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With Adhir at the Helm, Congress Hopes to Ride Pillion to Position of Power in 2021 Bengal Polls

Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury  (PTI/File photo)

Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury (PTI/File photo)

For Adhir though, who is known as a strong critic of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, it seems to be a Hobson’s choice because any substantial increase in the Congress vote share, considering its alliance with the Left Front, would mean a gain for the state's ruling Trinamool Congress and worries for the BJP.

Gasping heavily, a 64-year-old pillion rider jumped off a motorcycle, stumbled, and screamed, “Dhor, oke dhor, booth capture korche (catch him, he was capturing a polling booth).”

His pen fell down while the lanyard struggled to hold his pair of glasses safe while swinging around his neck.

After a brief chase with minor injuries on his knees and elbows, the man managed to get hold of the youth, and after a heated argument he was handed over to the paramilitary jawans. Then, the youth in a fit of rage showed his trigger finger to the man while being dragged inside a police van .

“You came here to capture the booths and now you are threatening me,” the man shouted.

This happened around 8.40 am on April 29, 2019, and the place was Krishnath College (some of its great alumni are freedom fighter Master da Surya Sen, the youngest headmaster in the world at the age of sixteen Babar Ali, filmmaker and scriptwriter Ritwik Ghatak) in Berhampore in the Murshidabad district when the Congress was struggling to withstand the ‘Modi wave’ across the country around the Lok Sabha polls.

While the BJP smeared most part of India’s political map with saffron, this sexagenarian came as a big relief for Congress chief Sonia Gandhi as he once again proved that he was the real ‘nawab’ of Murshidabad after retaining the Berhampore seat in the parliamentary polls by defeating Trinamool Congress candidate Apurba Sarkar with more than 80,000 votes.

Meet Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who not only retained his Lok Sabha seat, but his political prowess was also noticed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who complimented him as a ‘fighter’ with a pat on his back in Parliament.

His hard work paid off and in June 2019 the Congress sprung a surprise by announcing Adhir as its Lok Sabha party leader. He became the first Member of Parliament from Bengal to hold the post with Congress in the opposition benches.

Adhir had earlier served as president of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee between February 2014 and September 2018. In Parliament, besides being leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, he is also the chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

From October 2012 to May 2014, he served as minister of state for railways under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

On September 9, 2020, the Congress central leadership (after the sudden demise of Somendra Nath Mitra on July 30, 2020) sprung another surprise and appointed Adhir as its West Bengal unit president.

While he was already carrying the responsibility of Lok Sabha party leader, appointing Adhir the chief of the party’s Bengal unit is being seen by many as a good move from Sonia Gandhi to strengthen the party ahead of the assembly polls in 2021.

But for Adhir, who is known as a strong critic of Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, it seems to be a Hobson’s choice because any substantial increase in Congress vote share, considering its alliance with the Left Front, would mean a gain for the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress and worries for the saffron brigade.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the TMC got 43 per cent votes (despite losing 12 seats) which is 5 per cent more than what it netted in the 2014 edition. In 2014, the TMC got 34 seats, while in 2019 it managed only 22. But, despite losing 12 seats, the TMC’s vote share has increased, mainly because of the polarisation of Muslim votes.

The Congress’s tally came down from four to two, while the Left Front failed to open its account in 2019.

In the 2016 assembly polls, the BJP’s vote share was 10.2 per cent and in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections it went up to 40.3 per cent. There was an increase of 30.1 per cent mainly because the Left and Congress votes gravitated towards the BJP.

A close analysis reveals that from the 2011 assembly polls to the 2016 assembly polls and from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to the 2019 ones, the Congress has lost nearly 7.3 per cent of its vote share, while the CPI (M) lost its vote share by 9.88 per cent (approx) in state polls and 16 per cent in Lok Sabha.

However, the Congress vote share from the 2011 to the 2016 assembly elections went up from 8.91 per cent to 12.3 per cent, but it fell drastically in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls (9.6 per cent) and in the 2019 general elections the party managed to secure only 5 per cent of the votes.
On June 24, 2020, with assembly polls in Bengal less than a year away, Left and Congress leaders met again (after a failed alliance bid in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections) and decided to work together at the booth level and unanimously agreed on an alliance for the 2021 assembly elections.

With a strong anti-Mamata stand, Adhir has always favoured a tie-up with the CPI(M): the party did not field any candidate against him in Berhampore in last year’s Lok Sabha polls. But for Sonia Gandhi, the larger game plan is to fight against the BJP and not Mamata.

Mamata-Sonia’s bonhomie was evident in a virtual meeting on August 26, 2020, when the UPA chairperson asked the TMC chief to take the lead during the discussion on various issues related to the states and the Centre.

This is not for the first time when Sonia supported Mamata while taking a larger political leadership position against the BJP. In January 2019, during a ‘Mahagathbandhan’ rally in Kolkata’s iconic Brigade Parade ground, Sonia sent a message, which read, “The upcoming Lok Sabha election will not be an ordinary one. This will be an election to restore the nation’s faith in democracy, defend our secular ethos and our heritage and defeat forces that are trying to sabotage the constitution of India. This rally marks an important attempt to galvanise leaders across the political spectrum to fight the arrogant and divisive Modi government. I wish this rally all the success.”

Time and again, Adhir preferred not to comment on Mamata-Sonia’s relationship, but his appointment as Bengal Congress chief may go in favour of Mamata because the BJP’s 30.1 per cent vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls mainly happened due to the shifting of the Left-Congress (they were not in alliance at the time) votes towards the saffron party as the TMC witnessed a gain of 5 per cent vote share despite losing 12 seats.

Now when the Congress and Left are going to contest the assembly polls together, their vote percentage is certainly going to increase in the upcoming three-cornered fight between the TMC, BJP and Left-Congress combine.

While sharing more about his plans for Bengal, Adhir Chowdhury said, “My priority is to convert our ‘rajnitik’ (political) alliance with the Left into a ‘nirbachoni’ (electoral) alliance for maximum gains in the coming assembly polls. My target will be to bring back those who left the Congress and joined the TMC and BJP. I would like to assure them that they will get full respect in the party.”

On becoming the party president in Bengal, he said, “I have to concentrate more on Bengal. Under such circumstances, the expectation is not much but certainly our vote share is going to increase this time. We will go for more campaigns and public outreach. Last but not the least, after forging an alliance with the Left our target will be the convergence of all the secular and liberal forces to fight the ruling party as well as BJP in Bengal.”

When asked if he doesn’t think that someone else should have been appointed Bengal party unit chief, considering the work pressure as Lok Sabha party leader, Chowdhury said, “I am an obedient worker of the Congress party and I will continue to respect the command of the party chief. They want me to head the state unit and I agreed and took the challenge.”

Though winning the Bengal election in 2021 is a distant dream, the Congress central leadership is aware that presently it’s only Adhir Chowdhury who can steer the party towards a respectable and noticeable position.

Under his leadership, the party managed to win 44 seats (out of 294) in the 2016 assembly polls and became the key opposition in the state. The Left Front combined won 32 seats.

Considering the alliance factor for the upcoming state polls, the total seats won by the Congress and Left Front combined in 2016 was 76, while the BJP won only three seats. And, if the Congress-Left Front alliance manages to retain its seats, then it is certainly going to be a matter of grave concern for the BJP despite its good show in the 2019 general elections.