Though no allegations against him have been proved, he’s invited a long list of question marks in his short political career.
In Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal, bhaipo is the new nomenclature that’s entered the political discourse.
Bhaipo, meaning nephew, refers to Abhishek Banerjee, the son of Mamata’s elder brother Amit. The term dovetails with Mamata’s nickname, didi, or older sister, which is how she’s fondly referred to by every leader, worker and supporter of her party, the Trinamool Congress.
But it’s Abhishek’s meteoric rise in the TMC that’s driven opposition parties in the state to refer to Mamata as “pishi”, or aunt. With Abhishek being the only member from Mamata’s family to enter politics, her government has even been dubbed the “Pishi-Bhaipor Sarkar”, or the government of the aunt and nephew.
Unsurprisingly, Abhishek has now become a stick to beat Mamata with, especially for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Despite none of their allegations against him being proved, he’s still an easy target to score political points. This is more so because no monetary scam has touched Mamata Banerjee directly, and there has been no visible change in the spartan lifestyle she is known for living, even as many of her colleagues and close associates have been accused of amassing wealth.
“You care only for your nephew,” home minister Amit Shah said on December 19, while addressing a public meeting in West Midnapore. “‘When do I make him the chief minister’, that’s all you care about while the people of the state keep suffering.” Shah accused Mamata of running a government of Tolabaji-Tushtikaran-Bhatijakaran, or extortion, appeasement, and “nephew-isation”.
From the same stage, Suvendu Adhikari, a former TMC heavyweight now with the BJP, called for the removal of Mamata’s “extortionist nephew”.
The TMC was quick to respond that no one from Mamata’s family aspired to become the chief minister.
It made no difference. In the same month, BJP MP Babul Supriyo claimed that money from “all kinds of smuggling” made its way to Santiniketan – not the town, but the name of Abhishek’s apartment complex on Kolkata’s Harish Mukherjee road.
And weeks before, on November 27, the BJP’s state unit president, Dilip Ghosh, had said the jumping ship of politicians from the TMC to the BJP would result in “only pishi and bhaipo” being left behind.
But who exactly is bhaipo?
After acquiring an MBA from a private institute in Delhi in 2009, Abhishek Banerjee planned to start his own business. The 22-year-old launched a company called Leaps & Bounds, obtaining a trademark in 2010 under his and his mother Lata’s name.
Leaps & Bounds Infra Consultants Private Limited was registered on May 4, 2011, just a few days before Mamata’s victory in the West Bengal Assembly election.
On April 19, 2012, Abhishek incorporated a second company – Leaps & Bounds Pvt Ltd – with him and his mother as its directors. A third company was incorporated on March 20, 2017, with Banerjee’s wife Rujira and father Amit as partners.
After 2013, Abhishek stepped down from his directorial positions. Since 2014, the business of Leaps & Bounds has been in the names of Lata and Amit Banerjee, who serve as the directors. The status of their incomes is unavailable in the public domain, since they have not contested any election.
What is available is that Leaps & Bounds Pvt Ltd has an authorised capital of Rs 4 crore and paid-up capital of Rs 2.7 crore, while Leaps & Bounds Infra Consultants Pvt Ltd has an authorised capital of Rs 4 crore and paid-up capital of Rs 3.58 crore.
Correspondingly, Abhishek’s election affidavit, filed in 2019 as a candidate for the Lok Sabha election, showed a decrease in his and Rujira’s total moveable and immoveable assets between 2014 and 2019, from Rs 1.51 crore to Rs 1.37 crore. Yet the same affidavit said his annual income increased from Rs 36.88 lakh in 2013-14 to Rs 75.03 in 2017-18, while Rujira’s income rose from Rs 46.34 lakh to Rs 1.51 crore in the same period.
A meteoric rise in the TMC
The issue of Mamata’s nephew was first brought forth by the Left Front in 2013, two years after she became chief minister. Goutam Deb, a central committee member of the CPIM and a former state minister, asked whether Abhishek “runs a chit fund or not”.
The Saradha Group chit fund scam had recently been exposed. Abhishek was managing director and chairman of Leaps & Bounds Pvt Ltd at the time, Deb said, showing screenshots from his company’s website. His response was to send Deb a defamation notice.
Over the next few months, Abhishek gradually removed himself from the directorship of his companies as his focus switched to politics. The TMC had launched a new youth wing called Yuva in 2011, with Abhishek as its national head, despite the existence of the very robust Trinamool Youth Congress, headed by Suvendu Adhikari.
In 2014, Abhishek got a Lok Sabha ticket from one of the party’s safest seats, Diamond Harbour. He won by a significant margin. Two weeks after the Lok Sabha election results were announced, Mamata removed Adhikari from the youth wing and made him a general secretary of the party in the state – a move that many considered amounted to “kicking him upstairs”. Adhikari was replaced by Saumitra Khan, whom Mamata’s right-hand man, Mukul Roy, had brought in from the Congress.
Khan’s prospects seemed solid: he had moved from being a Congress MLA to a TMC MP in charge of the Trinamool Youth Congress. However, he was removed barely five months later when Mamata merged Yuva with the youth wing, with Abhishek as its head. Many saw it as the chief minister’s formal indication that she had chosen her political heir.
The rifts in the TMC were clear.
The first to fall out with Mamata was Mukul Roy, whose relationship with the party chief started souring in 2015, culminating in his decision to join the BJP in November 2017. TMC leaders told this reporter, on the condition of anonymity, that Abhishek was one of the causes of the rift between Roy and Mamata.
Next came Khan, who joined the BJP in January 2019, followed by Adhikari, who joined the BJP in December last year.
In his first press conference after joining the BJP, Mukul Roy said that Abhishek had applied for the ownership of the trademark of Biswa Bangla, a brand and logo owned by the state government and created by Mamata. Luckily for the government, it contested Abhishek’s application with the authorities concerned, and Abhishek soon withdrew it. Khan, on the day he joined the BJP, said he could no longer be with the TMC because it had turned into “Pishi-Bhaipor Party”.
By then, Abhishek had already become the subject of jibes and questioning from opposition leaders.
In August 2017, the BJP had accused Mamata of playing quid pro quo with realtor Raj Kishore Modi for her nephew. BJP leader Prakash Jadavekar said Mamata, who had once led protests against Modi’s projects before she became chief minister, had now approved the project after Modi allegedly invested Rs 1.15 crore in Abhishek’s Leaps & Bounds Pvt Ltd.
The Left and the Congress also sought a clarification from Mamata, but she stayed silent. Abhishek’s response was a legal notice against the journalist who “broke” the story and the national news channel that aired it. The channel later removed the story from its website.
In 2018, home minister Amit Shah alleged that aid from the central government had “ended up” with Abhishek, who swiftly sent Shah a legal notice.
In January, Abhishek sent Babul Supriyo a legal notice, after the latter’s suggestion that “all kinds of smuggling” found its way to Abhishek’s home. In response, Supriyo said: “Let my legal team look into legal affairs. There is no Opposition leader in Bengal who has not received defamation notices from his [Abhishek’s] lawyers. Those two [Mamata and Abhishek] should apologise first for looting the state for 10 years.”
Importantly, no allegations against Abhishek Banerjee have been proved. From the Saradha Group scam to the Rose Valley chit fund scam, none of them touched Abhishek.
Ironically, a sting operation in 2016, intended to unearth corruption in Mamata's party, pointed fingers at about a dozen MPs, ministers and MLAs, including leaders like Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari, and Sovan Chatterjee, all three of whom have since joined the BJP. The journalist behind the sting operation claimed in the report that they failed to reach Abhishek despite repeated efforts.
Abhishek’s wife, Rujira, has been targeted too. In March 2019, during the run up to the Lok Sabha election, customs officials posted at Kolkata’s NSC Bose International Airport alleged that Abhishek’s wife used the influence of the state police to evade the screening of her luggage after customs officials suspected she was carrying gold without declaration. While the BJP tried to spin it into a major political issue, Abhishek’s wife approached the court, which gave her respite.
A few days later, the home ministry sent Rujira a notice, accusing her of obtaining a PAN card while withholding information about her Thai citizenship. Abhishek had rubbished that charge as well, while admitting that his wife was a Thai national by birth. Since then, there has been no update on the matter from the ministry of home affairs.
In general, Abhishek’s response to allegations of corruption or wrongdoing has been to file defamation suits. To circumvent these legal notices is why most BJP leaders now refer to him as “bhaipo”.
As the BJP’s Dilip Ghosh said, “Ishara hi kaafi hain.” Dropping hints is enough for people to understand.
“Everyone knows who bhaipo is, just like everyone in the country knows who Pappu is,” Ghosh said. When asked if the BJP has any evidence against Abhishek Banerjee, he replied, “You don’t need evidence when things become an open secret...Who knows, evidence may come forth any time.”
Abhishek brought this up during a rally in November 2020, where he dared the BJP to refer to him by name. “Even the prime minister is scared of naming me,” he said.
Senior BJP leaders told this reporter that the latest way to target Abhishek is by going after businessmen with “irregularities”, who are known to have funded Abhishek in the past.
“Keep an eye on what happens to Lala and Vinay Mishra,” said a BJP leader. “Once you start pulling the ears, the head will come.”
Vinay Mishra is a TMC youth leader whose house was searched by the CBI as part of an investigation into a cow smuggling racket. Lala, whose real name is Anup Majhi, is a businessman whose house was raided by the CBI too, allegedly for being the “kingpin” in a coal theft scam.
Meanwhile, the TMC has pushed back against this “campaign” against Mamata’s nephew.
“The BJP is shamelessly running a misinformation campaign, the thing they do best,” said Sougata Roy, a TMC MP in the Lok Sabha.