West Bengal

Bitter turf war

Print edition : June 21, 2019

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sitting in a dharna on May 30 at Naihati, North 24 Parganas district, where 400 Trinamool workers were allegedly driven out of their homes by BJP supporters. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/ PTI

Central forces personnel march in Charkalgram village in Birbhum district following a clash between Trinamool and BJP workers on May 25. Photo: PTI

The Trinamool Congress is under pressure as its MLAs and workers defect to the BJP after the latter’s success in the Lok Sabha election, and post-poll violence continues unabated.

VIOLENCE and defections followed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) spectacular showing in the Lok Sabha election in West Bengal, where it won 18 of the 42 seats. Six days after the results were declared, four members of the State Legislative Assembly—two from the ruling Trinamool Congress and one each from the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—and 50 Trinamool councillors joined the BJP.

With the BJP closing in on the ruling party at an alarmingly rapid pace, political tension in the State continues to remain high, with clashes breaking out in different parts of the State. On May 24, the day after the election results were declared, 25-year-old Santu Ghosh, apparently a BJP worker who had recently quit the Trinamool, was called out of his house and shot dead. While the BJP and the Trinamool pointed accusing fingers at each other, Santu Ghosh’s family maintained that he was never associated with any political party.

On the same day, Subhrangshu Roy, Trinamool MLA from Bijpur and son of BJP leader Mukul Roy, was suspended by the Trinamool for six years for making anti-party statements. Mukul Roy, once a trusted aide of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, was one of the key strategists behind the BJP’s success in West Bengal. “My father single-handedly destroyed the party he had built up,” Subhranghshu Roy said of his father and the BJP’s victory in Barrackpore, under which Subhrangshu Roy’s Assembly constituency falls.

Four days later, on May 28, Subhrangshu Roy, along with Debendra Roy, CPI(M) MLA from Hemtabad, and Tushar Kanti Bhattacharya, Congress MLA from Bishnupur, joined the saffron camp. Fifty councillors from the Trinamool also defected to the BJP, resulting in the BJP seizing control of four municipal boards in North 24 Parganas—Bhatpara, Naihati, Kanchrapara and Halisahar—in one fell swoop. If this trend of defection of councillors continues, it could spell trouble for the Trinamool, particularly with respect to the 2020 municipal elections. Even though the ruling party had swept the previous civic body elections in 2015, winning 71 of the 92 municipalities across the State, including the prestigious Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the victory was achieved under the cloud of allegations of widespread rigging and use of strong-arm tactics by the ruling party. However, the Trinamool’s repeated use of violence in elections has been one of the reasons for a large section of the electorate turning away from it, as was evident in the Lok Sabha election.

Following the “first round of defection” (as termed by the BJP leadership) on May 28, the Trinamool was in for another shock the very next day when Manirul Islam, the controversial party heavyweight from Birbhum district and MLA from Labhpur, joined the saffron party. This is a major shot in the arm for the BJP in a district where it has already been gaining strength. With Manirul Islam coming into its fold, it can also hope to tap into the sizeable Muslim population in Birbhum.

Meanwhile, the political violence that had begun with the murder in Nadia, continued sporadically in the State with fresh violence erupting in different regions. Polarisation along religious lines, along with a strong anti-incumbency factor working in its favour, the BJP is seeking not only to consolidate its position in newly won areas but also to extend its political dominion. From Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri in the north, where the BJP has won, to Hooghly, Birbhum and North 24 Parganas, where it is practically breathing down the ruling party’s neck, the fight is on for political space. A Trinamool panchayat leader was murdered allegedly by BJP miscreants in Bankura on May 29, and the next day a BJP worker was stabbed to death allegedly by Trinamool workers in Bardhaman. On June 1, the body of another murdered BJP worker was discovered in Basirhat. The 36-year-old victim, Ajay Mandal, had apparently defected from the Trinamool to the BJP just before the election.

With the Lok Sabha election destroying the Trinamool’s aura of invincibility for the first time since coming to power in 2011, the ruling party is facing a backlash from an opposition force. Earlier it had been taking over the party offices of the CPI(M) and other Left parties; this time it is getting a taste of its own medicine, with the BJP attacking and occupying Trinamool offices in areas where it is stronger. Interestingly, the changing political equations gave the CPI(M) the opportunity to reopen many party offices that had been forcibly shut down by the Trinamool. According to reports, as many as 55 offices of the CPI(M)-led Left Front have reopened in different parts of the State.

Both the BJP and the Trinamool have a lot to lose if they concede any political space to each other at this juncture. Just as it is imperative for the BJP to consolidate and expand, the Trinamool desperately needs to cling on to what it has got and make sure it does not lose any more to the BJP if it has to survive the 2021 Assembly elections. Already the Trinamool faces a challenge that is growing increasingly formidable. From three MLAs before the Lok Sabha election, the BJP’s strength in the Assembly has increased to 11 by end May (four from byelections and four from defection), and its haul of 18 seats in the parliamentary election has given it a lead in 129 Assembly segments. Facing the risk of losing more political ground as well as leaders and workers to the BJP in the days to come, it is turning out to be a do-or-die situation for Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee.

The pressure is evident in her angry outbursts at the chants of “Jai Shri Ram” by BJP supporters whenever her convoy passes areas where the saffron party has become strong. Recently, eight people were arrested reportedly for “wrongful restraint” and “criminal intimidation” when they greeted the Chief Minister’s convoy with cries of “Jai Shri Ram”. Later, explaining her aversion to the chant, Mamata Banerjee wrote on social media: “Jai Siya Ram, Jai Ram ji ki, Ram naam Satya hai, etc. have all religious and social connotations. We respect these sentiments. But BJP is using religious slogan Jai Sri Ram as their party slogan in a misconceived manner by way of mixing religion with politics.” She even announced the formation of a new cultural wing to take on the increasing influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) at the grass-roots level. “If they [the BJP] can associate with the RSS, I will create a Jai Hind Bahini to counter the RSS,” she said. There will also be a women’s wing of the organisation called Banga Janani Bahini. There will be uniforms and identity cards for the members of these Trinamool organisations.

After a prolonged, acrimonious electoral battle, which saw relations between the Centre and the State at their lowest ebb, the scope for mending ties also suffered a setback, with Mamata Banerjee deciding to abstain from attending the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in New Delhi. Initially, she had decided to go, but when it came to her knowledge that family members of the 54 BJP workers allegedly killed by Trinamool goons were also being taken for the ceremony, she changed her mind. She tweeted: “It was my plan to accept the ‘Constitutional Invitation’ and attend the oath-taking ceremony. However… the BJP is claiming 54 people have been murdered in political violence in Bengal. This is completely untrue. There have been no political murders in Bengal…. The ceremony is an august occasion to celebrate democracy, not one that should be devalued by any political party which uses it as an opportunity to score political points. Please excuse me.”

Instead, in a move reminiscent of her street-fighting days as an opposition leader, the Chief Minister chose to sit in a dharna in Naihati in North 24 Parganas, where around 400 Trinamool workers were allegedly driven out of their homes by BJP supporters.

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