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4 Missing at 4 Missing at all eyes on Forest Minister

Kolkata: Four faces were missing from a cabinet meeting called by Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Tuesday, raising eyebrows over the possibility of yet more Trinamool leaders switching political camps ahead of next year’s Assembly election.

Of the four, three offered perfectly valid explanations, Partha Chatterjee, the Secretary-General of the ruling party, said. Rajib Banerjee, the fourth, remained incommunicado till late in the evening.

Ominously, Mr Banerjee, the Forests Minister and the MLA from Domjur, has been striking discordant notes over the past few weeks. In November, at a public meeting in Kolkata, he spoke about nepotism and sycophancy in the party, alleging that “yes men” were rising to prominence and that this was a matter of great personal disappointment.

Mr Banerjee’s comments appeared to mirror those by Suvendu Adhikari – the influential former Trinamool leader who last week joined the BJP. Last month Mr Adhikari spoke of “leaders arriving by parachute or lift” – a reference to Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee.

Rajib Banerjee’s comments led to him being called for talks by Mr Chatterjee. Poll strategist Prashant Kishore was reportedly present at the meeting.

After the talks Mr Banerjee did strike a more conciliatory note, and said his issues with the party should not be linked to those of his former colleagues, specially Mr Adhikari. Nevertheless, his absence at today’s cabinet meet is being viewed with suspicion.

Among the other missing ministers were North Bengal Development Minister Rabindranath Ghosh of Cooch Behar. Mr Ghosh said he was busy monitoring the Duare, Duare campaign – an outreach programme by Ms Banerjee to help people access government services.

Gautam Deb, the tourism minister from Darjeeling district, has been unwell, and Chandranath Sinha of Birbhum said he was occupied preparing for the Chief Minister’s visit next week.

The Trinamool, which faces a stern fight to retain control in Bengal in the face of an onslaught by the BJP, has lost at least seven legislators and dozens of others to the opposition party. Several, including Mr Adhikari, joined the BJP ds December 19, in the presence of Home Minister Amit Shah.

Addressing a rally in the Paschim Medinipur district, Mr Shah taunted Ms Banerjee over the defections, saying: “Didi, this is only the beginning by the time the elections come around only you and your nephew will be left in the party.”

Associates of Mr Adhikari, who is widely regarded as playing a key role in the Nandigram movement that paved the way for Mamata Banerjee come to power in 2011, have reportedly told the BJP they can “break” the Trinamool in three months.

The Trinamool has shrugged off the exits, describing them as “good riddance to liabilities”. However, privately several party leaders admit concerns and say that if Rajib Banerjee, or other high-profile figures, were to leave, it may impact party morale.