By the time Mamata Banerjee reaches out to her party leaders to seek their opinion on an issue, you can be sure that she has already made up her mind. However, many of her decisions are based on inputs received from her key advisors. It’s another matter that her coterie of key advisors is in a state of constant churn.
Reading the boss’s mind is the big challenge, Trinamool Congress leaders well know. When Dinesh Trivedi presented what will go down in the annals as an extremely controversial railway budget this year, he was lauded by his colleague Sultan Ahmed for raising passenger fares. Within hours, however, Ahmed had changed track. The boss was unhappy and had taken a stand that ultimately led to Trivedi’s sacking as railways minister.
Apart from well-heeled politicians, the Trinamool Congress is made up of a motley group of journalists, a quiz master and corporate lobbyist. But in trying times, it is old timers such as Mukul Roy, Trivedi’s successor and party general secretary, and Saugata Roy, former Union minister of state for urban development, who come in handy.
It’s no secret that Mukul Roy is Banerjee’s most trusted lieutenant. At the decisive meeting at the Town Hall, which sealed the fate of the Trinamool-UPA partnership, Roy hardly spoke. “It was only when some MPs raised concerns about the future of rail projects in the state in the wake of a pullout that Roy said that he was absolutely okay with resigning from the Cabinet,” a Trinamool leader present at the meeting says.
Roy, once Banerjee’s political agent, prefers executing orders to playing a role in the decision-making. Relieved of his responsibility at the Centre, the “invisible” railways minister, as he is popularly referred to, is now doing what he likes best — leading the campaign against the Centre’s “anti-people” reforms across West Bengal. Though officially he is not second to Banerjee, he is certainly more equal than others within the party.
The other Roy (Saugata) is a more recent addition to the core team, even though he has been with Banerjee since before the Trinamool was formed. His tendency to speak his mind at times has cost him Banerjee’s trust. During the Singur protests, Roy is understood to have suggested that the dharna should not be indefinite, not exactly what Banerjee had in mind. That was the last colleagues saw of him at Singur. Even at the peak of the agitation, Roy was missing in action. That was 2006. But at a recent protest meet on foreign direct investment, Roy was seen sitting next to Banerjee who looked engrossed in a discussion with him. The retired professor of physics at Kolkata’s Ashutosh College appears to have suddenly moved up in his leader’s preference.
National television channels have done Roy a favour. They have declared him as the only performing minister in the Trinamool. And anyone who knows Banerjee even a little will know that the Trinamool supremo takes the media very seriously.
Is that the reason Kunal Ghosh, group CEO of Sharada Media that controls Bengal Post, Channel 10 and Sakalbela, and executive editor of Sangbad Pratidin, was nominated as a Rajya Sabha MP and is now doing the impossible — advising the chief minister? Rumour has it that the drama over the Presidential elections and the idea of teaming up with Mulayam Singh Yadav was Ghosh’s idea. The latter apparently made Banerjee believe that she could play a more important role in national politics.
Banerjee chose Ghosh to meet Yadav once she had decided on her Presidential candidate. Ghosh may have led fellow journalists to believe that he was only collecting his mobile phone charger that he had left behind earlier in the evening, but he was actually carrying a joint statement that Banerjee wanted Yadav to sign. The wily politician from Uttar Pradesh, of course, did nothing of the sort, and the rest is history.
Another Trinamool leader who is more visible these days is Amit Mitra, the state’s finance minister who is strangely reticent on issues related to Bengal’s finances. But then who can do a better job than Mitra in justifying the party’s opposition to FDI in retail on national television, especially since as FICCI secretary general he was seen lobbying strongly in its favour? Much like journalists, economists too can present both sides of a case convincingly. As he was heard saying on one channel, there is no contradiction in his position on FDI now and earlier as FICCI secretary general, as he had then not seen poverty. Mitra seems to have changed his opinion much the way his Cavalli suits have been replaced with a dhoti and kurta.
Mitra’s presence on television is baffling because it’s quiz master and Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien who is Trinamool’s known face in the media. O’Brien, of course, diligently manages the social media, and is better known as Banerjee’s Twitter handle. Whether he advises the chief minister on her Facebook posts is not known.
One of the few voices of dissent on the pullout decision was that of Trinamool MP Shishir Adhikari, former Union minister of state for rural development. When Trivedi chose to take on the party leadership with his rail budget, Trinamool leaders assured Banerjee that he would not win even a municipal election without her backing. But with the father-son (Shubhendu and Shishir), the party will have to think twice because the Adhikaris call the shots in East Medinipur. With panchayat elections ahead, Banerjee is letting the Adhikaris have their way for now.
Every Trinamool leader in the inner circle has his role carved out. Subrata Mukherjee, formerly of the Congress, who had once quit the Trinamool over issues with Banerjee, is now back in the fold. He seems to be the Chosen One to convey the government’s many decisions to the people. More out of compulsion, though, some would say.
Unhappy with his public health engineering portfolio — he’d perhaps expected something better for leaving the Congress to side with didi just before the elections — Mukherjee threw in his lot with other disgruntled former Congressmen who had joined the Trinamool. The politician in Banerjee lost no time in elevating Mukherjee to the rural development and panchayat ministry, thereby killing two birds with one stone. One, Mukherjee’s importance would prevent him from splitting the party, while his experience would be invaluable in the upcoming panchayat elections, especially since Banerjee’s cabinet is full of first-time MLAs.
In Yes Minister, the BBC sitcom, politicians were always portrayed as “temporary annoyances”, while bureaucrats were the permanent fixtures, running the wheels of government. There is, however, one bureaucrat at Writers’ Building who appears to be more permanent than his peers. No prizes for guessing that it’s the secretary to the chief minister, Gautam Sanyal. As officer on special duty, he was with Banerjee during her two stints as railways minister in the NDA and UPA regimes. When Banerjee became chief minister, Sanyal was brought to Kolkata. “She sees the administration through Sanyal’s eyes,” says a bureaucrat. Banerjee wanted Sanyal to be made principal secretary, but he was too junior in rank for that to be possible, as the chief secretary pointed out. Banerjee then wrote in his file “Secretary to the Chief Minister for the time being” — permanently, in other words.