Until Mamata Banerjee stormed into power in 2011, defeating the 34-year-old Left Front, defection was not a major factor in West Bengal politics. Ten years later, in 2021, as West Bengal heads for an eight-phase Assembly election, defection may even be a determining factor in the ultimate outcome. If the Trinamool Congress encouraged defection from other parties—namely the Left parties and the Congress—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is perceived to be the main contender for the throne of Bengal, has practically made it into one of its principal political strategies.
Until recently, the BJP did not have either a significant base or a strong organisation at the grassroots. The defection tactics, therefore, have been serving it well both in terms of public perception and in expanding political reach on the back of mass leaders from other parties. The BJP has been brazen about it. While campaigning for the Lok Sabha election in the State in April 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself said that 40 of the Trinamool’s MLAs were in touch with him. He warned that when the “lotus starts blooming, your [West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee] MLAs will start leaving you”. As it turns out, this was not an empty threat. After the BJP won 18 out of the State’s 42 Lok Sabha seats and secured 40 per cent of the votes (just 3 per cent less than the Trinamool’s share), the ruling party was faced with large-scale defection from the level of MPs to panchayat leaders. The BJP has left no stones unturned to break the structure of the Trinamool by whisking away some of its most influential leaders. Defectors have even been taken by chartered planes from Kolkata and handed over the BJP flag by Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
In fact, the indiscriminate manner in which the BJP has been accepting practically anyone and everyone from the Trinamool, even tainted and discredited leaders, has prompted both the Trinamool and other opposition parties to label the BJP a “washing machine”—one from which dirty laundry comes out clean. Some Trinamool leaders whom the BJP has been targeting over the years have now become the saffron party’s most vocal campaigners against the Mamata Banerjee government. Days before the 2016 Assembly elections, a video was shown in the BJP’s office in Kolkata of a sting operation carried out by the news portal Narada News showing top Trinamool leaders, Ministers and lawmakers accepting cash on camera. Of the 11 leaders shown in the video, Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari and Sovan Chatterjee are now with the BJP. From as early as 2015, the BJP started angling for the big fish in the Trinamool. Their targets were skilled organisers and those who wielded substantial clout in the party so that a chunk of the party cadre would come with them. According to the BJP, it is not just the top brass who are joining it, but also grassroots leaders at the panchayat, block and municipal levels.
The first heavyweight Trinamool leader to land in the BJP net was Mukul Roy in 2017. He had been Mamata Banerjee’s right-hand man and the second most powerful figure in the Trinamool. He was also under Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) scanner in connection with the Narada sting case. Interestingly, in September 2017, the CBI arrested the Indian Police Service (IPS) officer S.M.H. Mirza, who was seen on camera accepting wads of money, apparently on behalf of Mukul Roy.
The defection of Suvendu Adhikari did not happen overnight. For several years prior to his shifting, there was talk in political circles of his joining the BJP. The fact that the CBI is not seen to be taking any action against leaders like Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari and Sovan Chatterjee has given the Trinamool the scope to accuse the saffron party of using central agencies to intimidate its leaders and thereby precipitating defections.
Defections from the Trinamool began to take place in a big way after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Arjun Singh, party strongman and MLA from Barrackpore, joined the BJP in March 2019. Sovan Chatterjee, former minister and Mayor of Kolkata joined in September. Sabyasachi Dutta, MLA and Mayor of Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation, joined in October. But Suvendu Adhikari was the biggest catch: he joined along with nine MLAs (two from the Left) on December 19, 2020. He is considered t o be the biggest mass leader in south Bengal after Mamata Banerjee herself and wields considerable influence in several districts besides his home district of Purba Medinipur.
In January 2021, former Cabinet Minister Rajib Banerjee, another Trinamool powerhouse, and several other high-profile Trinamool leaders and lawmakers were flown in a special chartered plane to Delhi where Amit Shah formally inducted them into the BJP. On February 12 came another blow with veteran leader and former Railway Minister and Rajya Sabha MP Dinesh Trivedi announcing his resignation from the floor of the Rajya Sabha. He, too, joined the BJP, a few weeks later, after heaping praise on Modi.
Trinamool hit hard
The defections are clearly orchestrated in a phased manner to cause maximum damage to political opponents ahead of the election. The Trinamool has been putting up a brave front, saying “good riddance” and labelling the turncoats “Mirzafars” (traitors) or accusing them of corruption. Yet the party undeniably has been hit hard. In the three months between December 19, 2020, and March 2, 2021, 14 MLAs and two MPs joined the BJP. (Two of them resigned from the Trinamool before joining the BJP.)
Dilip Ghosh, State BJP president and Lok Sabha MP quipped: “The Trinamool will be finished before the elections.” Dilip Ghosh claimed that he had a long list of people wanting to defect from the Trinamool.
Condemning the BJP’s strategy, Trinamool spokesperson Om Prakash Mishra said: “The BJP has been trying to effect the defection of legislators in Bengal just as it has been doing in other States, and this is patently wrong… In West Bengal also there are many who have joined the BJP, but what is condemnable is the way in which the BJP has engineered the defection of legislators.” He pointed out that the saffron party’s strategy is turning out to be counterproductive.
Also read: Exodus from TMC to BJP
“The BJP thought that it would be able to bolster its presence and strength with defections, but that is not happening at all. In fact, it has galvanised the Trinamool workers to assert their complete loyalty to the party, and it has ultimately diminished the BJP’s prospects in the coming election,” he told Frontline . The strategy has also left the BJP and its new members open to attacks from political opponents. Md Salim, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), recently said: “The same Trinamool leader who said that not even a piece of red cloth will be visible in the State has today made a rag of the Trinamool flag to wipe Amit Shah’s shoes.” But what can really be worrisome for the BJP is that indiscriminate induction into its fold is also alienating a section of its own supporters. Mass defections have sparked violent inner-party fights in the BJP between the “old timers” and the “turncoats”, and public demonstrations by party workers against the new inductees. The common people are also beginning to disapprove of the way the BJP is using defection as a political tool.
The top BJP leadership, on the other hand, has deliberately not given much importance to the complaints of the existing workers. In fact, when Jitendra Tiwari, influential Trinamool MLA and former Mayor of Asansol backed out of joining the party in December 2020, in the face of strong opposition from Babul Supriyo, BJP MP from Asansol, State general secretary Sayantan Basu and Mahila Morcha president Agnimitra Paul, the party’s central leadership sent a show-cause notice to them. On March 2, when Jitendra Tiwari eventually joined the BJP, Babul Supriyo had to welcome him.
“The BJP is a disciplined party, and those who have joined will fall in line. At present what is most important is to defeat the Trinamool, and the strategy we have adopted is working well,” a senior BJP source told Frontline .
Joyprakash Majumdar, State BJP vice-president and head of the party’s political analysis wing, denied the allegation that the BJP was excessively dependent on defectors and pointed out that the BJP in Bengal had been following a “two-pronged strategy”—strengthening the party organisation and “diluting” the strength of the opponent by encouraging defection.
“To make an exotic dish, one needs to have the basic ingredients first, upon which the exotic spices will be added. The strengthening of our organisation from the booth level upward was our basic ingredient, the top leaders from the Trinamool who have joined us are the exotic spices to the basic ingredient,” Majumdar told Frontline .
Also read: Dinesh Trivedi quits TMC
The BJP may have successfully created, for the time being, a narrative that the Trinamool is in the throes of uncertainty which prompts its top leaders to abandon ship. Yet this may nevertheless alienate a section of potential voters on moral and ethical grounds. There is a growing sentiment among a section of those who seek an end to the Trinamool regime that voting for the BJP would be like voting for the Trinamool again.
“What difference will it make, voting for the BJP?” wondered Arun Sahu, a fisherman. “It will be like voting for the Trinamool wearing a different jersey.”