No one in Kolkata was ready to speak about Abhishek Banerjee. Yet, it is impossible not to ask about him. The long, killing summer of the 2016 West Bengal election marked the assertion of what is arguably the most unusual political dynasty in India. In the roster of campaign appearances, Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and Lok Sabha MP, was second only to his aunt. This was evident from the photographs put out by the All India Trinamool Congress on Twitter.
The 28-year-old politician criss-crossed the state for campaign rallies, though he isn’t a particularly effective speaker, underlining what the media has been saying for the past year or so. Abhishek is now visibly Number Two in the party, over the more seasoned, well-known Trinamool leaders such as Mukul Roy and Saugata Roy – both of whom have been ministers at the Centre under the United Progressive Alliance.
Derek O’Brien, Rajya Sabha MP and national spokesperson of the Trinamool Congress, is believed to be Abhishek's mentor. He agreed to speak with Scroll about the young MP. “I will call you," he wrote in a text message. In spite of regular text reminders, that call is still awaited. Emails sent to the media account of the Trinamool went unanswered over six weeks.
Subrata Mukherjee, a senior Trinamool hand and Cabinet minister in West Bengal responded promptly to a text message: “I don’t know very much about him but let me think how can I help you.” He kept his thoughts to himself thereafter.
You would expect, however, the principal opposition party to deliver the goods on a controversial political rival. But the Communist Party of India (Marxist) chose to deflect the subject with bluster. “I don’t want to speak about Abhishek Banerjee,” said CMP MP Mohammed Salim coldly. “Why don’t you work on a better story?”
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which had once filed a hate speech case by Abhishek and regularly addressed press conferences on his allegedly shady business dealings, is now similarly blasé. “Who Abhishek?” said Pratap Banerjee, general secretary of the BJP, West Bengal, and the room tittered.
A rapid ascent
This cultivated nonchalance speaks of the fear Abhishek evokes both within and outside his party. Over the course of the past two years, he has steadily made his way into Trinamool’s top decision-making positions. In 2014, soon after he was elected to the Lok Sabha, Abhishek was inducted into the party’s state committee – which was until then, essentially a club of senior party leaders.
Another pointer to his rising stock comes from the senior journalist Coomi Kapoor’s column in The Indian Express, which is perhaps the most important map of Delhi’s political equations. On November 15, 2015, Kapoor wrote of an upcoming Parliamentarians’ trip to the United Nations in New York – a standard but coveted perk. Abhishek Banerjee was one of the few non-BJP MPs selected for the trip, and perhaps the youngest in the whole cohort. His non-BJP contemporaries included four-time Biju Janata Dal MP Bhartuhari Mahtab, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s brother Ramgopal Yadav, among others. His selection for this sought-after, all-expense-paid tour to New York is a certain sign of his clout in the Trinamool.
Abhishek’s ascent has been swift, especially in the wake of the charges against the Trinamool in the Saradha scam as a result of which Mamata has distanced herself from her lieutenants, most notably Mukul Roy. If she wins now, Abhishek will likely become the main leader in the party, say Bengali and English language journalists covering the Trinamool. Not in the government, they clarify, but he is expected to be the organisational boss of the party. A win in this assembly election would mean that whatever Abhishek has done since late 2014 is working.
A dynasty takes shape
The first we heard of Abhishek was in the campaign for the 2011 West Bengal Assembly election where he played a cameo. In a photograph that circulated quite a bit at the time, O’Brien and Abhishek are sitting with Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia. Banerjee was said to have been instrumental in roping in Bhatia to design the Trinamool’s publicity campaign online in the course of their historic victory in the 2011 Assembly election. That year, Abhishek had been appointed head of the party’s cyber chief and is generally believed to take an active interest in the party’s online presence even now. He seems to be doing a good job of it – Trinamool has a smart Twitter and Facebook presence, and a well-archived Youtube channel. The party is genuinely inclusive with greetings on festivals and anniversaries – from Chhath Puja (the city has a sizeable Bihari population) to Nazrul Jayanti (in memory of the Bangaldeshi poet Nazrul Islam) to the Santhal commemoration of Hool Diwas, aside from Bengali celebrations.
Before 2011, say Calcutta journalists, no one was aware Abhishek had political ambitions. He had not, for instance, participated in the Nandigram or Singur agitations in the way that KT Rama Rao and K Kavitha, the children of Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao, had joined the Telangana movement almost ten years before the state came into existence.
The CPM's Mohammed Salim told The Indian Express that Abhishek’s installation was unprecedented in West Bengal politics. “The day Mamata Banerjee introduced him at a Brigade Parade Ground rally before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, West Bengal was witness to a new culture of dynastic politics,” he said. “This was not seen even during the freedom struggle in Bengal.”
Few expected the firebrand leader to promote her family. “Mamata used to say that she has no family except her mother,” says an influential Bengali journalist. “And we believed her, she wasn’t close to her brothers. There was a time when she used to live in Trinamool Bhavan."
Abhishek is the son of Mamata’s brother Amit Banerjee. His parents own a hardware store on Harish Chatterjee Street, the street where Mamata grew up and lives. With six brothers and a sister, Mamata has other nephews and nieces. One of them, Akash Banerjee, was arrested in 2012 (on the chief minister’s orders) for slapping a policeman. But she is said to be very fond of Abhishek. When his daughter was born, Mamata is believed to have said that her mother had returned.
The former Trinamool MLA Dipak Kumar Ghosh suggests a possible reason for Mamata's affection for Abhishek in his book Mamata Bandopadhyay ke Jemon Dekhechhilam (Mamata Bandopadhyay As I Knew Her). Ghosh is a sprightly octogenarian, a former bureaucrat and a man devoted to government documents. In his home in new Garia locality of South Kolkata, he sits surrounded by files full of photocopied papers and RTI applications and responses. He has published two slim books on Mamata. He is the one person who agreed to speak about Abhishek.
Ghosh has published what he claims are details of Mamata’s campaign expenditure for the 2009 Lok Sabha election, on the basis of her submission to the Election Commission. (Scroll did not independently verify this.) She was reportedly given Rs 7.5 lakh by the Trinamool, Rs 5.5 lakh by her brother Amit, Rs 5 lakh by Amit’s wife Lata and Rs 10,000 by another brother Ajit. Thus, Rs 10.5 lakh of the total sum of Rs 18.1 lakh came from Abhishek’s parents.
On July 21, 2011, two months after she became chief minister, Mamata gave Abhishek a terrific launch at the Brigade Parade Grounds and established a new organisation for him called Trinamool Yuva. The Trinamool already had a youth unit headed by Suvendu Adhikari, one of the leaders of the anti-Nandigram agitation, who is believed to have drawn Mamata Banerjee into the protest. The move was seen as a two-in-one: it put Abhishek on an established career track for young dynasts (one of Rahul Gandhi’s first assignments was taking charge of the Youth Congress) and second, it slighted Adhikari, widely rated the only Trinamool leader who can win without claiming affiliation to the Mamata Banerjee brand.
In 2014, Abhishek became at 26 one of the youngest MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha, and one of the 130 MPs in the House from political families. And the scion of the first political dynasty from Bengal.
A figure of controversy
If you search for Abhishek on Google, the first or second result is a video of him being slapped. In January 2015, Abhishek was speaking at a rally in East Midnapore district when a man suddenly materialized in front of him. He whacked him on the face before he was caught by Trinamool members and beaten. Abhishek was sharply criticised for standing by and not stopping his party workers from thrashing the man.
Despite his reticence, a series of controversies has kept him in the news cycle. In June 2015, Abhishek was filmed at a rally making a violent threat directed at those who do not support the Trinamool: “Those who dare to show their eyes, we will tear it out and throw it on the streets. If someone shows us their hands we will cut them off.” In the aftermath of the outrage over the incident, he was defiant. “If needed, I may go to jail too,” he said.
But the most serious charges against Abhishek concern his business ventures. In April 2013, soon after the Saradha chit fund scam was busted, CPM leader Gautam Deb accused Abhishek Banerjee of running a chit fund company at a rally. A couple of days later, he followed up with a press conference where he named Abhishek’s company Leaps and Bounds whose website mentioned interests in microfinance and insurance. These, Deb alleged, are code for chit funds. The website of the company no longer mentions these today, nor does it carry Abhishek’s name as chairman and managing director. However, the address given for the firm is 29C Harish Chatterjee Street, next door it would seem to Abhishek’s 30B Harish Chatterjee Street residence as listed in his Lok Sabha nomination.
Former Trinamool MLA Ghosh further pointed that in the 2014 nomination, the then 26-year-old had declared an annual income of more than Rs 44 lakh earned as a consultant, and his wife an annual income of over Rs 29 lakh. His highest educational qualification is an MBA from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, which shuttered all its campuses in October 2015. “What kind of MBA would earn Rs 44 lakh from consultancy at 26 years of age?" Ghosh asked.
In another chapter of Mamata Bandopadhyay as I Knew Her, Ghosh contends that all the blue and white paint that Calcutta is being coloured in comes from the store owned by Abhishek's parents. A block-level leader of the BJP who lives near Harish Chatterjee Street, made the same allegation, but did not wish to be named.
Arrogant young man
For a political heir, Abhishek has not bothered to abide by the austerity of his pishi (paternal aunt). In February 2012, he married his fiancé Jasmeet Ahuja in Delhi. The reception was held at a five-star hotel and the invitation card came with a box of Swiss chocolates. Mamata was reported to have not attended the event, which was reportedly organized by the bride’s family.
The one respect in which Abhishek clearly models himself on Mamata is his public speaking. He has a dramatic, theatrical style of delivery like her and copies her blunt, often cheesy, invective. Unlike her, however, he sounds rehearsed and unconvincing. A copy of the original.
But the most striking aspect of Abhishek's peronality, say journalists, is his high-handedness. A political reporter with Bartaman, the second-largest Bengali daily, said that he can tell when Abhishek is visiting Trinamool Bhavan by the body language of party officials.
“When everybody is jumpy and no one is smiling, it means Abhishek is on his way," said the reporter, who requested anonymity. "You should see how they queue up on either side of the gate to receive his car. The door opens, and as one leg steps out, it is like a Hindi film when the heroine’s leg is glimpsed. A charge seems to run through the gathered people. They look stricken.”
This perhaps marks the biggest poriborton in the political culture of Bengal.