By Sirshendu Panth
Kolkata, Nov 20: Articulate and multifaceted, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi was a master in political manoeuvring and the topmost leader of the youth brigade that took West Bengal by storm in the late 1960s, to sideline the Communists and bring back the Congress to power in 1972.
It was a time when the Maoist movement went from strength to strength in the state, with bright youngsters leaving schools, colleges and universities to follow Charu Majumdar’s doctrine of annihilating ‘class enemies’, that virtually saw a bloodbath over the years.
Dasmunsi was then the magnet for those young men and women, who disagreed with the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) — the main force of the two United Front governments in the state in 1967 and 1969 — as also the policy of the bullets espoused by the Maoists.
First as a student leader in the Calcutta University, and then as a brilliant Youth Congress organiser, Dasmunsi was a major draw with his fiery oratory and many of his proteges like Subrata Mukherjee and Sougata Roy went on to occupy key positions in the government, state Congress, and in later years, to the breakaway Trinamool Congress.
The student and youth movements, militant, but pacifist compared to the Maoist line, enabled Siddhartha Shankar Ray to become the chief minister at the head of a Congress government. At the same time it gave birth to bitter factional fights in the state party, which continue to this day.
Groupism and lobby politics have often been cited as key reasons for the Congress singlehandedly failing to dislodge the communist-led Left Front government that remained in power for 34 years till 2011, when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress combined with the Congress to take over power.
A grieving Mukherjee recalled the turbulent 60s and 70s. “I have become fatherless again. In my politics, as also at a personal level, I had only Priyada. We were a pair. Everybody used to say Priya-Subrata. We lived together in a commune. We studied in Calcutta University. He even cooked for me. He led a high-quality student movement under the banner of the Chhatra Parishad. It was because of him that the Left led United Front lost power, and S.S. Ray became chief minister”.
Dasmunsi’s talent saw his meteoric rise in the 1970s in the Congress, then led by Indira Gandhi. He became an All India Congress Committee member in 1970, was made the state youth Congress chief the same year, and entered the Lok Sabha from the then South Calcutta seat in 1971, at the young age of 26.
As early as 1971, he was elected president of All India Youth Congress, a position he held till 1975, when Sanjay Gandhi removed him to anoint his (Gandhi’s) favourite, Ambika Soni, to the post.
Dasmunsi did not take the snub kindly, and left the Congress in 1979, when the party split after it lost power at the centre in 1977 at the height of the anti-Emergency wave.
Dasmunsi joined the Congress (Socialist), became its West Bengal president and is said to have commented in public meetings that he would rather change his religion or eat cow-dung than return to the parent party.
But that he did after the Congress rode back to power in 1980, though Indira Gandhi never forgave him for turning against her during her difficult days.
In 1984, Dasmunsi returned to the Lok Saba from Howrah constituency by exploiting the sentiments of the jobless youths in the area. In meeting after meeting, he displayed a key and declared: “This is the key to open all closed factories and industries.”
It was a promise too farfetched in a developing nation. But then, it was typical Dasmunsi — captivating people with his gift of the gab and promising them the moon. It also showed his convincing ability and endearing personality.
In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi inducted Dasmunsi in his council of ministers as Minister of State for Commerce. Subsequently, he was also made president of the state Congress, but the party lost badly to the LF in the 1987 state assembly polls despite Gandhi’s vigorous campaign.
Dasmunsi lost from Howrah in 1989, with many saying his failed promise to reopen factories led to the debacle,
He again bit the dust in 1991 but re-entered the Lok Sabha in 1996 from the same constituency — an indicator of the gritty fighter he was.
In 1999, Dasmunsi successfully fought the Lok Sabha elections from Raiganj (now under Uttar Dinajpur district) and repeated his success in 2004.
Dasmunsi also served as Minister of Information and Broadcasting and Parliamentary Affairs in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet from 2004 to 2008, when he suffered a paralytic stroke, lost his power of speech and went into a coma from which he never came out.
As I&B minister, Dasmunsi banned several western television networks, calling their broadcasts obscene. During his tenure, the centre got Indian sports broadcaster Nimbus to share broadcast rights for Indian cricket matches with the state-run Doordarshan.
Besides brining out the Dakhhini Barta magazine, for which he wrote a large number of well-crafted articles and other literary works, Dasmunsi stewarded the country’s football for close to two decades till 2008, when, after his illness, Praful Patel took over the reins.
As AIFF president, Dasmunsi started the National Football League in 1996, served as match commissioner in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany and organised the Millennium Cup international tournament in 2000.
In the 2004 Athens Olympics, Dasmunsi was named Chef-de-Mission of the Indian contingent.
Dasmunsi was born on November 13, 1945 at Chirirbandar (now in Bangladesh).
In 1994, Dasmunsi married actress Deepa Dasmunsi, who later became an MLA and MP. The couple has one son, Priyadeep, nicknamed Michil (rally).