati, has deliberately kept the succession question “open” in order to keep her party united and curb infighting ahead of general elections which is knocking at the door.

But while Mamata may have wisely refrained from officially declaring Abhishek her political heir, he is for all intents and purpose her successor, just as Anand is now Mayawati’s. That Abhishek is only Mamata’s heir-apparent -- and not her anointed successor -- doesn’t undermine his position in any way.

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TMC is Reeling Under a Widening Schism

Son of her elder brother, Amit, Abhishek is her flesh and blood and second-in-command as the Trinamool Congress’ National General Secretary. Bloodlines are important in family centric parties whether it is the Trinamool Congress or the Bahujan Samaj Party. I would reckon that if there is anyone Mamata trusts with her life, it is Abhishek and Abhishek alone. Conspicuously enough, she is forever praising him in public to enhance his persona so that he blossoms into a leader in her mould.

No less a person than Home Minister Amit Shah, who is blessed with a tongue as sharp as his eyes and ears, has testified to Abhishek’s importance in Mamata’s scheme of things. On quite a few occasions, he has openly accused the West Bengal chief minister of running a government of Tolabaji-Tushtikaran-Bhatijakaran, or extortion, appeasement and “nephew-isation”. Shah couldn’t have paid Abhishek a better compliment or summed up the bond between the doting aunt and loyal nephew better.

So far, so good. But while Mamata and Abhishek are welded together and blindly trust each other, the Trinamool Congress is reeling under a widening schism between the old guard, who swear by 69 years old Mamata, and younger party apparatchiks who owe allegiance to Abhishek who is only 36. The Bengali print and electronic media is brimming with reports on verbal duels between the pro-Abhishek and pro-Mamata camps, muddying the political waters.

At one level, the power struggle is offering glimpses of the clash between the coteries of Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh in Uttar Pradesh. And with the internal conflict in the Trinamool Congress between loyalists of Mamata and Abhishek intensifying and at times appearing irreconcilable, some are even spying an Ajit Pawar syndrome at play in West Bengal, given the Bharatiya Janata Party’s proven record of instigating splits in dynastic political parties to finish them off. But realistically speaking, Mamata is no pushover; and equally importantly; Abhishek is not unprincipled. Hence there is no chance of a repetition of Maharashtra in West Bengal.

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Old-versus-new Narrative Becoming Increasingly Prominent

Vicious infighting marred even a solemn occasion like the foundation day of the Trinamool Congress on January 1 with state president Subrata Bakshi, known for his closeness to Mamata, cocking a snook at Abhishek. At a ceremony to mark the day the Trinamool Congress was born in 1998, Bakshi said: “Abhishek Banerjee is our all-India general secretary. Naturally, if he fights in the coming elections, Mamata Banerjee will be in the forefront, and surely he will not retreat from the battlefield”. Speaking at another function, Sudip Bandopadhyay, who is firmly in the Mamata camp like Subrata, declared that the Trinamool Congress can’t exist without Mamata.

The remarks triggered a sharp response from Kunal Ghosh, the Trinamool Congress spokesperson who is the face of Abhishek’s lobby and takes on veterans critical of Abhishek. Kunal said: “Subrata Bakshi is basically tarnishing the image of Abhishek Banerjee with his loose talk. This is not good for the party. Why is he airing doubts about Abhishek’s participation in the elections? I object to the construction of his sentences.” He also hit back at Sudip, reminding him of the Abhishek-led agitation in Delhi against the Centre for realising West Bengal’s pending dues.

Kunal had earlier raised a storm by publicly asking why Abhishek’s photograph was not displayed at a party meeting in the Netaji Indoor Stadium which Mamata addressed.

Kunal argued: “It is not about Mamata Banerjee versus Abhishek Banerjee as they are a team. The party needs both of them and their contributions are essential. However, I feel any major Trinamool Congress programme can’t be held without Abhishek Banerjee. As he could not attend the meeting due to his health, his photo should have been put on display. The stage was incomplete without the presence of Abhishek Banerjee or his photograph. He has sacrificed a lot for the party and elevated himself to a position where he cannot be ignored anymore. He is essential for the party.”

Sougata Roy, the 76 year old Trinamool MP, staunchly aligned with Mamata, lost no time in taking on Kunal for demanding that Abhishek’s photograph should have been displayed at the party meeting. Returning Kunal’s fire, the party veteran said: “Mamata Banerjee has the last word in the party. Abhishek Banerjee is also our leader and he is popular among the young generation. However, it is not necessary that Abhishek Banerjee’s photograph be there in every Trinamool Congress programme. Mamata Banerjee’s photograph was there and that is enough.”

Mamata turned 69 on 5 January and Narendra Modi, who is 73, wished her a happy birthday setting aside their political differences. The PM and CM are firmly in the saddle regardless of their age. But the old-versus-new debate is turning serious and murkier in Mamata country. No sooner Lok Sabha elections are announced, there are bound to be demands for an age cap on Trinamool Congress nominations. Out of 23 Trinamool Congress MPs, 10 are over 65 – and among them five are more than 75. As Abhishek is openly speaking in favour of a retirement age for politicians, come nomination time, a good many Mamata loyalists are likely to feel the heat fueling disunity in the second largest opposition party ahead of do-or-die general elections.

(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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