Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury's appointment as leader of Congress in Lok Sabha is sign of things to come

Plaban Gupta
The anointment of Chowdhury is an indication on how the Gandhis may choose a person to lead the Congress, in case a sulking Rahul Gandhi refuses to take up the mantle again.

"Jab Mullah ko Masjid mein Ram nazar aayein, jab pujari ko Mandir mein Rehman nazar aayein, duniya ki surat badal jayegi jab insaan ko insaan mein insaan nazar aaye. (When the mullah will see Ram in a mosque; when the pujari will see Rehman in a temple; the nature of the world will change, when humans will see humans in others.)" €" With these words, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the five-time MP from Baharampur, West Bengal, delineated and demarcated the secular line of the Congress party and set the stage for himself as the leader of the principal Opposition party in the 17th Lok Sabha On Wednesday.

Chowdhury was chosen ahead of party stalwarts like Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari who are more sophisticated and at ease with Lutyens' Delhi's inner coterie. Chowdhury, in his own words, was stunned when he was given the baton to lead the charge for the grand old party against none other than an almost-invincible Narendra Modi.

Reacting to the development, political analyst Moidul Islam said, "By appointing Chowdhury to the post, the party leadership has sent out a strong message that it is looking beyond the dynasts and members of the Lutyens' elite to lead the party. He is a rustic person with an organisational capability that is likely to work for the Congress in an era dominated by Modi, in which 'kaamdars' are increasingly getting important positions."

Even before Chowdhury was appointed as the leader of the Congress in the Lower House, eyebrows were raised in political circles of Delhi and within the Congress itself when he was chosen along with a few others to represent the party for a crucial all-party meet held ahead of the beginning of the current Lok Sabha's term. Veteran leaders and former Union ministers were astonished when Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally called Chowdhury after the meeting, patted him on his back and referred to him as a fighter in front of Anand Sharma and Ghulam Nabi Azad. But for Chowdhury, more surprise was in store when he was handed the difficult task of representing the Congress by none other than Sonia Gandhi, after Rahul Gandhi refused to bite the bullet.

Despite being known as the only Congress strongman in east and North East India after Himanta Biswa Sarma, Chowdhury's influence had remained confined to the state of Bengal, or more precisely, in the Murshidabad district. In fact, the biggest testimony to his hold over the district lies in the fact that when former president Pranab Mukherjee was uneasy at the prospect of fighting polls and was looking for a safe seat to make it to the Lower House, it was Chowdhury who voluntarily took it upon himself to ensure that the Congress stalwart won from Jangipur in 2004; a feat which he repeated in 2009. It earned him a semblance of respect in Congress circles. During an informal gathering of the party's Delhi unit some time after the polls, Ajay Maken had introduced Chowdhury to fellow Congress members as the "dada who ensured Pranab Mukherjee's victory." However, Chowdhury was never among leaders who ran the show at 10, Akbar Road. In fact, the highest position that the "tiger of Bengal" has occupied till date has been that of a junior minister for railways between 2012 and 2014.

Born into a Bengali family which had its roots in Chittagong, modern-day Bangladesh, Chowdhury's first brush with politics started in the 1970s, when Bengal was burning under the scourge of Naxalism. Ironically, Chowdhury's initial association with politics started with the Left Front, where he was perceived to be close to the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a junior partner in the CPM-led front. In those days, Tridib Chaudhuri, who had won for seven consecutive times from Baharampur on an RSP ticket, took a liking for him. However, despite dabbling in Left politics for a while, Chowdhury couldn't manage to cut his teeth into state politics and remained a marginal player.

The 1980s was a time when local clubs wielded unaccounted political power in the semi-urban areas of West Bengal. The ruling Left Front used these clubs to spread its influence, besides using them as the eyes and ears of the government. These clubs played a crucial role in acting as a bridge between the leaders, parties and the electorate through several programmes like blood donation camps, blanket distribution, relief during floods and other natural calamities. Chowdhury was always at the forefront of these initiatives, which helped him earn and cultivate a positive image among the people. "There's not a single person in Murshidabad district, who has not benefited, or does not have a relative who benefited, from Chowdhury's work," asserted Niloy Pramanik, a close aide to the Congress leader. Several others, both from the Congress and outside the party, attest to Pramanik's statement.

The year 1990 marked a turning point in Chowdhury's career, as he joined the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi's guidance. Soon he was seeing leading the charge against the CPM. A year later, Chowdhury was chased by about 300 CPM supporters/workers into a booth in Nabagram, from where he was contesting. Though he lost by a small margin, Chowdhury did not cower before the might of the CPM's party machinery. Rather, he built a strong grassroots organisation starting from the booth level, which was able to counter the CPM. The Left Front government retaliated by filing cases against him. Despite being in jail, Chowdhury won the Nabagram seat in 1996 with more than 20,000 votes.

But in the run-up to the same Assembly polls, an irate Mamata Banerjee, who was then with the Congress, had threatened to commit suicide in protest against the nominations of four Congress candidates. She had cited the candidates' "anti-social background" and "criminal past", and Chowdhury was one of them. Party leaders from both the TMC and Congress believe that the incident had created a chasm between the two leaders that is still festering.

Somen Mitra, the Pradesh Congress Committee chief who had stood his ground against Banerjee at that time, said, "Today, I feel proud when I see Chowdhury as the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha. My decision to nominate him from Nabagram has been vindicated."

Mitra said that what sets Chowdhury apart is his self-confidence and feisty nature.

There was no looking back after the 1996 election. In 1999, the Congress strongman wrested the Baharampur (then referred to as Berhampore) Lok Sabha seat from the RSP €" a feat that was achieved for the first time since Independence. Since then, voters of Baharampur have always reposed their faith in Chowdhury. Soon afterwards, he was made the district president of the Congress. The party subsequently won the panchayat polls in 2003, amidst violence in which 45 people died. After the exit of Banerjee from the Congress, Chowdhury was the only high-profile street fighter to take on the Left's high-handedness.

Although he had assiduously built up a strong organisation in the district, it could not be replicated in other districts. Due to this, the Congress failed to mount any challenge to the Left €" something which Chowdhury often expressed regret for. In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress won six Lok Sabha seats, while the TMC won only one. Despite this, the Opposition space was left vacant for Mamata Banerjee, as the Left offered crucial support to the UPA-I government at the Centre. Later, Banerjee, through her agitations at Singur and Nandigram, consolidated her position as the face of anti-Left politics in the state. The state Congress was hamstrung due to political exigencies of the time, which prevented the Congress satrap from Murshidabad from emerging as an alternative. Even in 2011, when the TMC tied up with the Congress to oust the Left, a disgruntled Chowdhury was accused of putting up Independent candidates against the alliance in his pockets of influence.

However, Chowdhury's reign as the state party president from 2014 to October 2018 had been somewhat lacklustre. Faced with an increasingly aggressive TMC, which used every trick in the book to lure Congress MLAs, leaders and supporters, the party under Chowdhury had its back against the wall. Suvendu Adhikari, a state minister and a TMC strongman, was personally briefed by Banerjee to eat into Chowdhury's vote bank. The TMC managed to woo Apurba Sarkar, once his close aide, to take on him. Though Chowdhury managed to win against Sarkar, his margin declined considerably from 2.5 lakh-odd votes to 80,000 votes.

Unlike Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee or even Jagan Reddy, Chowdhury has never emerged as a regional chieftain who can float his own party and ride to power. Nor is he seen in Bengal politics in the Mukul Roy mould €" someone who can grow his party both organically or inorganically. In that respect, he is never a threat, and doesn't have the bargaining power to armtwist the party high command. He has never been a member of the Congress Working Committee €" the highest decision-making body in the party, does he have followers within the central party structure.

However, despite speculation linking him to the BJP before the 2019 election, Chowdhury has always exhibited unflinching loyalty towards the Congress' first family. Chowdhury's anointment is, in that sense, an indication on how the Gandhis may choose a person to lead the Congress, in case a sulking Rahul Gandhi refuses to take up the mantle again.

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