How former mayor Sovan Chatterjee's heart derailed him

Upala Sen digs into what makes recently resigned Chatterjee the man he is, and what unmade him

  • Published 25.11.18, 1:50 AM
  • Updated 25.11.18, 2:00 AM
  • 6 mins read
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Sovan Chatterjee' love for brands is legion Image: The Telegraph

Every Bengali has a daak naam. It is less name, more endearment, and a marker of intimacy — its usage is restricted to family and those like family. But by some perverse logic, most often than not a daak naam is unpronounceable in civil society. It is also impossible to live up to — Bobo, Gogol, Mampi, Jijai, Buchai. That way Trinamul Congress (TMC) veteran Sovan Chatterjee is blessed. His daak naam is Kanan; it means garden. In fact, even chief minister Mamata Banerjee refers to him by that name.

Last week, Sovan resigned from the posts of minister of housing and fire services as well as from the position of mayor of Calcutta. He also offered to resign as councillor of his ward should the new mayor wish to contest from there. He says he is ready to quit as TMC MLA if asked to. It is being said that Sovan’s intimacy with college teacher Baisakhi Banerjee has led to this political denouement. Since we were talking names, the converse of the daak naam in every which way is the bhalo naam. Baisakhi is a bhalo naam; meaning, of baisakh, the month of the Hindu calendar that corresponds to April/May. Also typical to this period is the kalbaisakhi or the wild Nor’wester.

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What Baisakhi is to Sovan is not our lookout, but one thing is obvious to all — he is experiencing a kalbaisakhi. For one, he is being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation following the Narada expose of 2016. There is a continuing domestic discord with his wife of 22 years — he has filed for divorce — that is playing out in the media ad nauseum. And a close friendship, which too is unfolding in full public view.

In a television interview from Thursday, post the resignations that shocked many, a bejewelled Baisakhi burst into tears when asked about the future of the man she refers to as “bandhu” or friend. From another TV square, the estranged wife, Ratna Chatterjee, continued to roll her eyes, respond to accusations and level her own. In a third TV square, the former mayor looked a tad forlorn. All he kept saying was this: “Those who are making Baisakhi Banerjee a scapegoat are doing great injustice.”

Those who know Sovan from the time he was a Youth Congress worker in the 1980s remember him as an earnest fellow. “He was not possessed of any electric charisma, was no orator either but he was forever rushing off to help the people of the neighbourhood (Behala in southwest Calcutta),” says a veteran journalist. This made him popular. He contested the Calcutta Municipal Corporation elections for the first time in 1985 and won. At the time he was 22.

“In 1985, he did not even have a motorbike,” recalls the journalist. While in the Congress, Sovan was with the Ajit Panja camp, when TMC was formed (in 1998), quick to recognise an opportunity, he started to sidle up to Mamata Banerjee. But he was low profile still.

Though his politics was keen and he had a mind to help further his ambitions, Sovan’s heart derailed him time and again. It seems, sometime in those early corporation days, Sovan fell hopelessly in love with a party worker. “And when she went ahead and married a really wealthy colleague, Sovan was inconsolable,” says another source. “I have never seen a grown man cry like that,” he adds.

When Subrata Mukherjee was the mayor between 2000 and 2005, Sovan became mayor-in-council (water supply). That was when he earned himself the moniker of “Jal Sovan”. The appellation, contrary to popular belief, had little to do with his contribution and much to do with helping corporation colleagues differentiate him from a namesake — trade union leader Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay. But it would still take another 10 years before Jal Sovan started to make a splash.

In between, he got married to Ratna, daughter of Dulal Das, a local businessman and TMC MLA. Dulal’s wife, Kasturi, was a TMC councillor till her death in February this year. The Dases, who are very wealthy, are referred to as Lalu and Rabri of Maheshtala. Did some of their wealth rub off on to Sovan? It is said that his father-in-law helped him set up his business of renting out godown space, though lately, the senior leader has vehemently denied benefiting from his in-laws ever.

Nonetheless, reports in The Telegraph from 2010 refer to his palatial home in Parnasree. CPM supporters are quoted as raising questions about his four cars and house with marble floors. But these reports also state that his “old ward” — ward 132 in Behala — has well maintained roads, functioning street lights, cleared garbage dumps and well-constructed parks and gardens.

In May 2010, Sovan was appointed mayor of Calcutta. The whisper in political circles was that it was really Javed Khan — currently minister for disaster management in the state government — who was meant to get the post, but Sovan had made it known to the party high command that he wanted to be mayor. Kanan’s wish was heeded.

In fact, Sovan had become so indispensable to Mamata Banerjee, it is said that during those years when she was a Union minister, every other week, when she returned to Calcutta, she would have late evening meetings with her close aides and Sovan was a constant. “She trusted him with party funds and while she took her own decision, he had her ear,” says another source, who too does not want to be identified. He also talks about Sovan’s ability to stomach criticism. “Whether from within the party or from the media, he did not let it affect his behaviour. Sovan always remained congenial,” he says. Critics though put this trait down to his innate tendency to avoid confrontation.

Soon after Sovan became mayor, Mamata Banerjee was invited to lay the foundation for a new booster pumping station in Chetla. A children’s swimming pool was also inaugurated and she gave the mayor a nudge. Losing balance, Sovan fell into the pool. The incident evoked much laughter, made headlines too, and many will remember the photographs, but above all it made evident to everyone present the easy equation the two shared.

In one of the countless TV interviews, Baisakhi said that Sovan has saved the West Bengal chief minister’s number on his phone as — Ma. It is natural that a mayor should have a Ma, but it is not unnatural that he should want a muse.

Around the time of his first term as mayor, Sovan became close to a Tollywood actress.

Debasree Roy contested the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2011 from Raidighi, against CPI(M) candidate and former minister Kanti Ganguly, and won. Even as recently as June last year, the CM herself ribbed Sovan about their closeness. At a party meeting, when Sovan conveyed to the CM what Debasree needed for Raidighi, she said in mock anger, “Why is Kanan speaking for Debasree?”

After Sovan’s resignation, Debasree reportedly told media, “What a loss.” She also stated she had not been in touch with him for a while.

Even Sovan’s detractors don’t fault him on his work. His long stint with the corporation meant he knew it inside out. He was also known to work long hours, take quick decisions. So far all was going fine. Visitors to his Behala home, Gopal Bhavan, now began to notice some changes. Framed pictures of family vacations with wife Ratna, son Saptarshi and daughter Suhani in London and Singapore now adorned the living room.

Sovan’s love for brands quickly became legion. Watches, apparel, accessories that he’d flaunt on a dare. His collection of Rolexes, his Omegas. He had acquired an armada of single malts par excellence; only single malts. When The Telegraph wrote about his gold-trimmed Montblanc peeping out of his starched kurta and his high-end mobile phone, he called up the next day, hurt: “You didn’t write about my Ferragamo shoes and Maybach spectacles?”

Sovan became mayor a second time in 2015. And then Narada happened. The sting operation by a news portal showed 12 purported TMC leaders accepting wads of currency notes and promising to further the interests of a fictitious company in return. The footage showed a man resembling Sovan wrapping money in a towel. In 2016, when TMC won the Assembly polls, he was made Cabinet minister as well, notwithstanding questions about the legality of a mayor holding this post. The CM’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, stayed away from the oath-taking ceremony. The day before, he tweeted cryptically — “Morality of Principles Vs Morality of Loyalty!!! Tough Call!!!!!.”

Newspaper reports from June 2017 show that all was still well with the Chatterjee household. There are photographs of Sovan digging into a varied platter at his in-laws’ on the occasion of Jamai Shasthi, the day earmarked in the Bengali calendar for the son-in-law. In August, after dodging two ED summons, he finally made an appearance. In November, he filed for divorce. Sometime in between, Baisakhi Banerjee had made a quiet entry.

The two started appearing in public together. They were seen in shopping malls and resorts, allege Ratna. Most of the time they were colour co-ordinated — light mauve, deep mauve, light orange, a deeper orange. Ratna repeatedly draws attention to how Baisakhi’s sparkle quotient went up. Sovan began to speak of Baisakhi as his well-wisher. She was the one who was by his side when the ED episode was happening, he never forgot to point out.

Some say Baisakhi is a BJP plant. The other buzz is that the divorce thing is a ploy to save the property. But there’s more blowing about in the political drifts — suggestions that Sovan has fallen victim to dark intrigue by entrenched party lobbies. And his may not be the first head to roll in the Mamata court. All are stumped.

During an interview to ABP Ananda on Thursday, Baisakhi said in a quivering voice: “I cannot believe even now that he is no more.” And then, just in time, she added between seismic sobs, “…the mayor and minister.”

Or even, that he’s been taken in the swirl of a kalbaisakhi.