Why Mamata’s silence is bad for her heir apparent Abhishek’s image
Mamata is perfectly entitled to legitimise her nephew’s special place in TMC. But she should also deal with the accusations levelled against him. This will probably do Abhishek a world of good
The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo has Mamata Banerjee and her nephew cum heir-apparent, Abhishek Banerjee, in its gunsights. But the Trinamool Congress has decided to push 33-year-old Abhishek to the centre stage to fight alongside Mamata as she leads the charge in the do-or-die electoral battle. Mamata is the General and Abhishek is the chosen second-in-command.
The Trinamool strategy is evident from two developments even as the BJP intensifies its attack on the Banerjees before the West Bengal elections.
Firstly, Trinamool has coined a new slogan -- Bangla nijer meyekei chay (Bengal wants its own daughter and nobody else) – making her the focal point of the contest with the BJP headed by non-Bengalis. The BJP doesn’t even have a chief ministerial candidate giving Mamata a big psychological advantage.
The Trinamool fought the 2011 and 2016 assembly polls without a specific slogan. But this time Mamata is projecting herself as a Bengali woman taking on hordes of non-Bengali males from outside the state to arouse sisterly sentiments and chivalry in the electorate.
Secondly, Mamata acknowledged Abhishek as her deputy commander and applauded his political upbringing and commitment to her since childhood. Addressing a rally, she revealed that he was only three in 1990 when CPI(M) workers attacked her at the Hazra crossing and she returned home with her head and hands bandaged. Mamata was in the Congress Party in those days. The murderous assault in broad daylight catapulted Didi to national stardom as a victim of communist repression.
Mamata narrated that the toddler holding a Congress flag would march alone in the house shouting: Didi k marley kyano, jobab dao (Why did you beat up Didi, answer). Like everyone else, the child called Mamata didi although she is his aunt; Abhishek is Mamata’s brother’s son. She disclosed how she had offered him a Rajya Sabha seat but he insisted on entering Parliament as an elected representative of the people. And true enough, he won the Diamond Harbour Lok Sabha seat by a huge margin in 2019.
Mamata is perfectly entitled to legitimise the debutante MP’s special place in Trinamool with the help of anecdotes which do have a ring of truth. She also has the right to appoint him as her deputy commander in the poll battle ahead, especially as he is the anointed successor to the throne. There is nothing wrong about her affection or dependence on her nephew she has groomed in politics to take over from her.
But probity demands that while extolling Abhishek, Mamata should have also dealt with the accusations levelled against him and answered the specific charges he faces. The charges are of course unsubstantiated and may be motivated but they are very serious. In politics, perceptions often matter more than facts.
That’s why it’s important to clear the air and meticulously remove doubts and suspicions. And in Abhishek’s case, the best person to do that is Mamata. Her clarification and explanation will carry a lot of weight and probably do Abhishek a world of good.
On February 23, CBI questioned Rujira Banerjee, Abhishek’s wife, to probe her bank transactions for alleged links to a mega coal-theft racket unearthed in November 2020. The previous day, the CBI examined Rujira’s sister, Menaka Gambhir. Questioning Rujira, albeit in the house she and Abhishek live in close to Mamata’s, means that the CBI virtually came knocking on the CM’s doors. This is an unprecedented, ominous development as no central agency had ventured so far before. After Rujira, it could well be Abhishek’s turn.
Suvendu Adhikari, the Trinamool MP who defected to the BJP, has publicly called Abhishek ‘tolabaz’, or an extortionist running protection rackets – and Abhishek immediately sued him.
Earlier, Amit Shah, had accused Abhishek of pocketing central funds and money-laundering – and Abhishek promptly filed a defamation case against the Home Minister. In fact, Rujira’s questioning by the CBI coincided with a hearing of the defamation case. Abhishek’s aide and Trinamool leader, Vinay Mishra, is wanted by the CBI in a case of cattle smuggling at the India-Bangladesh border in which BSF personnel have been arrested.
In 2019, Rujira had an altercation with Customs officials at Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport over gold ornaments and had to be rescued by West Bengal police. Abhishek has dared Customs to reveal CCTV footage to substantiate his wife’s “crime” but the fate of the case remains a mystery. Rujira’s PIO/OCI card too – she is from Thailand -- is enmeshed in controversy.
Mamata owes voters an explanation for all the “crimes” Abhishek is accused of, although the police or courts have not proceeded against him. He is innocent in the eyes of the law but his reputation has been badly tarnished by serious charges ranging from extortion to money laundering.
Mamata needs to first satisfy herself and then assure voters that her second-in-command is clean and a man of integrity – unlike several Trinamool MPs, ministers and leaders who have been imprisoned on corruption charges in various scams – especially chit fund cases -- or caught on camera accepting bribes. Mamata must certify that Abhishek and his wife are not tainted and the scandals they are enmeshed in are fabricated.
Many politicians have faced problems because of their progeny. Marxist CM Jyoti Basu sportingly fielded questions about his capitalist son – Chandan. He took no umbrage or berate reporters. Morarji Desai was hugely embarrassed by his son Kanti. Mamata has raked the “exponential increase” in the wealth of Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah, during BJP rule.
Hence, she must refute the charges against Abhishek. Her silence can be construed by voters as tacit admission of her nephew’s guilt and wrong-doing, undoing the excellent work she has done for two terms. For Mamata, the way forward is to hold a press conference where journalists can grill her about Abhishek to their heart’s content.
(The author is an award-winning investigative journalist and commentator. Views are personal)