Defection: Reverse exodus in Bengal

Print edition : July 16, 2021

Mukul Roy with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress general secretary Abhisekh Banerjee at the press conference in TMC Bhavan where he was re-inducted into the party on June 11. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

The BJP’s pre-election strategy of engineering defections from the Trinamool now boomerangs on the party as it faces the prospect of an exodus in the wake its all-India vice president Mukul Roy’s return to the ruling party.

Ahead of the 2021 Assembly election in Bengal, when the ruling Trinamool Congress was losing its workers and leaders in a continuous flow of defections to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp, the saffron party leaders would delight in predicting that Mamata Banerjee and her party would be finished even before the first vote was cast. However, barely a month after the BJP was handed a most humiliating defeat by the Trinamool Congress the BJPs Bengal unit is struggling to keep its flock together. The turncoats from the Trinamool seem desperate to return to their old party. The most significant instance of ‘ghar wapsi’ is the return of Mukul Roy, the BJP’s vice president and MLA from Krishnanagar Uttar, to the Trinamool. It has not only thrown open the floodgates of grievances within the BJP but also threatens to trigger a veritable exodus from the party.

Mukul Roy’s is the first major defection from the BJP, which, until its recent defeat, was orchestrating large-scale defections from other parties into its own fold. Mukul Roy’s was also the first major defection from the Trinamool to the BJP, back in November 2017, which paved the way for a steady exodus that continued until the beginning of the Assembly election this year. With his return, a reverse exodus appears to be on the cards. A large number of grass-roots workers and local leaders who had joined the BJP before the election are already returning to the Trinamool, and many more are queuing up for readmission. According to Om Prakash Mishra, senior Trinamool leader and party spokesperson, the BJP’s “ignominy after its loss in Bengal is compounded” by Mukul Roy’s exit. “It seems that the artificial nature of the BJP’s rise and the hyperbole surrounding its propaganda of an imminent victory in Bengal has fallen flat, and the exodus from the BJP ranks will now accelerate. Mukul Roy’s joining the Trinamool will hit the BJP hard in Bengal—the third largest State in terms of Lok Sabha seats,” he told Frontline. A social media post by Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, Rajya Sabha member from the Trinamool, after Mukul Roy’s return, read: “BJP is destined to fall like a house of cards in Bengal very shortly. Today’s development is beginning of that end.”

Also read: Mukul Roy returns to TMC from BJP

Mukul Roy was once considered the most trusted lieutenant of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and was the second most powerful leader in the Trinamool organisation. He left the Trinamool at a time when the ruling party was going through a severe crisis. The multi-crore Sarada scam, in which lakhs of investors from the poorer sections of society were ruined, had put it in an uncomfortable corner. Worse, top Trinamool leaders were getting arrested for their connection with the illegal deposit-collection scam. At the time, Mukul Roy’s perceived cooperation with the central investigating agencies and his growing closeness to the BJP began to alienate him from his own party. When he joined the BJP, the Trinamool leadership alleged that he had done so to protect himself from imminent arrest. The allegation gained further credence when Trinamool leaders, except Mukul Roy, continued to get arrested. The narrative persisted even after his return to the Trinamool, with Mamata Banerjee insinuating that he might have been forced to join the BJP: “Mukul was intimidated, threatened, agencies were brandished to harass him,” she said at the press conference announcing his return.

Rumblings in the BJP

Other former Trinamool bigwigs such as Sonali Guha, Sarala Murmu and Amal Acharya had become vocal about wanting to return to the party soon after the election result. Mukul Roy’s return, however, not just served to precipitate a rush of Trinamool turncoats to their former party’s door but also prompted old-timers within the BJP to give vent to their grievances. They were particularly aggrieved over the party leadership’s election strategy that gave greater importance to Trinamool turncoats than the old members. The day after Mukul Roy joined the Trinamool, Rajib Banerjee, a former Minister who had joined the BJP just ahead of the election, paid a much-publicised visit to Trinamool spokesperson Kunal Ghosh’s residence. Though Rajib Banerjee insisted it was just a “courtesy” visit, he was already making critical observations against the BJP. “People will not take it kindly if, just for the sake of opposing a government elected with huge popular support, threats of Delhi and Article 356 are used at the drop of a hat. We should rise above politics and stand by the people of Bengal, who have been devastated by Covid and Yaas,” he posted on social media ahead of his visit to Kunal Ghosh.

However, Mamata Banerjee made it clear that not everyone would be welcomed back. “Mukul did not say anything against our party during the election. Those who betrayed our party during the election and joined the BJP to make it strong will not be allowed back. But those who left with Mukul and wish to return with his return, we will consider,” she said at the time of Mukul Roy’s rejoining. Just 10 days later, Tapan Sinha, an influential leader from North 24 Paraganas who is known to be close to Mukul Roy, went back to the Trinamool along with several hundred BJP workers. In Birbhum, around 300 BJP workers were allowed to rejoin the Trinamool after they sat in a dharna for several hours outside a Trinamool party office in the district, demanding to be taken back. However, in several cases, like those of Rajib Banerjee and Sunil Mandal, Lok Sabha MP from Bardhaman Purba, Trinamool workers hit the road with placards imploring the party leadership to not allow them back.

The BJP, which had made no secret of its tactics to break the Trinamool organisation by facilitating defections, is today blaming that very strategy for its present debacle. A senior BJP leader told Frontline: “The BJP made the cardinal mistake of opening the gates to Trinamool deserters, and as a result, in certain places, the party hierarchy was filled with more Trinamool turncoats than original BJP members. Because of this strategy, we could neither benefit from the anti-incumbency factor that was working against the Trinamool, nor could we effectively use the allegations of corruption against the ruling party since many of the corrupt members were now in our own party.” He pointed out that while newcomers in the party were given 149 seats to contest, out of which only seven were won, the old- timers won 70 of the 143 seats they contested in. “These simple statistics show how serious the mistake was,” said the source.

What is particularly worrying for the BJP is that it is not just Trinamool turncoats who are desperate to leave. A growing number of the old-timers of the saffron party have also started changing camps. On June 21, Ganga Prasad Sharma, the BJP district president of Alipurduar, along with several top leaders of the district, joined the Trinamool. The BJP had won all the five Assembly seats in the district, and this was the first time that a major defection from the BJP took place in north Bengal, the party’s stronghold.

Also read: Mamata Banerjee vs Centre

A leadership crisis in the BJP is also making itself quite apparent. A senior source in the BJP told Frontline that the party’s structure and organisation in West Bengal was in complete disarray. “The central observers have all gone, the workers are demoralised, and the Trinamool’s strategy of destroying the BJP from the grass-roots organisation level is hitting us very badly.” There is growing resentment against the central leadership among the rank and file who feel they were let down by faulty strategies adopted by “out-of-State leaders” who had little knowledge of West Bengal’s culture and geography. “Go Back” posters against Kailash Vijayvargiya, national general secretary and the party’s central observer for Bengal, cropped up outside party offices in Kolkata. Much as the State leadership tried to deflect attention from it, the enormity of the crisis that the Bengal BJP was in was hard to conceal.

State BJP vice president Joy Prakash Majumdar denied reports of a leadership crisis. “One fallout of the election is that a homegrown BJP leader has emerged in the figure of Suvendu Adhikari. It is not correct to say there is a leadership crisis,” he said. However, many senior BJP members and even ordinary workers feel that the party is in dire need of a complete reorganisation and a close re-examination of the path chosen by the central leadership. A senior party source said: “Certain questions need to be answered—is the need of the hour a quintessential Bengali ‘bhadrolok’ at the helm of the party in the State? Should we drop the aggressive Hindutva strategy which is alien to Bengali culture? Do we really need to be advised by those who know practically nothing about the State? Unless these issues are addressed as quickly as possible, the situation will get worse for the BJP in Bengal.”

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