THE meteoric rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal has been one of the most astonishing phenomena in the State’s recent political history. From languishing for years on the outer periphery of the States’s politics, with a vote share fluctuating between 4 and 6 per cent until as late as 2009, the party today appears strong enough to defeat the ruling Trinamool Congress in the Assembly elections that are less than two years away.
While the policies and actions of the Trinamool are in many ways responsible for the BJP’s rise, the latter’s shrewd, opportunistic politics and ruthless poaching from all political parties irrespective of ideology also seem to be working in its favour. Although its organisational strength in West Bengal is relatively weak, the BJP managed to secure 40 per cent of the votes and won 18 of the 42 seats in the April/May Lok Sabha election.
The BJP made no secret of making political gains by poaching leaders from rival parties. One may recall that in an election rally in Hooghly district in April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that 40 Trinamool legislators were already in touch with him. “When the results come out, the lotus will start blooming and your MLAs will start leaving you. As of now, 40 of your MLAs are in touch with me. It is difficult for you to survive,” he said.
True to his words, as soon as the results were declared on May 23, the defections began. Just four days after the results, three MLAs—one each from the Trinamool, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress—and 50 councillors from the Trinamool switched over to the BJP. Since then there have been continuous efforts by the party to strengthen its own ranks by chipping away at the opposition ranks. It has been seen even to be wooing those leaders from the Trinamool who have been publicly discredited for making immediate political gains.
In just two months since the election results were declared, the BJP claimed control of one zilla parishad, five panchayat damitis and around 500 gram panchayats, mainly owing to defections from the Trinamool camp. Such defections also brought several municipal boards under the BJP’s control, although a few have been wrested back by the Trinamool.
Poaching is not a new phenomenon in West Bengal. Although there was hardly any instance of horse-trading during the 34-year-long Left Front rule, such occurrences became quite commonplace after Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress dislodged the Left in 2011. “There may be a lot of allegations against the Left, but no one can accuse them of indulging in horse-trading. When the Trinamool came to power, it started horse-trading at every level—the gram panchayat, the municipal corporations and the Assembly. Even now there are 17 Congress MLAs who owe their allegiance to the Trinamool, although officially they have not left the Congress. From 2012 to 2018, Mamata Banerjee has been following this strategy to bring about an opposition-free situation in the State. Now, the BJP is doing the same thing,” said the well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakrabarty.
The BJP State president, Dilip Ghosh, recently said, “We are using the very tools you used to defeat you,” in reply to the Trinamool’s protest against the BJP’s political practice in the State. On July 13, senior BJP leader Mukul Roy, who not so long ago was one of Mamata Banerjee’s closest aides, announced at a press conference that 107 MLAs—most of them belonging to the Trinamool—were in touch with the BJP and were “willing to join the saffron camp very soon”.
In West Bengal, the BJP has made it clear that it will stop at nothing to seize power. Time and again it has gone against its earlier claims and made compromises in apparent disregard to its own credibility. Buoyed by the rise in the party’s vote share from 6 to 17 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the party’s central leadership began to take an aggressive approach to improve its prospects in the State.
It may be recalled that in 2015, at the height of the uproar over the multi-crore Saradha fund collection scam, the same Mukul Roy, who is now seen as a key factor in the BJP’s success in the State, was at the receiving end of the party’s most vitriolic attacks. “Bhaag Mukul Bhaag” (Run Mukul Run) was the battle cry coined by Sidharth Nath Singh, the BJP leader who was then in charge of West Bengal. Three years later Mukul Roy, who was questioned by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for his alleged role in the Saradha scam, was not only inducted into the BJP but elevated to a position of considerable power. Once known as the second-most influential leader in the Trinamool after Mamata Banerjee, Mukul Roy is still wielding his influence within his former party to lure away leaders and workers into the saffron camp.
In a more recent development, the influential Trinamool leader and former Mayor of the Bidhannagar Municipality, Sabyasachi Dutta, was seen to be making obvious overtures to the BJP, after being seen with Mukul Roy in a public gathering. Although he resigned from his post as Mayor on July 18, and has been vocal in his criticism of the Trinamool government since then, he is yet to officially join the BJP. “Our strategy is also to break the Trinamool with the help of those who are actually working for the BJP from within. There are many in the Trinamool who are unhappy with Mamata Banerjee’s and Abhishek Banerjee’s [Mamata’s nephew and apparent heir to the party leadership] style of functioning and are still loyal to Mukul Roy,” a BJP source told Frontline .
Dutta, incidentally, is known to be one of the biggest advocates of the “syndicate” system (a euphemism for extortionists operating in the housing and infrastructure industries). He was even caught on camera admitting that the syndicate bore the bulk of his election expenditure. The BJP’s lack of mass leaders at the local level and its relatively weak presence at the booth level is seen as the main driving factor behind its aggressive poaching tactics.
One persisting allegation against the BJP is that it is taking advantage of the fact that it is in power at the Centre and is using Central investigating agencies such as the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) not only to put pressure on the ruling party in the State, but also as an insidious instrument of poaching. Interestingly, if the BJP is being accused of using Central agencies for political gains, the Trinamool is also accused by the BJP of using the police to retain its control of the rural and urban elected bodies and coerce those who have joined the BJP to return to the Trinamool.
Many feel that the BJP’s rise in the State could not have taken place had it not been for the policies of the Trinamool government. The latter’s relentless pursuit of establishing an opposition-free scenario almost completely destroyed the political base of the Left and the Congress, leaving only the BJP to reap the benefits of the anti-incumbency wave that the ruling party was later to face. Moreover, the BJP has also taken full advantage of the religious card that Mamata Banerjee has been using time and again to strengthen her minority base, and has successfully managed to polarise a large section of Hindu voters in its favour. With communal clashes taking place regularly in the State, it is the BJP that is gaining in strength.
The saffron party is now looking at controlling other aspects of public life as well. It has managed to get a foothold in the Bengali film industry, which for long was controlled by the Trinamool. Recently it made a big event of 11 prominent faces of the industry joining the BJP in New Delhi. With Durga Puja—the biggest festival for Bengalis—approaching, the party has also set its sights on the innumerable Puja committees that organise the festival. “Many Durga Puja committees are now trying to associate with us and want our national president [Amit Shah] and State president (Dilip Ghosh) to inaugurate their pujas,” said Sayantan Bose, general secretary of the State BJP.
HAVING successfully ousted the 14-month-old Congress-JD(S) government in Karnataka, the BJP’s next target is the Kamal Nath regime in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress has a wafer-thin majority in the State Assembly. The party lost all but one seat in the 29 Lok Sabha constituencies in the State in the elections held in April/May. But Kamal Nath, who is known to be a deft handler of political crises, is more than prepared to deal with any challenges that his political opponents are likely to orchestrate to oust him and the Congress from power. This was manifest when two BJP MLAs voted in favour of the Congress on July 24, on the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill in the Assembly. This underscored the larger political point that Madhya Pradesh was not Karnataka and Kamal Nath was not a beleaguered and disempowered H.D. Kumaraswamy heading a mismatch coalition government. In short, repeating a Karnataka or Goa in Madhya Pradesh will not be easy.
The BJP has set its eyes on the central Indian State ever since the exit poll results started pouring in on May 19, the last round of the seven-phase Lok Sabha election, predicting a rout for the Congress. The Congres had won the Assembly elections only six months earlier. On May 20, the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Gopal Bhargava, wrote a letter to Governor Anandiben Patel demanding that a special session of the Assembly be convened and the Kamal Nath government be asked to undergo a floor test to prove its majority. Speaking to the media at the time, Bhargava said: “The Kamal Nath government should prove its majority in the Assembly.... We are sending a letter to the Governor requesting an Assembly session as there are a lot of issues.... It [Kamal Nath government] will fall on its own. I don't believe in horse-trading but I feel its time has come and it will have to go soon.” The BJP, since then, has been planning to seek a division of votes on financial matters. If the government fails to push through financial matters in the House, it will essentially mean it has lost its majority.
The BJP upped its game to poach Congress MLAs after Narendra Modi swept back to power on May 23, said sources in the Pradesh Congress Committee. Kamal Nath had asserted at the time that there was no threat to his government and that he was ready for a floor test. Congress sources said that Kamal Nath had drawn his strategy over a three-point formula. One, he is using “all the means and resources available” to keep his flock together. The Congress MLAs and legislators from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and independents who are supporting his government have been asked not to leave the State capital while the monsoon session of the Assembly is under way. There was a 24x7 covert vigil on all these legislators, said Congress insiders.
Word has been sent to the Jyotiraditya Scindia camp that ending intra-party bickering and collectively guarding the government against defections was a more lucrative option since defection by any legislator would lead to his disqualification and would benefit none. Some journalists in the State view the government’s decision to renew the allocation of 146 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land worth more than Rs.400 crore to Jyotiraditya Scindia’s Scindia Education Society, which runs a school in Gwalior, as Kamal Nath’s overture to his most formidable rival.
Secondly, Kamal Nath has not only retained the key players in the State’s bureaucracy but is also trying to establish a rapport with them by giving them additional charges and privileges.
A source in the State Congress said that some of these bureaucrats had proximity to legislators from the rival camp and this could be leveraged to open a line of communication with them and “reverse the BJP’s poaching game”. When asked if Kamal Nath’s team had reached out to the BJP MLAs and was attempting to gain their loyalties, the source said, “You saw something yesterday”. The reference was to BJP legislators Narayan Tripathi and Sharad Kol, former Congress leaders, who voted in favour of the ruling party on July 24. According to reliable sources, Kamal Nath had been sending “feelers” to them. Tripathi and Kol described their cross-voting as “ghar wapasi”.
Interestingly, hours before the voting, opposition leader Gopal Bhargava said: “ Hamare oopar wale Number 1 ya number 2 ka aadesh hua to 24 ghante bhi aapki sarkar nahi chalegi (If there is an order from our No.1 or No.2 then your government will not survive even 24 hours).” Kamal Nath wittingly replied: “Your top No.1 and No. 2 are sensible, that is why they are not giving such orders”. In the 230-member House, the Congress has 114 MLAs and the BJP 109. Four independents, two BSP MLAs and the lone S.P. law-maker support the Congress government.
Congress spokesperson Shobha Oza, who was in charge of electioneering in Madhya Pardesh, has alleged that the BJP has been threatening the Congress MLAs and has offered them Rs.50 crore each to defect from the party.
There is an apparent third facet to the strategy that Kamal Nath has evolved for his government’s survival. There is talk in the Congress’ State unit that the former nine-time Chhindwara Member of Parliament is in touch with former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan through a close group of interlocutors. A reliable source has this to say about the alleged Kamal Nath-Shivraj Singh Chouhan axis: “The collapse of the Kamal Nath government will certainly not portend well for Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s camp and his close associates in the bureaucracy who benefited during his tenure. It is an open secret that the top two leaders in the BJP do not have the best of equations with Chouhan. Their plan is to recall him to New Delhi, under the pretext of entrusting him with national responsibilities, and then make him irrelevant.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan understands that there is little possibility that he would be picked to head a BJP dispensation that would prop up if the Congress is ousted. Also, there is a very real possibility of loss of face for him and his associates in the bureaucracy if a meticulous probe of the Vyapam scam is undertaken. As matters in the BJP stand, he is more hopeful of leniency from the Kamal Nath government than any rival leader from his own party who would become the Chief Minister. There is a thinking within the party’s State leadership that if it comes to a floor test, by way of secret ballot, Kamal Nath can expect some ‘covert magnanimity’.”
The source added that it was in keeping with these possibilities that the “No.1 and No.2 in the BJP are taking their sweet time but not rushing to fell the government.”
Irrespective of whether such faith within the Congress is delusional or well-founded, the BJP in Madhya Pradesh is far from a cohesive unit with Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Gopal Bhargava, Narottam Mishra and Kailash Vijayvargiya all eyeing the top slot should the Kamal Nath government fall. That gives the Congress an opportunity to exploit the saffron party’s warring factions and defeat it in its own game.
Congress relatively safe
THE electoral performance of the Congress in the 2018 Assembly elections, when it won in three States (Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh) in the Hindi heartland defeating the incumbent BJP, was not commendable. Yet, the fact that the Congress defeated the BJP brought it into the reckoning on the political landscape. So, it was natural that political pundits expected the Congress to repeat its performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in these States as the contest was more or less bipolar. But the electoral outcome was devastating for the Congress. In Rajasthan, the Congress lost in all the 25 seats. Such was the drubbing that Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s son, Vaibhav Gehlot, who contested from Jodhpur, lost by a margin of 2.74 lakh votes.
The results were interpreted as a referendum on Gehlot’s leadership. He was accused of devoting a disproportionate amount of time to his home constituency, a claim that was proved incorrect. The results delivered a blow to the Congress leadership as it had hoped to win at least 12 seats given the fact that it was in power in the State. It was rightly analysed that had the Congress not been embroiled in internecine power struggles, it might not have faced such a drubbing. Two Ministers in the Gehlot government spoke out publicly about the poor results and demanded accountability.
The Congress has 101 seats in the 200-member Assembly, which works out to a simple majority. The BJP won 72 seats and independents, most of whom were Congress rebels, won 13. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won six seats. Although the BJP’s seat share was 91 seats fewer than its 2013 tally, it did not fare badly on the vote share front. The difference in the vote share between the Congress and the BJP was less than 1 per cent.
In the Lok Sabha election, the Congress led in 15 of the 200 Assembly segments and the BJP in the remaining. The BJP’s vote share went up by two percentage points, from 56 per cent in 2014 to 58 per cent in 2019.
The BJP is nowhere near the majority mark in the Assembly. Therefore, the chances of it staking a claim to form the government appear remote as of now.
Political observers Frontline spoke to said that in the eventuality of any instability in the present government, it was likely that the BSP and the independents would support the Gehlot government. It was also opined that had the BSP entered into an alliance with the BJP at the Centre, the danger to the Congress government would have been more imminent. As that was not the case, the eventuality of parties such as the BSP lending support was not overruled. Unlike in Karnataka, where the difference between the combined strength of the coalition and the BJP is narrow, in Rajasthan the BJP is 19 seats short of a majority. In addition, the BJP is also plagued by leadership issues, particularly with respect to former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje whose proximity or lack of it to the BJP’s central leadership has been a subject of discussion. All this ensures the fortuitous survival of the Congress government for a full term.
Although the BJP fought the Assembly elections under the leadership of Vasundhara Raje, it was an open secret that the central leadership was not comfortable with her at the helm of the party in the State. But the BJP does not have a credible face to replace her. Vasundhara Raje has consolidated support for herself within the party in the State. One of the challengers to her leadership, Ghanshyam Tiwari, had joined the Congress. The Member of Parliament from Nagaur, Hanuman Beniwal, who challenged her leadership in the run-up to the Assembly election, broke away from the BJP and founded the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP). He contested on the RLP ticket and won both the Khinwsar Assembly seat and the Nagaur Lok Sabha seat. The RLP became an alliance partner of the BJP in the Lok Sabha.
Yet, the BJP does not seem to have many choices for leadership change in the State. Like the Congress, it has its own share of factionalism. State party president and Rajya Sabha member Madan Lal Saini passed away on June 24, but no one has been appointed in his place so far.
In the Congress, the rivalry between the factions and support groups of Ashok Gehlot on the one hand and those of his deputy, Pradesh Congress Committee president Sachin Pilot, on the other is a bigger threat to the party rather than any outside element. The differences have festered and percolated right down to the grass roots. At a post-Budget press conference on July 11, Gehlot told surprised presspersons that he was chosen for the post of Chief Minister by none other than Congress president Rahul Gandhi and that he deserved to be the Chief Minister ( mera CM banna banta tha ). His statement took everyone by surprise as it appeared to be out of context.
The dissent in the Congress was visible in the entire process that led to the selection of the Chief Minister. The rivalry between Pilot and Gehlot was so much in the open that supporters of each faction came out and protested on the streets. The rivalry was on public display. Party insiders blame the central leadership for sowing the seeds of mutual suspicion by promoting competitive politics between the two leaders and delaying the choice of Chief Minister. Both Gehlot and Pilot felt they were equal claimants to the post. Pilot’s supporters argued that it was he who steered the party to victory in the Assembly election and that he had managed the party’s affairs for three years in Gehlot’s absence and so he ought to have been made Chief Minister. A section of the old guard felt that for a Lok Sabha victory Gehlot’s organisational and administrative experience was crucial. The rivalry between the two took a heavy toll on the Congress’ performance in the Lok Sabha election.
But this rivalry, which has split the party’s rank and file, is unlikely to result in an organisational split. “Both Congress factions are sycophants of the Gandhi family. They are not likely to upset the apple cart in their own interests and as yet there is no third element in the Congress with clout—financial and otherwise—to stand up to the two at the moment and provide an alternative. Some independents are hopeful that they will be made Ministers, and that is how the Congress government will last an entire term. The question is, where the party is headed for now. It has no national president and if factionalism in the State is allowed to grow, there might be other consequences,” remarked a political observer from Jaipur on conditions of anonymity. He said that certain appointments, like that of lawyers and members to the executive council in universities, had been done without consulting the party president, which was causing heartburning among other leaders.
“Those who were part of Pilot’s team expect to be rewarded but that is not happening,” he said, and added that the party organisation, as a result, was in a state of atrophy. The Congress, he quipped, was in Santhara mode (a religious practice of fasting to death by reducing the intake of food and liquids), that is, waiting for its political death to happen.
In the recently held local body byelection in 11 districts, the Congress won eight of the 17 wards while the BJP won five. Two independents, supported by the Congress, also won. While the Congress has been rejoicing over these results, it is a fact that support for candidates in local body elections is normally influenced by the political affiliation of the party in power in the State. Despite these small victories, it is felt that the Congress has not lived up to its promises made during the elections, especially those pertaining to waiver of farmer loans.
“One, two, three, four…they counted up to 10 and said that within 10 days they would waive all farmer loans. These bogus promises cost them the Lok Sabha seats,” said Amra Ram, former MLA of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). This promise was made by none other than Rahul Gandhi at an election rally. Apart from the lethargy towards farmers’ issues, the Congress government has also been found wanting in its response on Dalit and minority issues. Amra Ram ruled out any imminent threat to the government and he felt that compared to the situation facing the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan was better. But for its own survival it may need to check the competitive politics between the two power centres and to fulfil the promises it made to the electorate during the elections.
A fraud on allies
THE BJP has proved many times over that it is wily and aggressive. Undoubtedly, it is a party in control, a juggernaut that cannot be stopped. But just how defeatist and pathetic the opposition, mainly the Congress party, has become was reflected in the recent political drama that unfolded in Goa. Two months after the BJP won the 2019 general election, 10 MLAs defected from the grand old party to the BJP. Apparently, the Congressmen felt that the BJP was committed in its goal towards developing Goa and therefore their constituencies would benefit if they were part of this party.
This tiny but politically volatile State regularly witnesses upheavals within the two national parties, which dominate its politics. A few losses here and there are par for the course, but this kind of decimation of a national party was unexpected and deeply disappointing to the people of Goa. While the Congress may be in a shambles, the BJP’s induction of so many MLAs who defected and its unceremonious dropping of coalition partners who had helped it form the government were completely undemocratic, said a political observer.
The Goa Assembly has 40 members, and it is invariably a numbers game at election time. In the 2017 Assembly elections, the Congress emerged as the largest party with 17 seats while the BJP got 13. Within hours of the results being announced, the BJP cobbled together a majority by striking a deal with a couple of local parties—Goa Forward and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party—and three independents. These “allies” managed to work out an arrangement, which the late Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar designed.
By taking in 10 MLAs, the BJP could drop its reportedly millstone-like coalition partners and become the single largest party in the State. Over the past year, four Congress MLAs had already joined the BJP, taking its tally to 17. The additional 10 will take the party well over the halfway mark without allies. So as soon as the new members were inducted into the BJP, it immediately severed ties with Goa Forward, its main ally, whose leader, Vijai Sardesai, was removed from the post of Deputy Chief Minister. According to Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, the allies were hindering progress with unreasonable demands and constant threats of pulling out. Sawant told mediapersons: “Without them, I can now concentrate on State work.”
Sardesai is furious. He said: “Parrikar would never have done this. He would have been committed to the coalition. This is highly undemocratic. They have gone against the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, and if the Supreme Court takes suo motu cognisance of this merger, then 10 people will be out of a political career.”
Interestingly, Parrikar’s son Utpal Parrikar told the local media that he believed the party had taken a different direction after his father’s death. He said: “Words like trust and commitment, which were the core of the BJP during Manohar Parrikar’s time, ceased to exist on March 17 [the date he died].”
“This seemingly shrewd political manoeuvre may have secured them [the BJP] a majority in the house and may create political stability in the State, but it is a short-sighted and unethical move,” a party insider in Goa told Frontline . “To drop allies who were the ones that brought you to power is wrong. They were NDA [National Democratic Alliance] partners. The Centre should not have permitted this.” He said that the BJP came to power on Manohar Parrikar’s name. “He would have never dishonoured the coalition. Sawant seems intent on ruining Parrikar’s legacy. This move will reflect poorly on the party and will backfire on Sawant in the next election. The people will not trust them. There are many in the BJP ranks who are upset, and I believe a divide has been created. Three newly inducted Ministers have been given ministerial berths. Sawant cannot accommodate everyone. Other BJP MLAs will eventually protest. For now it is the lack of other options that is making them keep quiet. But for how long?”
In the recent coup, the BJP managed to snag Chandrakant Kavlekar, the former Leader of the Opposition. Sawant has rewarded him with the Deputy Chief Minister post. This leaves the Congress rudderless in the Assembly. Of the five remaining Congress MLAs, four are former Chief Ministers: Pratapsingh Rane, Luizinho Faleiro, Ravi Naik and Digambar Kamat. “If you have four Chief Ministers vying for power, there is bound to be infighting. This is the reason a once-powerful party is in tatters,” said Alston Mendonca, a party worker.
The Congress had in effect secured the people’s mandate in the 2017 State election. But owing to the high command’s mismanagement and the tussle for chief ministership, it could not form the government. Observers said the defection clearly indicated that the younger generation had no faith in the party and would do whatever it took to move ahead, even if it meant adopting another ideology. “They are opportunists obviously, but it has been many years since Goa has seen a Congress government. Sawant gave a bunch of frustrated politicians a chance to be in power, not for altruistic reasons but because he saw it as a win-win situation,” said Mendonca. The MLAs who joined the BJP along with Kavlekar are Atanasio Monserrate, Jennifer Monserrate, Francisco Silveira, Filipe Nery Rodrigues, Clafascio Dias, Wilfred DSa, Nilkanth Halarnkar, Isidore Fernandes and Antonio Fernandes. Kavlekar reportedly built his power via a gambling business. Atanasio Monserrate, otherwise known as Babush, is perhaps the instigator of the defection. Informed sources said he had tried to pull a similar stunt during Parrikar’s time but was not entertained by the former Chief Minister.