West Bengal Congress chief Somen Mitra, who died on Thursday, will go down in history as a leader who could make friends with rivals with the consummate ease of a political craftsman but failed to prevent a debilitating split in the party and presided over its gradual decline.
The split sowed the seeds for the formation of the Trinamool Congress led by a fiery Mamata Banerjee who, in the years that followed, decimated both the mighty Left and the Congress.
A known bete noire of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, it was during Somen Mitra’s second term as Congress president in the late 1990s that his party lost the status of the principal opposition to the then seemingly invincible Left Front to the TMC.
Somen Mitra died at a city hospital in the early hours of Thursday. He was 78. He was in the hospital for 17 days due to heart and kidney problems. He died following a cardiac arrest, hospital sources said.
Born on December 31, 1941, in Jessore district (now Bangladesh), Somen Mitra was the eldest of five siblings. A stalwart in West Bengal politics, Somen Mitra cut his teeth in politics during the tumultuous 1960s as a student leader.
After his baptism in politics in 1967, when Bengal had its first non-Congress government, Somen Mitra, through his organisational and oratorical 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. Mentored by Congress stalwarts like ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Somen Mitra’s first brush with electoral politics was in 1972 when he became the youngest MLA in the West Bengal Assembly from the Sealdah seat at 26.
Except for 1977, Somen Mitra continued to win the Sealdah assembly segment, which has now ceased to exist after delimitation, for six consecutive terms from 1982 to 2006. Addressed as ”Chhorada” (younger brother) by his supporters, Somen Mitra was one of the most firebrand politicians in the 1960s and 1970s, and had played a crucial role in the fight against the Naxals in Kolkata during that period.
During his political career spanning five decades, he was considered a favourite of the Congress high command and enjoyed excellent rapport with the Gandhi family. But that did not stop him from defeating Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s handpicked candidate DP Roy during the 2000 Rajya Sabha poll by pitting a rival candidate.
Somen Mitra, who went on to become the state Congress president thrice from 1992-1996, 1996-1998 and then again from September 2018 till his death, was instrumental in the party clocking its best tally of 82 seats against the Left Front in the 1996 assembly polls.
But with the 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 during that time that Mamata Banerjee, then the West Bengal Youth Congress president, was fast emerging as the rallying point against the Left Front dispensation.
Somen Mitra and Mamata Banerjee got locked in an internecine feud. The relations between the two hit rock bottom when Mamata Banerjee pitted herself against Somen Mitra for the post of state Congress president. Somen Mitra managed to win the party election by 22 votes amid acrimonious scenes at Maharashtra Niwas in south Kolkata. It was alleged that Somen Mitra, backed by the then Congress national president Sitaram Kesari, cornered Mamata Banerjee in the party.
Mamata Banerjee broke away and launched the Trinamool Congress in 1998. With the TMC aligning with the BJP and replacing the Congress as the main opposition to the Left Front in West Bengal after bagging seven seats in the 1998 parliamentary polls, Somen Mitra stepped down as state party president. He left the Congress in 2008 to form his political outfit Pragatisheel (Progressive) Indira Congress.
There are no permanent enemies or friends in politics, so the saying goes. Somen Mitra merged his outfit with Mamata Banerjee’s TMC ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and won the election from Diamond Harbour. Differences arose between the two again, and Somen Mitra quit the TMC in 2014 to rejoin the Congress.
He was made the state Congress president again in 2018 as the party lay battered and bruised by infighting and a string of defections by its leaders to the TMC. He was one of the chief architects of Left Front-Congress alliance in West Bengal during the 2016 assembly polls.
Somen Mitra was keen on having an alliance with the Left also for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but that could not materialise, and the two parties got drubbed. With his impeccable skills of persuasion, Somen Mitra managed to bring the two parties together again after the elections.
Somen Mitra and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Congress party’s current leader in the Lok Sabha, never favoured a rapprochement with the TMC as they felt it lacked credibility as a secular party, and held it responsible for the remarkable growth of the BJP in the state where it was hardly a force to reckon with a few years ago.