Adhir Chowdhury is the name of a phenomenon. Two mighty Chief Ministers, Buddhadev Bhattacharya of the Left Front and Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress (popularly TMC), pulled out all the stops to crush this political ‘upstart’.. But, defying a chakravyuh of the Left parties, the 40-year-old Adhir got elected to the assembly from Nabagram constituency in 1996. Three years later, in 1999, he took up a huge challenge by contesting from Baharampur Lok Sabha constituency, then considered unwinnable by the Congress, and since remains unbeaten for five consecutive terms.
But the phenomenon called Adhir was not limited to individual success. By 2004, he almost decimated the Left from the district, and helped Pranab Mukherjee to win his first Lok Sabha election from the adjacent Jangipur constituency. For the first time since independence, all the three seats of the district were bagged by the Congress that year. For the next ten years, it was Adhir-raj in the Muslim-dominated district. Since then, Mamata Banerjee, as a Chief Minister, played havoc with Congress organisation in the district. Her relentless fusillades have succeeded to bring Jangipur and Murshidabad seats to TMC in 2019, but Chowdhury remains unbeaten in Baharampur, that too at a time when Bengal returned only two Congress MPs.
Adhir Chowdhury is a phenomena true, but a local phenomenon. His charisma is limited to his district and he leads just one of the groups of Bengal Congress, which as a whole is fighting hard to keep itself relevant in the state. Chowdhury is uncompromising, a maverick, but a little rustic too. He never hides the fact that he never attended a college. He is a smart fighter, but not a well-informed intellectual. It is rumoured that when Sonia Gandhi first asked him to lead the Congress in Lok Sabha, he politely refused it for he is well aware of his limitations. But when it was thrust on him, he accepted it with humility, for he is not a shirker. The national leadership of the Congress never mentored him to be a national player. He was inducted in the government of Manmohan Singh only in October of 2012, that too just as a minister of state. It is true that his faux pas as the leader of the party in Lok Sabha on Kashmir (that it is not India’s internal matter) will be remembered as one of the greatest blunders of the Congress party. But the blame lies not on him, but on those who made him the leader. If suddenly one fine morning someone entirely unprepared is asked to play the lead, he is bound to falter.
Chowdhury is not a heavyweight leader. He never even imagined that someday he would be made the Leader of the Party in Lok Sabha. He never asked for any such high post either. Still, he will not perform badly when political issues will come up. But more complicated issues are just not his cup of tea. In an interview, he confessed that after taking the responsibility he was quite enjoying it. But certain things cannot be acquired if one is not trained in it for a long time. Finer issues of diplomacy, security and economy belong to that category. A self-made man like Chowdhury is not expected to master things that belong to that category, at least in this term of Parliament. That the Congress had to make him the leader only shows the once-mighty party’s pathetic state of affairs.
Adhir Chowdhury is a phenomena true, but a local phenomenon. His charisma is limited to his district and he leads just one of the groups of Bengal Congress, which as a whole is fighting hard to keep itself relevant in the state
To have a glimpse of the phenomenon called Adhir Chowdhury, we have to move back three decades. That brings us to 1991, when he first contested the assembly polls. He was no great challenger then, but still the mighty Left decided to block his path then and there. They knew him of course. In the mid-70s, as a Naxalite he went to jail. Afterwards he tried his luck with two political parties, Forward Bloc and then RSP, both Left Front partners. But the young Adhir, born in 1956, fell out with both the parties by turn, and for a while worked for CITU, the labour union of CPI(M). Soon, totally disillusioned with all the shades of Red, he joined the Congress, which had no foothold in the district at that point of time. But in 1991, he had little resource to fight the mighty Left. He lost the election.
Soon, Chowdhury decided to make way forward as a strongman, and it attracted criminal cases against him. He raised money, often from the rich, and gave it to the needy. He formed an organisation that would be loyal to him only. Slowly his popularity started to increase. But about the time of next assembly election, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was after him, determined to put him behind the bars on criminal charges. It did not work. In 1996, Chowdhury won the assembly seat while absconding. It was rumoured that during the campaign he appeared in the night at different places, but the police had never had any idea on his whereabouts.
This victory was just the beginning. A lot was yet to be unravelled.
After getting the first foothold, Chowdhury decided to make it bigger. Three years later, the young MLA decided to contest from the ‘unwinnable’ Baharampur Lok Sabha constituency. Legendary RSP leader Tridib Chowdhury represented the constituency from 1952, and was defeated for the first time in 1984, when Atish Sinha of the Congress won. That election in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination was anyhow an extraordinary one. Tridibbabu did not contest Lok Sabha polls again, but the Left wrested the seat again in 1989. The other two Lok Sabha constituencies of the district too were with the Left since 1977. In 1998 Lok Sabha elections, Congress was relegated to the third position in Baharampur. In 1999, as Chowdhury contested his first parliamentary poll, Congress vote share sprang from 22 per cent to 47 per cent. Of course, it was not the Congress but Chowdhury who won.
Over the next five years, Chowdhury rose like a meteor and pushed the Left into a corner in the district. In 2003, he led the Congress party to win 23 out of 33 Jela Parishad seats, 13 out of 26 panchayat samitis and 104 out of 254 village panchayat in Murshidabad. Such was the impact of Chowdhury that in 2004, Pranab Mukherjee succeeded to win the first ever Lok Sabha election in his long career from Jangipur Loksabha constituency of Murshidabad district. He retained it 2009. After he became President in 2012, his son Abhijit Mukherjee won the seat and retained it in 2014. As far as the third seat (Murshidabad) of the district was concerned, Congress won it too in 2004 and 2009. Thus, much before Mamata Banerjee decimated the Left in Bengal, Chowdhury achieved the same feat in Murshidabad district, a Muslim-majority district. The maverick never cared for the party though. Whenever Congress fielded any candidate in his district against his wishes, he fielded his near ones as independent candidates, who either won, or ensured the defeat of the official candidate.
It is true that his faux pas as the leader of the party in Lok Sabha on Kashmir (that it is not India’s internal matter) will be remembered as one of the greatest blunders of the Congress party. But the blame lies not on him, but on those who made him the leader
Just when Chowdhury reached the peak of his glory, the tides started turning against him. In 2005, he and his wife Arpita were arrested in the murder case of a hotelier and his son. Later they got acquitted by the lower court. Very next year, Shreyashi Chowdhury, the teenager daughter of the Congress MP, died of injuries sustained after she reportedly jumped from her fifth floor apartment. Whether it was a suicide, and if so why, never came to light. A few months later, in 2007, Arpita too tried to commit suicide. She survived that time, but the husband and wife started drifting away from each other. In January of 2019, when Arpita passed away of ailments, her body was cremated by her father and others of the family before Chowdhury reached Baharampur. A few months later, while submitting an affidavit for May, 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Chowdhury revealed the name of her second wife as Atasi Chattopadhaya Chowdhury.
Meanwhile, since 2005, Chowdhury has been arrested several times. In 2007, while on bail for the murder of the hotelier and his son, he was arrested for the murder of a panchayat pradhan. Later, he was charged with the murder of a TMC worker in 2011. While these cases dragged on for years, Mamata decided to go whole hog for building her organisation in the district. What the Left could not do for ideological reason, could be done by the TMC: It started eating away chunks of Congress by bits. For the first time, Chowdhury looked helpless against such manoeuvres. His organisation in the district is in shatters now. Only he returned to Lok Sabha this time, while the other two seats of the district were wrested by the TMC.
While Chowdhury has got a plum post for the Lok Sabha this year, he is facing the most severe political challenge of his career now. There were rumours of his joining the BJP during the run up to Lok Sabha election. But it would not have helped him in a Muslim-dominated Baharampur constituency. Even an alliance of the Congress and TMC for the next assembly or Lok Sabha elections will not help him either, as Mamata is likely to utilise it to make him dependent on her. His best bet is TMC’s defeat in 2021 assembly polls. If the BJP comes to power in Bengal, he will be able to reclaim his lost influence. Otherwise, though it is too early to predict, he may or may not come back to Lok Sabha in 2024.