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It’s a difficult job. But I am trying my best: Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury

Debaashish Bhattacharya | Updated on July 19, 2019 Published on July 19, 2019

Numbers speak: Chowdhury (standing) is one of only two Congress MPs from Bengal in the current Lok Sabha   -  PTI

Leading the Congress party in the current Lok Sabha is a task riddled with challenges, but strongman Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is not one to give up without a fight

The streets of Baharampur — the hometown of the new Congress leader in the Lok Sabha — echo with stories about the valour and large-heartedness of Dada, as its Member of Parliament (MP) is called. Some of the tales may well be apocryphal, but Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury figures as the hero in almost all of them.

One story is a particular favourite of his constituents. A young man, it goes, was harassing a local girl. The girl’s father approached the five-time MP from Bengal for help.

The Congress strongman drove to the youth’s house. He dragged him out to the street, handed him a revolver and asked the young man to shoot him dead. “You’d better kill me because I won’t let you trouble a girl in my area as long as I am alive. This can happen only when I am gone,” Chowdhury said. The man fell at the MP’s feet, begging forgiveness.

Apparently, women were never harassed in the constituency after that.

Chowdhury laughs when I mention the story in a conversation with him over the phone. I had called him up earlier in the day, and it is almost midnight when he returns the call from his residence in New Delhi. He was on a hectic tour of his constituency but is now back in the Capital for the ongoing Budget session of Parliament.

Chowdhury is used to such tales. After all, the 63-year-old leader has won his seat five times in a row in the face of political upheavals such as the fall of a once-invincible Left, the advent of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and — two months ago — the onslaught of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the 2019 polls, the TMC won 22 seats, and the BJP, 18. The Left lost in all seats, while the Congress won merely two — one of which was Baharampur.

“I stay in touch with the people. I was with the people even when I was not in politics,” he says, talking about his electoral successes in a state where the Congress has long been laid to rest. “They know that I am not in politics to steal or swindle.”

People’s person: Chowdhury’s appointment as the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha took almost everyone by surprise. Political observers believe it was the party high command’s way of asserting that it esteemed hard work at the grassroots   -  PTI

 

But had he ever thought he’d be his party’s leader in the Lok Sabha? After Rahul Gandhi stepped down as the Congress president last month, there was speculation that he would be chosen to lead the party in the House. When it transpired that he was firm on not holding a high post, many thought the post would either go to Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor or former spokesperson Manish Tewari. Instead, to almost everybody’s surprise, Chowdhury emerged as the party leader in the 17th Lok Sabha. Political observers believe it was the high command’s way of asserting that it esteemed hard work at the grassroots.

“I am a Congressman. I do what my party asks me to. I had never asked or lobbied for this,” Chowdhury says. But clearly, he is growing into the job. “I am enjoying it,” he laughs.

He has certainly been making his mark in Parliament. In the early days of the Budget session, Chowdhury startled the house by welcoming Speaker Om Birla with an Urdu couplet and then triggered a storm by using a disparaging term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When BJP leader Pratap Chandra Sarangi compared the philosopher Swami Vivekananda to Modi, Chowdhury remarked that it was akin to comparing “Mother Ganges” to a drain, using the Hindi word naali. He apologised later. “My Hindi is not good. By naali, I meant channel and not sewer,” he said.

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Chowdhury says he has no qualms about admitting that he studied only till Standard X or that he comes from a “lower middle-class refugee family” in Baharampur, the headquarters of Murshidabad district bordering Bangladesh. He “grew up” politically swimming against the tide, he stresses.

“We have been out of power in Bengal for more than four decades. Still, we have survived. It is not important how many members we have in the Lok Sabha, but what I am doing there,” he holds.

At the same time, he acknowledges that the numerical odds are stacked against the Congress, which has only 52 members against the BJP’s staggering 303 in the Lok Sabha. “It’s a difficult job. But I am trying my best,” he says.

The controversial MP has faced a number of criminal charges in his tumultuous political career. He had earlier even been jailed after being charged with murder, and then acquitted by the lower courts. Chowdhury had shrugged off the charges, describing them as “political vendetta”.

The former minister of state for railways stresses that he has only “one agenda” as the party leader in the Lok Sabha. “I want to expose this government. Whenever they do anything wrong or whenever we get our hands on something shady, I will be on my feet, exposing them,” he says. “We will prove the strength of the Congress through our performance in the Lok Sabha, not through our numbers.”

Chowdhury believes that Parliament is a conduit that enables him to reach out to the people of the country. “I am going to make the most of that.”

The son of a clerk who struggled to feed his wife and children, Chowdhury adds that no one in his family had ever dabbled in politics until he was sucked into the violent Naxalite movement in Bengal in the late ’60s. “I went to jail a number of times in those days,” he says.

Chowdhury got into mainstream politics in 1991. He was elected to the Assembly in 1996, and to the Lok Sabha in 1999 for the first time as a Congress candidate from Baharampur, which he has retained since then.

He believes the current stalemate in the party over Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as the party president will “dissolve” slowly. But what infuriates him is the way Gandhi is being “taunted and mocked” for his decision to step down after his party’s performance in the general elections.

“Rahul Gandhi is speaking from a high moral ground. Has anyone in Indian politics done what he has? Why don’t you appreciate that? Why mock or taunt him for this or portray it as a drama?” he asks.

Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, too, had been ridiculed after she refused to take up the post of the prime minister following the party’s 2004 electoral victory, he says. “It was a sacrifice on her part. She could easily have been a prime minister for 10 years.”

Chowdhury, however, acknowledges that it would be difficult for the Congress to perform without Rahul Gandhi at the helm. “It will be difficult, it goes without saying. But that’s a different issue altogether.”

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The man who once fought the Left tooth and nail to protect his citadel is now a staunch critic of Bengal chief minister and TMC boss Mamata Banerjee. He believes that the TMC has outlived its utility.

“Trinamool has no ideological moorings. It was born to drive away the CPI(M) from power in Bengal. That was its lone objective. Now that the CPI(M) is not there anymore, they don’t know what’s next for the party,” he says, seeking to underline why the TMC is “on a decline” in the state.

The former Bengal Pradesh Congress chief says the BJP has grown in strength in Bengal largely because of Banerjee’s policy of “appeasement” and seeking to “finish off the opposition”, strategies that, he claims, she has been pursuing since the party came to power in 2011. “They destroyed the CPI(M) and Congress by attacking our workers and party offices repeatedly. As the space for the secular opposition parties shrank in Bengal under the Trinamool, the BJP got in through the gap created,” he holds.

The way Chowdhury sees it, Bengal has very little room for regional politics, unlike states such as Tamil Nadu with a deep-rooted Dravidian political framework. He says strong regional leaders (such as Banerjee) leading a party has its place in Indian democracy, but “only up to a point”.

In any case, he says, the BJP has largely “usurped” caste politics in the country, leaving regional parties “unnerved” and at a loss about what to do. This, he holds, has created a scenario for bipartisan politics, with the BJP and Congress as the two main entities.

But this doesn’t mean that the TMC will be a pushover, he hastens to add. Though the BJP is trying to “break up” the TMC by winning over its leaders, defeating the ruling party in Bengal is “not going to be easy” in the 2021 Assembly elections.

“Pro-BJP euphoria, riding on the crest of Narendra Modi’s personality, helped the BJP win 18 seats in Bengal in the Lok Sabha elections. But there is no reason to think that the same euphoria will work in favour of the BJP in the coming Assembly elections,” he says.

While it is too early to say what will happen in 2021, Chowdhury is convinced that the BJP is “ascending” in the state, while Banerjee is “descending”.

And what about his own party? The Congress, he indicates, has reached its nadir in the state, and can only rise. It is a matter of time before the party — with only two MPs and a handful of MLAs — becomes “relevant” in state politics again, he adds.

Call it a pipe dream but Chowdhury holds on to his beliefs. And he is going to make sure he voices them — in and outside Parliament.

Debaashish Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Kolkata

Published on July 19, 2019
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