Some of us may consider Rahul Gandhi to be an endearing PLU, with his heart in the right place, but even after seven years, he remains a political pappu. It doesn’t matter who mocked him first – AAP or Asaram or Amit Shah – he just can’t shrug off that derisive name tag for reasons we are all well aware of.
In Bengal’s electoral battleground this summer, Bhaipo (Bengali for brother’s son) was to be the new “pappu” – a buzzword unleashed by the saffron spin doctors to vilify Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek. She was their prime target. He became the convenient proxy.
With bombastic dramaturgy, the BJP campaign’s double engine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his compadre, home minister Amit Shah, carried out a personal, pejorative and provocative campaign to relentlessly brand the 33-year old a dubious, dishonest, despotic dynast. With alleged links to the sand mafia, cow smuggling, terror politics and extortions (tolabaaji), Abhishek, the flamboyant princeling with a weakness for SUVs and soccer, became the metaphor of all that has been rotten with the 10 years of Trinamool rule.
This privileged brat who “took the elevator” instead of the stairs unlike the rest of the foot soldiers was also blamed to be the conniving mastermind elbowing out mass leaders like Suvendu Adhikari, Sovon Chatterjee and even Mukul Roy, Mamata’s trusted number 2, from the party. Ironically, it is said, Roy himself had advised his leader in 2011 to float a new Yuva wing under a 20-something Abhishek to flatten the rising graph of Adhikari, only to get devoured by his rapacious protégé in subsequent years.
Soon after, we learnt Abhishek had “suffocated” veterans like Dinesh Trivedi with his imperious and insolent interferences and even tried to hijack the senior’s social media passwords!
In the early days of this election season, several party old-timers equally felt that Abhishek, a “know-all MBA graduate”, was unnecessarily “corporatizing” the party’s soul, robbing it of its original austere grassroots appeal and spontaneity.
But Mamata Banerjee’s spectacular hattrick this weekend is proof that the constant taunts and barbs directed at Abhishek simply boomeranged on the BJP. Bengal has comprehensively rejected its macho Hindutva and double engine growth that were to usher ashol paribarton. A known beast, in the end, became preferable than an unknown friend, whose own performance and governance records increasingly came under the spotlight as Covid raised its virulent head midway through the campaign.
In fact, BJP’s tirade turned out to a blessing for Banerjee Junior. The viciousness of the Central government’s attack, their endless maligning only made him the popular leader he always aspired to be. Braving the maelstrom of the Enforcement Directorate, CBI and such other Central investigative agencies that even targeted his family, the young MP ended up further cementing his position within the party. It is no longer unsaid. Abhishek Banerjee HAS emerged as the de facto and de jure deputy.
BOY WHO WILL BE KING
As the MP from Diamond Harbour, Abhishek Banerjee had personally supervised the South 24 Parganas constituencies. He campaigned tirelessly, and kept a razor-sharp focus on booth and cadre management as well as party organisation. On campaign trail, he was left to politically fend for himself as Mamata refrained from shielding him beyond a point. Yet, seldom was he scornful. Predominantly issue-based, subtle and sensible, at times even self-deprecating, Abhishek’s tutored strategy kept him away from further controversies. After Mamata, he was in fact the most visible campaigner for the party and its second most popular.
Sunday’s results further fortified that. TMC has swept 29 of 31 seats in South 24 Parganas, where they were expected to perform poorly, following allegations of rampant corruption during the post-Amphan relief work. In fact, they have marginally improved their tally from 2016. Abhishek was also responsible for the Jhargram district, where the BJP had made inroads in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Two years later, it has been wiped clean: TMC has won all four, a repeat from the last assembly elections.
If pure arithmetic is the barometer of electoral success, by reclaiming lost grounds and comprehensively holding on to its base, the setback during the last national elections – the drubbing in Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore districts, where Abhishek was in charge – looks like a momentary mishap. Those who were believed to have punished Abhishek then for the mass violence and rigging in the 2018 Panchayat polls when the TMC won close to 34 per cent seats unopposed, seem to have forgotten and forgiven.
It can be argued that roping in Prashant Kishor and his Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC) has helped Abhishek control his personal narrative and that of the party. Through several outreach measures both offline and online, Trinamool had successfully projected easier accessibility and a humane touch that went hand in hand with the myriad social schemes for the poor and the disenfranchised.
To be honest, at times it does feel too good to be real. Cynical views abound – such as, dole politics targeted to pacify vote banks, or pre-poll optics to sedate any simmering discontent. You may recall, this was the same nephew, though far healthier then, who had toured the impoverished tea gardens of North Bengal in the summer of 2106, and spoke at length about ‘janata’ (people), ‘khamata’ (power) and ‘mamata’ (compassion, or his aunt) to a bunch of hungry workers without alluding to the crippling poverty or starvation. That too was just before an assembly election, five years back.
We don’t know if it was Kishor or the Shah-Modi blitz or a combination that has accelerated Abhishek’s maturity. Never before has Bengal seen such high-decibel campaign involving so many VVIPs and celebrities. Whatever be the reason, for now, Abhishek, the star strategist, has managed to win over voters with his selfless image. In that context, his recent statement during a TV interview becomes politically very significant. More so when predictably, there is growing speculation that Mamata will further elevate her nephew in her party, possibly even crown him as the deputy Chief Minister of West Bengal while she sets her eyes on New Delhi’s Raisina Hill.
Abhishek, in that interview, categorically ruled out joining his aunt’s cabinet either as a minister or as her deputy. He would rather focus on strengthening the party organisation across districts to combat the divisive opposition forces that have besieged the state, he said.
It’s a job half done. Armed with IPAC’s data analytics, Abhishek has already swapped most of the seasoned hands from district supervisory roles with his cherry picked young motley. Before the polls, there were close to 25 new spokespersons, a 7-member steering committee, a 21-member state coordination committee and two dozen secretaries, with Abhishek as their fulcrum. Mamata’s silence to such sweeping reorganisation or her token statements on the young and the old happily coexisting and collaborating, seems perfunctory at best.
What all this will lead to is anybody’s guess. For now, he has flourished under the looming presence of his street fighter aunt who still is as fiery and as gutsy as ever before. 2021 is an overwhelming mandate for Mamata Banerjee, not Abhishek. Didi remains the messiah for many, the glue that binds her flock. It is premature to second guess if Abhishek, on his own, will be able to keep the party as a cohesive force.
But he is not leaving the battlefield. And more worryingly for the BJP, the bhaipo has become difficult to dodge. This pappu can actually win, saala.
(Views are personal)