West Bengal Congress chief Somen Mitra will go down in the history as a master strategist of his time who failed to stop the spilt in the party, leading to the formation of TMC and the decline of the Congress as a political force in the state.
Known as a bête noire of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, it was during Mitra’s second term as Congress president in late ‘90s that the Congress lost its status as the principal opposition of the then mighty Left Front regime to the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Mitra passed away at a city hospital in the early hours of Thursday at the age of 78. He was in the hospital for 17 days due to heart and kidney-related problems. He died following a cardiac arrest, hospital sources said.
Born on December 31, 1941 in Jessore district of erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Mitra was the eldest of five siblings.
A stalwart in Bengal politics, Mitra’s political career began during the tumultuous ‘60s as a student leader and spanned over five decades.
After being baptized in politics as a student leader in 1967, when Bengal had its first non-Congress government, Mitra, through his organisational and oratory skills, quickly rose through the ranks and became one of the most popular leaders of the party along with late union minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi.
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Mentored by Congress stalwarts such as A B A Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Mitra’s first brush with electoral politics came in 1972 when he became the youngest MLA in the West Bengal Assembly from the Sealdah seat at the age of 26.
Except 1977, Mitra continued to win the Sealdah assembly segment, which now ceases to exist after delimitation, for six consecutive terms from 1982-2006.
Commonly known as ‘Chhorada’ (younger brother), Mitra was one of the most firebrand politicians of the 1960s and ‘70s and played a crucial role in the fight against the Naxals in Kolkata during that period.
He was considered as “favourite” of the Congress high command, who enjoyed an excellent rapport with the Gandhi family. But that did not stop him from defeating Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s handpicked candidate D P Roy during the 2000 Rajya Sabha poll by pitting a rival candidate.
Mitra, who went on to become three-time president of the Congress’ West Bengal unit from 1992-1996, 1996-1998 and then again from September 2018, was instrumental in clocking the best tally of 82 seats against the Left Front in the 1996 assembly polls.
But with Congress and the Left Front coming together at the Centre to support the United Front government, its credibility as the principal opposition to the CPI(M) in Bengal reached a nadir.
It was then Mamata Banerjee, then West Bengal Youth Congress president, was emerging as the main opposition force who had an uncompromising approach against the Left Front.
Mitra and Banerjee got involved in an inner-party struggle within the Bengal Congress unit.
The relations between the two hit rock bottom when Banerjee pitted herself against Mitra for the post of state Congress president.
Mitra, a veteran of Congress politics, managed to win the internal party election by 22 votes, following dramatic scenes at the Maharashtra Niwas in South Kolkata.
It is alleged that he along with the then Congress national president Sitaram Kesari cornered Banerjee in the party, following which she broke away to form the Trinamool Congress in 1998.
With the TMC aligning with the BJP and replacing Congress as the main opposition of the Left Front in Bengal by bagging seven seats in the 1998 parliamentary polls, Mitra resigned as state Congress president.
He left the Congress in 2008 to form his political outfit Pragatisheel (Progressive) Indira Congress.
But as the saying goes there are no permanent enemies or friends in politics, Mitra merged his outfit with the Banerjee’s TMC ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and won the election on a TMC ticket from the Diamond Harbour parliamentary seat that year.
Following differences with Banerjee, Mitra quit the TMC in 2014 to rejoin the Congress.
Battered by infighting and defections to the TMC, Mitra was again made Congress president in 2018, to revive the fortunes of the party.
He was one of the chief architects behind the CPI (M)-led Left Front and Congress alliance in West Bengal during the 2016 assembly polls.
He was keen on having an alliance with the Left during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but after the talks failed and both the parties faced a drubbing, he was instrumental in bringing them together after the elections.
Mitra, along with Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, was a strong advocate against any form of alliance with the TMC in Bengal, as they felt, “The TMC lacks credentials as a force against the BJP and it was due to TMC that the saffron camp had gained ground in the state”.