Is Suvendu Adhikari, the opposition leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal, emerging as a ‘people’s leader’ (‘jananeta’) in the state? The question is obvious. The current political fault lines in West Bengal revolve around this future-defining issue. You hear whispers throughout the state: Can Suvendu Adhikari take on the Trinamul Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee and her nephew and second-in-command, Abhishek Banerjee?
In the last few years, Suvendu and Abhishek have emerged as the arch-rivals. Some recent incidents have also prompted further comparisons between the two and their battalions. Who will be the heir to the ultimate political position in West Bengal? This essay will use these incidents and interviews conducted in various corners of the state to provide clues to understand their battle, the outcome of which will define Bengal politics over the next generation.
The concept of a people’s leader and Suvendu
Understanding leadership and the qualities required, whether in politics or elsewhere, is a complex and extensive topic. To fully appreciate it, one must understand a range of crucial factors, including cultural and political configurations, and how these are changing. In addition, it is essential to understand regional leadership styles and local value sets, particularly in the Indian context. And lastly, it is necessary to appreciate the individual leader’s style – language, body language, mannerisms, history of engagements, etc. We should make a slight detour into the academic literature in order to gain a fuller grasp of the concept.
Many political thinkers argue that West Bengal’s political culture differs from other Indian states. In his article ‘The Curious Trajectory of Caste in West Bengal’, Ayan Guha describes how caste identities are often overshadowed by the dominant factors of ‘class’. This occurred over time due to the dominance of left politics in the state. The unchallenged political position of left-wing politics over decades and even generations played a de facto role in establishing the ‘Higher class Bhadralok’ culture as a core element in the state’s notions of leadership as well. Similarly, in his book Ajker Paschimbanga: Khomotar Rajniti, Janatar Rajniti, Partha Sarathi Bandopadhyay accused the Left Front government of establishing ‘higher class’ dominance in the state.
At this point, it is necessary to distinguish between levels – there is, after all, a great gap between a village and Nabanna, the seat of power in the state. In the introduction to their book Power and Influence in India: Bosses, Lords, and Captains,Pamela Price and Arild Engelsen Ruud distinguish three types of leadership styles: bosses, lords, and captains. If we apply their frame to West Bengal, the boss-type leadership style is clearly relevant for redistributing resources within a relatively small area or domain, such as a village or a group of villages. A boss is invariably affiliated with a political party but rarely harbours political ambition beyond that specific area. The boss serves as a link between individual supporters or groups of followers and those in power. This leadership category is sometimes associated with strongmen and goondas and can be crucial to maintaining a party’s local political support.
The term ‘lord’ is applied to leadership styles that emphasise normative elements more than bosses’ categorical oversight. This type of leadership may utilise force to establish authoritative leadership, but once established depends more on ideological or cultural elements to maintain their position. Another feature of such a leadership style is that power often derives from a position of command within a family, a larger group, or some other form of established authority. This type of leadership also maintains ownership of information.
‘Captain’, the middle category of leadership style, represents the more qualitative aspects of the political system. A captain maintains dominance in the large-scale political area with extensive political landscape knowledge. He also has substantive strategic skills. A captain must also be able to manage bureaucratic processes, navigate formal codes and legal authority, make decisions regarding general policies and ideological stances, and have a faculty for quick reading of changing situations.
Considering these characteristics from the literature, the question is if we will find such qualities in Suvendu Adhikari.
A significant element in Suvendu Adhikari’s career and also an indicator of what was to come was Nandigram in 2007 – before TMC’s assembly election victory in 2011. Although Mamata Banerjee was the front figure and face of the TMC and its opposition to the ruling Left Front, it was Suvendu who was responsible for organising the grassroots of the TMC here, in the heart of Purba (East) Medinipur district. Before 2007, the TMC had a minimal presence in this area. But after the so-called Nandigram Massacre on 14 March 2007, in which 14 people were shot and killed by the police for protesting against the Left Front government’s industrial plans, the TMC gradually gained political influence and supporters.
In interviews in Nandigram, many attribute TMC’s success to the leadership qualities and strategies of Suvendu Adhikari and his team. The Nandigram movement showed his leadership qualities. A Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) leader (CPIM was the dominant party in the Left Front coalition) there informed us of how the TMC under Suvendu’s leadership had damaged their party and then said, ‘I will credit Suvendu, not Mamata, for the Nandigram movement.’
He described how Suvendu used various forms of political retaliation against the left. He accused Suvendu of ‘trying to destroy our stronghold in East Medinipur.’ He was in no doubt that Suvendu collaborated with the Maoists and sought assistance from the wanted Maoist leader Kisanji. This was possible because Suvendu’s elder brother Soumen Adhikari was a member of the Maoist Action Squad. ‘With the use of this squad, he damaged our local-level organisations.’ He mentions extensive ‘whisper campaigns’, ‘mass organisation against our local entities’, and severing their communication channels with local leaders and regional party members. Suvendu and his team also threatened CPM party workers. ‘His words were clear: either join Trinamul or leave the village.’ Lastly, this CPIM leader accused Suvendu and his team of initiating ‘organised crime’ against them.
Strikingly, however, this CPIM leader also praised Suvendu for his political acumen and strategic thinking. ‘Suvendu is a hard worker,’ he said. ‘He can work day and night. He is committed to his loyalty. As a quick learner, he can also easily connect with the masses.’ But we will never forget what Suvendu did during the Nandigram movement.
One of the senior journalists who covered the Nandigram movement recently stated that ‘Suvendu’s dialect enables him to gain significant support in the village.’ And he added, ‘Suvendu understands the politics of the village. He knows how to build connections and expand the support base among the people. I have witnessed it during the Nandigram movement. Many people followed him, people who are not associated with the Trinamul.’
This leads us back to our original question of whether Suvendu Adhikari has the qualities required for a ‘people’s leader’. In this context, he needs to be measured against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose position is supreme in the state. A member of the BJP from Barasat city who believes in Suvendu and his leadership described Suvendu as one of the party’s dynamic organisers and charismatic leaders. He said, ‘Suvendu-da [using the respectful ‘elder brother’ suffix] knows how to fight politically; with the help of people’s mobilisation and public support, he defeated Mamata Banerjee in the election. It is a political milestone.’ He was referring to how Mamata challenged Suvendu in a face-to-face context in an election in Suvendu’s home constituency, and Suvendu prevailed.
For his BJP party members, this was a momentous event and a great inspiration. A BJP leader in a different district added, ‘Suvendu-da is recognised by millions of people. He is an excellent organiser. Since joining the BJP, our membership has been growing daily, and we have been securing more critical positions at the local and booth levels. Earlier, we missed this mobilisation due to a need for volunteers. Thanks to Suvendu-da, many of our party members are working tirelessly day and night to support the party.’ A member of the party’s Education Cell in Kolkata District described Suvendu as a famous and influential leader in West Bengal who has been damaging the influences of TMC.
… due to the rise of Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, in the party hierarchy, Suvendu seemed to be sliding away from the position he had coveted for years. As a possible consequence, just before the 2021 West Bengal assembly election, Suvendu quit TMC and joined the BJP. Mamata was furious and challenged him in the Nandigram election. For Suvendu, this ‘Political Battle of the Millennium’ was a battle to prove himself as a popular leader, while for Mamata Banerjee, it was a matter of prestige. Suvendu won the race in Nandigram, defeating Mamata Banerjee by 1956 votes – a small margin. However, it was a victory and helped him earn the position of opposition leader in the West Bengal assembly.
Mamata Banerjee and the Legacy of a Mass Leader
The chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is widely respected as the state’s most prominent, vocal and active mass leader. Her determination and knowledge of politics made her a ‘jananetri’, a people’s leader. Her years of struggle to bring down the entrenched Left Front government is renowned. She is known as the one who stood against the ‘Red Brigade’ and fought against it with her blood. After all the debates, there is no doubt that Mamata Banerjee is still the ‘jananetri’ in the hearts of millions of people. The last few years have seen a few scratches in her reputation because of job scams, coal scams and dynastic politics, but she remains the supreme leader of her party, and her words are final.
One political thinker has stated that Mamata is the only opposition leader in India with the credibility and fighting spirit necessary to challenge the BJP government led by Narendra Modi. She demonstrates this by collaborating with other opposition parties and strategising to form a distinct coalition against the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Suvendu Adhikari’s rise and broken dreams
Starting as a youth leader, Suvendu Adhikari mobilised students in colleges for TMC Chhatra Parishad (student front). His father, Sisir Adhikari, was a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and served a stint as minister in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress government. In 2006, his son Suvendu ran for the state assembly election and won. The Nandigram movement took off the following year. After TMC ousted the Left Front from power in 2011, Suvendu played a senior role in the party and was by many considered ‘second-in-command’ after Mamata. Many believed Suvendu would be the next chief minister after Mamata Banerjee.
However, due to the rise of Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, in the party hierarchy, Suvendu seemed to be sliding away from the position he had coveted for years. As a possible consequence, just before the 2021 West Bengal assembly election, Suvendu quit TMC and joined the BJP. Mamata was furious and challenged him in the Nandigram election. For Suvendu, this ‘Political Battle of the Millennium’ was a battle to prove himself as a popular leader, while for Mamata Banerjee, it was a matter of prestige. Suvendu won the race in Nandigram, defeating Mamata Banerjee by 1956 votes – a small margin. However, it was a victory and helped him earn the position of opposition leader in the West Bengal assembly.
On the Verge of Political Change
The battle lines between Suvendu Adhikari and Abhishek Banerjee have been drawn by recent events. Both leaders come from political families, but they have different backgrounds. While Suvendu is considered a grassroots leader, many hold that Abhishek’s leadership is due to his family background. Many dismiss Abhishek as a nobody protected by his powerful aunt. A common claim is that ‘Abhishek is growing up under Mamata’s care’.
In contrast, when compared to Abhishek, Suvendu is held to be a capable, individual leader. He is ‘significantly more capable’, one held. A 27-year-old man in South 24 Parganas district stated that Suvendu earns much more respect than Abhishek Banerjee because he comes across ‘as a village member’. This man was an RSP supporter, and despite his very different political outlook, he recognised Suvendu as a ‘true leader.’ He also commented that Suvendu has tenacity and can skillfully engage with voters on a broad level.
Here we have two elements for an answer. First, does Suvendu’s language and choice of words attract people in the village? A professor of history in Nadia district said, ‘The villagers admire his eloquence and speaking style. Although Suvendu speaks with a Medinipur accent, the people of Nadia still like him. They can relate to Suvendu.’ He continued by pointing out that Suvendu’s dressing style is simple and unostentatious. These socio-psychological factors work in favour of Suvendu. The CPIM leader from Nandigram, quoted above, also held that Suvendu ‘is the only one fighting against Mamata Banerjee with unwavering eye contact.’
This helps build his position as a grassroots leader. A senior journalist said, ‘Suvendu Adhikari has proven his ability to lead from the front … Adhikari has the support of numerous party workers. As we can see, he has now become the face of the BJP in Bengal. His meetings are also drawing people. Suvendu Adhikari is a strong leader from several perspectives.’
Khadikul Blast: “Chor Chor” Slogan vs NIA Investigation
The recent explosion in Khadikul village, Egra Block One, marked Suvendu’s emergence as a people’s leader. After an explosion occurred in an illegal firecracker factory in the town, the villagers became furious with the leaders of TMC. The owner of the illegal factory, Krishnapada (aka Bhanu) Bag, was affiliated with the ruling party. Bhanu contested as a TMC candidate in the Panchayat elections. His daughter-in-law also contested as a candidate for the TMC in the Panchayat elections, but she was unsuccessful.
Soon after the tragedy, despite attempts by senior TMC leaders such as Manas Bhunia and Dola Bose to visit the victims, the villagers refused to allow them into the village, shouting at them as “Chor, Chor” (thief). The villagers did not support these TMC leaders due to allegations that Bhanu and his family were well-connected with the ruling party. The victims also accused the local TMC authorities of being aware of the existence of this illegal factory. Despite Bhanu’s past influence as a member of TMC in the local area, no action was taken by the local authority.
Even though the opposition leader met with the victims’ families, they received Suvendu cordially. Suvendu also attempted to wipe away the tears of the victims. He also demanded an NIA investigation on his home soil and declared war against the current regime. All these elements and qualities do seem to make him a mass leader in this state. Many people believe that Suvendu has the potential to become the next “Jananeta”, or people’s leader in the political landscape of Bengal.
Last But Not Least
Many of his colleagues stated that Suvendu is an egoless and humble person. However, they also criticised him for being “opportunistic and careerist.” For many hardcore and dedicated supporters of the TMC, Suvendu is considered a “Mirjafar” (traitor). They claimed that Suvendu had taken advantage of the party’s facilities. They also claimed that Suvendu’s rise in the party was due to Mamata Banerjee. He left the party for his own benefit.
On the other hand, many political thinkers believe it is a significant political obstacle for Suvendu. Despite his many flaws, there is no doubt that Suvendu Adhikari has the necessary wherewithal to become a “People’s Leader” in the state, following in the footsteps of Mamata Banerjee, who emerged as a Jananetri or People’s Leader many years ago.
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