Mukul Roy: The turncoat's journey home

The 'backroom boy' who likes playing the 'Ahmed Patel role' is back for a third innings in the Trinamool Congress.

Mukul Roy: The turncoat's journey home
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On Friday, minutes before Mamata Banerjee welcomed BJP's national vice president, Mukul Roy, back into her Trinamool Congress, describing him as “one of our own", the party’s spokesperson, Sukhendu Sekar Roy, tweeted, “BJP is destined to fall like a house of cards in Bengal very shortly. Today's development is beginning of that end."

If nothing else, this gives a sense of the jubilation in the Trinamool camp at getting Mamata's former right-hand person, and one of the earliest deserters, back into the house.

What it does not explain, and what Mamata did not reveal at her press conference following the welcoming ceremony, is what value Roy might add to a party which just returned to power for the third time running with a thumping majority despite his active attempts to defeat it.

"One straight answer is that it will weaken the BJP in Bengal but there is more to it,” said a senior Trinamool leader who has been with the party since its inception. “His importance lies in his past association with the party chief and the role he earlier played.”

At Trinamool's inception

In August 1997, when Mamata first floated the idea of launching a new platform called Trinamool, meaning the grassroots, Roy wasn't a recognisable name. The big names around Mamata were MP Ajit Panja and MLAs Sudip Bandyopadhyay, Shobhandeb Chattopadhyay and Akbar Ali Khandoker.

But Mamata entrusted Roy, one of her closest aides, with the formal work related to the formation of the new party. After several failed attempts by the Congress leadership, including Sonia Gandhi, to keep Mamata from leaving the party, Roy wrote to the election commission on December 17, 1997, informing it of the formation of the new party on November 28, 1997. It still had no members, but Roy was the general secretary.

On December 22, the Congress expelled Mamata. Four days later, the election commission registered the new party as the West Bengal Trinamool Congress. That same day, Trinamool asked for recognition as a state party arguing that two members of the just dissolved 11th Lok Sabha, Mamata and Ajit Panja, had become its members. The plea was not entertained but Trinamool was given its own symbol.

The party was formally launched on January 1, 1998, with Roy as general secretary and MLA Pankaj Banerjee as chairman. Roy's star in Mamata's party rose and rose, becoming a key cog in the organisational and fund-raising machinery.

“He was the low-profile backroom organiser whom Mamata Banerjee trusted the most, especially concerning her most confidential plans,” said a Trinamool veteran, who was unwilling to be named. Initially, party insiders recalled, Subrata Bakshi was equally close to Mamata but Roy marched ahead of him due to his “ability to broker political deals".

“He had contacts in all districts and in all assembly constituencies. While Didi led from the front, he looked after the grassroots organisational affairs. On matters such as which leader in the district should get charge of which area, Didi trusted Roy’s opinions the most,” a sitting Bengal minister said.

Roy contested the 2001 assembly election, but lost. In 2006, Mamata did not field him so that he could look after election management. After the election, she sent him to the Rajya Sabha.

In 2006-08, during the Singur-Nandigram movement, which propelled Mamata to power, Roy played an instrumental role in liaising with smaller Left parties, activists and civil society groups to effect a broader consolidation against the ruling CPIM.

After Trinamool breached the Left’s fortress in the 2009 general election, bagging 19 seats and emerging as the largest party, Roy became its leader in the Rajya Sabha and head of its parliamentary board. In 2012, Mamata made him the union railway minister after she fell out with Dinesh Trivedi.

Roy held on to the post of general secretary until he fell out with Mamata in 2015. In that time, he also displayed mastery in dealing with bureaucrats and engineering defections from other parties, mainly the Congress and some Left parties.

The falling out

It all started in 2014 with the CBI’s investigation into the Saradha chit fund scam in which several top Trinamool leaders, including Roy, were accused. Trinamool denounced the investigation as a political vendetta by the Narendra Modi government, which had just come to power, but a statement that Roy made to the media on September 2, 2014 triggered speculation in Mamata's inner circle that he was keener on saving his own skin than protecting the image of the party's leader.

That day, when journalists asked him about alleged irregularities in a railway deal with the Saradha group’s catering service in 2010, Roy said, “I was not the railway minister at that time.” He was right in stating a fact but perhaps not in approach. In 2010, Mamata was the railway minister. Roy’s apparent attempt to pass the buck to the party chief did not humour her, to say the least. And she responded quickly.

On October 17, 2014, she removed two of Roy’s confidantes from leadership roles, replacing Saumitra Khan as the party's youth wing chief after only four months with her nephew Abhishek Banerjee and shunting out Shankudeb Panda as the student wing head. Also, as the youth wing’s state committee was dissolved, Roy’s son, legislator Subhranshu Roy, lost his position as one of the vice presidents.

Reading the message clearly, Roy chose to cause his party further embarrassment.

On January 13, 2015, he admitted to have met Saradha group owner Sudipta Sen in north Bengal. Coming a day after Roy had received a summons from the CBI, this admission incensed the party's top leadership because opposition parties had long been alleging a meeting between Sen and Roy in Mamata's presence in north Bengal. Trinamool had never admitted to such a meeting. Roy, in effect, had stopped just short of confirming Mamata's presence in that meeting.

His remarks came not long after the CBI had arrested a Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP and a Bengal minister.

Mamata met Roy and asked him to seek time from the CBI as the state government had decided to approach the Supreme Court and ask it to monitor the investigation. But when the government failed to get the case listed for a quick hearing, Roy appeared before the CBI on January 30 and publicly said he would cooperate with the investigators because he wanted the truth to emerge. Between February 14 and 28, Mamata stripped Roy of all his posts. That was the end of his first innings in the party.

They reconciled at the end of 2015 and, in February 2016, Mamata formalised his return to Trinamool by making him national vice president. But his homecoming didn't turn out to be a comfortable journey for Roy, as he was no longer the uncrowned second-in-command, a role that was seemingly going to the chief minister's nephew.

As their relationship soured again, Mamata abolished the post of national vice president on September 16, 2017, effectively showing Roy the door.

He formally quit the party nine days later. In November 2017, he joined the BJP in New Delhi after a meeting with Amit Shah.

Life in the BJP

Soon after his induction in the BJP, Roy became a confidante of the party's national general secretary and Bengal in-charge, Kailash Vijayvargiya, and was entrusted with chairmanships of the panchayat election management committee in 2018 and the Lok Sabha election management committee the next year.

"He didn't come to the party bringing along many followers. But he brought in vast experience, especially in election management. The party’s state leaders knew not an iota of election management at that time and the central leadership depended rather heavily on him,” said a senior leader of the BJP in Bengal.

Roy also played a crucial role in bringing in disgruntled Trinamool and CPIM leaders ahead of the Lok Sabha election. Of them, Saumitra Khan, Arjun Singh and Nishith Adhikary, who came from Trinamool, and Khagen Murmu, who came from the CPIM, went on to win the election on BJP tickets.

The BJP’s central leadership liberally acknowledged Roy’s role in the party. Apart from Vijayvargiya’s repeated lavishing of praise, Amit Shah, at a March 2020 rally in Kolkata, introduced Roy as “the one under whose chairmanship of Lok Sabha election management committee we won 18 seats in Bengal".

Roy was appointed a national vice president of the BJP in September 2020, amid rumours that Trinamool was trying to get him back.

Still, Roy was never comfortable in the BJP. The majority of the party’s Bengal leaders didn't have a good rapport with him and were rather apprehensive of his growing clout. Though the central leadership trusted and depended on him, Roy started feeling insecure, especially after the BJP’s national leadership literally took over the Bengal unit in early 2021 and started giving more importance to newcomer Suvendu Adhikari.

“Most of his suggestions on strategy matters and candidate selection were not accepted. He repeatedly told the party that winning Bengal was impossible without winning over a section of the Muslim vote but the party carried out a high-pitched campaign on communal lines,” said a politician who had joined the BJP not long after Roy.

Roy's loyalists argue that by fielding him in the election despite his reluctance to contest, the BJP not only restricted his movement to one constituency but took away his comfort zone – that of playing a backroom role, strategising and sealing political deals.

One loyalist recalled how Roy had equated his role in Trinamool with that of Sonia Gandhi’s former political secretary, Ahmed Patel, in the Congress. On February 19, 2015, responding to the media's questions about the loss of his position in the party and the rise of Mamata’s nephew, Roy had said, “Rahul Gandhi’s advent to the centerstage did not diminish the role of Ahmed Patel. It still remained.”

The second homecoming

June 11, 2021 marked the beginning of this third innings in Trinamool. His first return to the party leadership in 2016 did not give him a pleasing experience but it's expected to be different this time.

“Roy is no longer in competition with Abhishek and he knows it well. Since he has returned to the party knowing that Abhishek has won the race, his third innings is expected to be smoother,” said veteran journalist Jayanta Ghosal, who has covered Bengal politics for about three decades.

“In the BJP, he would have had to compete with Suvendu Adhikari, which he would not have liked,” Ghosal added.

Notably, Abhishek was appointed the party's national general secretary earlier this month and entrusted with the task of realising the party’s national aspirations in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Moreover, Mamata had made conciliatory noises towards Roy even during the assembly election campaign. In April, she referred to Roy as "bechara", or poor fellow, and remarked that he was not as bad as some of the others who ditched the party and joined the BJP. She even publicly sympathised with Roy for having been forced to contest a seat outside his home district of North 24 Parganas.

Roy reciprocated after the election, maintaining absolute silence when the BJP’s top brass tore into Trinamool for unleashing political violence. Abhishek’s visit to Roy’s ailing wife at the beginning of June gave the formal indication of the melting of the ice between the Banerjee family and the Roy family. The rest happened faster than the BJP could have anticipated.

According to psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, the BJP’s Bengal workers and supporters were already demoralised by the election result and the desertion of leaders from the party would weaken their morale all the more.

“Several leaders went to the BJP following Roy. Now, they are expected to follow him back to Trinamool. This desertion will hurt the BJP greatly. Besides, the party also wants to use Roy in assisting Abhishek in their national expansion plan,” said Chakraborty, a professor of political science at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata.

Notably, Trinamool first launched an expansion drive beyond Bengal after coming to power in 2011 and gained some successes in Tripura and Manipur but failed to hold on to it.

“Now, with that expansion plan revived, Roy’s experience and expertise will come handy,” said a Trinamool Lok Sabha MP, requesting anonymity.

Notably, Mamata on Friday alleged that the BJP had forced Roy to join the Hindutva party, threatening him by sending central investigating agencies after him. While he hasn't been named in the chargesheet of the Saradha case, Roy remains an accused in the Narada cash-for-favour case in connection with which the CBI has recently arrested Bengal ministers Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee, though both of them obtained bail. A Roy loyalist said he now had little fear of the CBI because Suvendu Adhikari is also an accused in the Narada case and it would be difficult to go after Roy without touching Adhikari.

“Besides, Roy was the only Narada accused who was not seen taking cash in his own hands,” he said.

That Roy returned to Trinamool with greater conviction than when he joined the BJP is evident from the fact that his son joined the BJP 20 months after him. Now they are back in Trinamool together.

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