In a rally in April 2019 ahead of the Lok Sabha election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a warning to the Trinamool. “When the results come out,” he said, “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 had just revealed what would be the main political strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to defeat the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal in the days to come.
From early on, the BJP had realised that it could compensate for its lack of organisational strength at the booth level by weakening the Trinamool’s structure and at the same time taking advantage of the polarisation on religious lines precipitated by the ruling party’s politics. The strategy seems to have paid dividends. The BJP has not only emerged as the main opposition to the Trinamool in the 2021 Assembly election, but also managed to project itself as having a strong chance of winning the election. Although Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who has been spearheading the campaign in West Bengal, has been claiming that the party will win more than 200 out of the 294 seats, it is still not certain whether the BJP’s chance of coming to power are real.
The BJP was never a factor in West Bengal politics as long as the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front was in power. However, after the Trinamool came to power in 2011, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s proclivity to play the religious card in her politics and her perceived minority appeasement policy paved the way for a polarisation on communal lines. This served the purpose of the BJP and the forces of Hindutva.
According to Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, author of the recently published Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment , a book detailing the BJP’s rise in the State, the daily shakhas of the Rashtriya Swayamswewak Sangh (RSS) have almost doubled in number in the last eight years. From 820 in 2013, their number has now shot up to 1,600. “The last time there were so many daily sakhas active in the State was in 1992, around the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. At that time around 1,500 sakhas were active, which declined to 820 around 2011. The Sthayi Sheva Prakalpa or Permanent Social Work Project has increased to 450 from fewer than 200 in 2011. Around 100 new Sthayi Sheva Prakalpa units came into being after March 2020. There are around 30 RSS-affiliated and RSS-backed outfits working in Bengal, of which around 15 opened shop after 2011,” Snigdhendu Bhattacharya told Frontline .
The saffron party’s vote share, which hovered around 4 per cent in 2011, spiralled up to 40.3 per cent in the 10 years of Trinamool rule. Samik Bhattacharya, the BJP’s chief spokesperson from Bengal, acknowledged that the BJP’s rise could take place only once the CPI(M) was dislodged from power. “The Trinamool’s main ideology was defeating the Left. Once that had happened, after the first five years of its rule, the Trinamool began to indulge in minority appeasement, atrocities against opposition parties, and corruption. The situation created by the Trinamool actually paved the way for the BJP’s rise in Bengal,” he told Frontline .
With the Left and the Congress unable to revive their flagging political prospects and the ruling party reeling under allegations of corruption and infighting, the BJP did not have to do much to assume the position of the main opposition party. In 2019, it managed to win 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats without even being able to provide workers in every booth. At the same time, the BJP chipped away at the Trinamool party structure and weaned ruling party leaders into its fold, thus consolidating its position by leaning on the shoulders of the former generals of the enemy camp.
With so many defections happening, there is a joke that the BJP is a breakaway faction of the Trinamool. But the party, rather than being embarrassed about it, is brazen in its strategy. A senior BJP source told Frontline : “It is true that it leaves us exposed to the criticism that we’ve become another faction of the Trinamool. But as a strategy, the BJP is definitely trying hard to break the Trinamool Congress’ set-up and destabilise the Trinamool hierarchy entirely. The desertion of several top Trinamool leaders and their joining the BJP has hugely weakened the morale of the ruling party’s rank and file, resulting in absolute confusion in the party.” State BJP president and Lok Sabha member Dilip Ghosh said recently: “The Trinamool will be finished before the elections. Everybody wants to leave the party. I have a long list…”
The biggest gain for the BJP in its game of defection has undoubtedly been former Cabinet Minister Suvendu Adhikari, whose family controls the politics of both Purba and Paschim Medinipur. A long-coveted catch for the saffron party, he is a mass leader second only to Mamata Banerjee in south Bengal and is known for his exceptional organisational skills, something that the BJP in West Bengal can always do with.
BJP workers unhappy
Yet the strategy of engineering defections is not without consequences. There have been instances of BJP workers protesting in the streets over the induction of Trinamool leaders. Violence between relatively long-standing BJP members and new inductees has been flaring up now and then. In one case, the protest came from a section of the leadership as well, when Jitendra Tiwari, influential Trinamool MLA from Asansol, was being taken into the party. Babul Supriyo, Union Minister and BJP MP from Asansol, Sayantan Basu, State BJP general secretary, and Agnimitra Paul, Mahila Morcha president, were asked by the central leadership to show cause for expressing reservations about Jitendra Tiwari’s joining the party. Jitendra Tiwari finally had to stay back in the Trinamool and acknowledge that he had made a mistake by seeking to join the BJP.
Many of the party’s foot soldiers believe the protest was justified. One BJP worker told Frontline : “After being mercilessly attacked and beaten by the Trinamool, it is not easy to watch the very same people who had ordered those attacks being welcomed into our party.”
The party leadership, however, is clearly not willing to allow such protests to come in the way of its plans. Joyprakash Majumdar, State vice president and head of the party’s political analysis department, told Frontline : “We are aware of this dichotomy. But the BJP is a disciplined party, and we will be able to handle such situations with discipline.” The fact is that the BJP is still not in a position to say no to anyone from the Trinamool wishing to join the party, however galling it may be for grassroots workers. With a leader of Suvendu Adhikari’s stature making the shift, the BJP feels justified and confident that its strategy is working.
However, Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, political analyst and professor of sociology, said it would be a mistake to place too much importance on Suvendu Adhikari’s defection even though it may have hit the ruling party hard. “The present situation is still fluid. The BJP on its own cannot manage the election. It has to bank upon defectors. How many defectors they finally manage to get is the question. One Suvendu Adhikari will not make a summer. Nor is it accurate to say that Suvendu Adhikari commands each and every vote in Medinipur. The Trinamool had to bank upon not only landed gentry like the Adhikari family, but also other forces like the Maoists, the disgruntled Left and others, and they may not be walking with Suvendu this time,” he told Frontline .
The BJP leadership insists that the party is not relying on defectors alone to see the party through. It is now strengthening its booth-level organisation, for which it is pooling in adept organisers within the BJP from other States. A senior BJP source told Frontline : “We are breaking down the process into various compartments and distributing responsibilities according to zones that have been mapped out. We have, in fact, got together a huge team to regularly monitor the progress.” However, the saffron party is yet to have representation in all the 78,000 odd booths in Bengal—a problem that the Trinamool Congress does not have. According to party vice president Ritesh Tiwari, this scenario is changing. “It is not just the Trinamool leaders who are joining, but also a huge number of grassroots and booth-level workers. Our aim now is to get 50 per cent of the total vote share. After the 2019 election, the BJP has only got bigger and the Trinamool smaller,” he told Frontline .
The Sangh Parivar has swung into action and is coordinating its various wings for the electoral battle. A top leader of the State BJP said: “There is total focus on the 2021 election. The VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad], the ABVP [Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad] and other outfits are working in coordination and trying to create a huge synergy.” Amiya Sarkar, VHP secretary for the eastern region, told Frontline : “We are undertaking a project of reaching out to 75 lakh families in the State to create awareness about the history of the Ramjanmabhoomi. It is not only a god’s temple, but a nation’s temple. We will carry out this project from January 14 to February 27.”
One perception the party is having problems in dealing with is that the State unit is not strong enough to fight the election by itself and needs the help of national leaders who are calling the shots. The main observers for the State are central leaders including Kailash Vijayvargiya, Arvind Menon and Amit Malviya. Party president J.P. Nadda and Amit Shah are spearheading the campaign. Even the BJP’s battle cry of “Jai Sri Ram” is not a traditional Bengali chant. These factors have exposed the party to the Trinamool’s allegation that the BJP is a party of “bahiragata” (outsiders) and has no standing in Bengal.
In its efforts to fend off such allegations, the central BJP leadership has been desperately trying to project itself as integrated into the Bengali cultural milieu, often fumbling and making faux pas in the process. According to Surajit Mukhopadhyay, the BJP has to shed its image of being a Hindi heartland party to be successful in Bengal. “Every day they are making some mistake or the other while trying to situate themselves intellectually in the Bengali milieu, and every day there is some gaffe or the other. They are ill-informed and are not doing their homework correctly and are being constantly called out,” Mukhopadhyay told Frontline .
Corruption and nepotism
The BJP’s main strategy in its campaigns has been to make the most of the anti-incumbency sentiment working against the Trinamool and highlight the alleged corruption in the government and the party. The most vituperative attacks are directed against “Bhaipo”, widely believed to be a reference to Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and perceived political heir. The loudest attacks seem to come from those who have left the Trinamool to join the BJP. Suvendu Adhikari hardly ever refers to “Bhaipo” in his public speeches without the prefix “tolabaj” (extortionist). He has labelled his former party a “private limited company owned and run by one and a half people”—an obvious swipe at Mamata Banerjee and her nephew. (The Trinamool, in turn, has labelled Suvendu Adhikari “Mirzafar”, a widely used Bengali metaphor for “traitor”.)
The well-known psephologist and political observer Biswanath Chakraborty said: “To the opposition, Abhishek is a political construct. It is a construction which is being used to expose the misrule of the Trinamool regime. By this strategy the opposition is attacking simultaneously the individual as well as the government and the party, and at the same time perhaps trying to establish the involvement of the family in government activities.”
The BJP has of late been silent on the issue of enforcing the Citizenship (Amendment Act) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the State, but it has not abandoned its old bogey of the dangers of Muslims illegally crossing over from Bangladesh and falling into the hands of jehadis. The BJP’s silence on the CAA and the NRC is also significant. It has seen how Mamata Banerjee’s high-voltage campaign on the issue cost it several seats in the byelections of November 2019 and took the wind out of its success in the Lok Sabha elections a few months earlier.
Political observers feel that the BJP is simply biding its time so as to not give the Trinamool an issue to consolidate Muslim votes. There is a possibility that the Muslim vote may get divided with the new Muslim platform comprising the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the influential Bengali Islamist leader Abbas Siddiqui’s recently formed party Indian Secular Front entering the fray. A division of Muslim votes will benefit the BJP.
However, the perception that the BJP is dragging its feet in implementing the CAA is annoying a section of its own support base—the Matua community. This Scheduled Caste community, which had crossed over from Bangladesh in the 1970s, was hoping to finally get Indian citizenship on paper.
The Matuas are a factor in at least 40 Assembly constituencies. They backed the BJP in the last Lok Sabha election, and the party cannot afford to lose their support. Shantanu Thakur, the BJP MP from Bongaon and an influential leader in the Matua community, even issued a thinly veiled warning to his party: “No political party should play with the Matuas. I am not talking about Mamata Banerjee alone. The Matuas are not begging. The CAA must be implemented at the earliest. No political party can be an opponent of the Matua Mahasangha. No party can be more powerful than the Mahasangha. We are an independent political force of the future.”
Mamata Banerjee, meanwhile, has been stoking the fire of discontent among Matuas, saying all Matuas are Indian citizens and do not need a certificate to prove that. The BJP leadership had to swing into fire-fighting mode: Kailash Vijayvargiya rushed to Shantanu Thakur’s house to assure him that the Centre would implement the CAA even in the face of opposition from Mamata Banerjee.
The BJP is aware that the mercurial Mamata Banerjee is the trump card for the Trinamool, as she has been in every election in the past. To neutralise this is one of the main challenges before it.
Mamata up against an entire party
Samik Bhattacharya said: “Essentially Mamata Banerjee is the candidate for all 294 seats for the Trinamool. We are trying to confine her to just her own constituency.” The BJP’s canniest strategy has been perhaps to not reveal its chief ministerial candidate. Its opponents put this down to either cowardice or lack of a suitable leader for the post. But the saffron party insists it is a well-thought-out plan. Mamata Banerjee is still by far the tallest mass leader in the State, and the BJP does not want a one-to-one fight between Mamata Banerjee and its own candidate, as is bound to happen once the party announces a chief ministerial candidate. A BJP leader said: “Mamata Banerjee is still the biggest mass leader in Bengal. But now, when a massive leader has to fight a massive party, the odds are evened out.” However, the growing public perception that the West Bengal unit of the BJP does not have a suitable candidate for Chief Minister and is merely hiding this embarrassing fact behind the façade of “political strategy” may not go down well for the party in the long run.
For all the hype surrounding the BJP’s startling rise in Bengal politics and speculations of its coming to power in 2021, there still remains the question as to whether the saffron party will finally be able to silence those who feel its power lies only in theory and on paper. It may be drawing enormous crowds in its rallies, but that does not necessarily mean those numbers will translate into votes. Electioneering is an art, and the jury is still out on the West Bengal BJP’s adeptness at it.