WEST BENGAL POLITICS

Bubble of BJP's organisational base in West Bengal burst with Babul Supriyo's defection to the TMC

Print edition : October 22, 2021

Babul Supriyo, former Union Minister and sitting MP, with Derek O’Brien, TMC Rajya Sabha MP, during an interaction with media, in Kolkata on September 19. Photo: PTI

Babul Supriyo’s defection to the Trinamool Congress may signify not just a weakening of the BJP’s organisational base but also a decline in the party’s ideological appeal among its workers and leaders.

ORGANISATIONAL flaws within the West Bengal unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have come to the fore, with not just legislators but even top leaders defecting to the ruling Trinamool Congress. In a surprise move, Babul Supriyo, former Union Minister of State and two-time Lok Sabha member from Asansol, quit the BJP on September 18, delivering a serious blow to the party’s attempts to reorganise and regroup in the State after its humiliating defeat in the Assembly election held in March-April.

Supriyo’s sudden decision took BJP leaders by surprise. His relationship with the party had become strained, and he had even announced after the Cabinet reshuffle in July in which he was dropped from the Ministry that he would quit politics. But Supriyo’s name figured among the “star campaigners” for the September 30 byelection in the State. In fact, on September 10, he endorsed the candidacy of Priyanka Tibrewal of the BJP against Mamata Banerjee for the Bhabanipur Assembly seat, by posting a picture of her on social media and saying, “Have always introduced Bright Youngsters to the Party&hv strongly backed them. Very confident they will make @BJP4India proud in the years to come.” On September 18, after he was inducted into the Trinamool Congress by the party’s all-India general secretary, Abhishek Banerjee, Supriyo told the media that he was ready to campaign for Mamata Banerjee if the party wanted him to. “I do not think Mamata didi has any need of Babul Supriyo’s campaigning,” he added.

Supriyo’s defection is more significant than Mukul Roy’s return to the Trinamool Congress in June, for it may signify not just a further weakening of the saffron party’s organisational base but also a decline in its ideological appeal among its workers and leaders. Supriyo was at loggerheads with a powerful section of the BJP leadership in the State, but it was his removal from the Union Ministry in July that precipitated his departure. On July 31, he stated on social media that he would quit politics, saying, “Is there any connection between my leaving politics and getting removed from ministership? Yes there is. There is certainly some connection there.” In the same post there was an indication that he might shift allegiance when, after initially writing that he would not be joining any other party, he deleted the post. His social media posts continued to indicate that he was still very much with the BJP.

According to the political observer and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, this may indicate the surfacing of a new trend in Bengal politics, where ideology-based politics is giving way to self-serving politics based on opportunism and immediate strategic gains. He said: “Babul Supriyo’s defection is a unique and rare case in BJP politics. He was after all a Cabinet Minister for seven years and was immersed in the Hindutva ideology. He had alleged that West Bengal was becoming a mini Pakistan; had attacked the so-called appeasement policy of the Mamata Banerjee government; he had raised his finger at the alleged corruption of Abhishek Banerjee; and had time and again pointed out the authoritarian policy of the ruling party.
Also read: Mamata Banerjee wins Bhabanipur with huge margin

“But all of this was forgotten just because he was removed from ministership. This indicates that personal benefit takes precedence over ideology. For him to join a party that is ideological opposed to the BJP indicates a decline in the appeal of the Hindutva ideology among the saffron party’s own leaders.” For an ideology-based political party, it is indeed a matter of grave concern if it can no longer keep its flock together on the strength of its ideology alone.

Justifying his defection after having been a bitter critic of the Trinamool Congress for the past seven years, Supriyo told the media: “I am very proud that I am changing my earlier decision [of quitting politics], and I am coming back to a great opportunity to serve Bengal. You will get to know in the coming days the great responsibility that Mamata Banerjee and Abhishek are going to give me.” He did not let go of the opportunity to reiterate his favourite grouse, losing his ministership, and expressed resentment at not being given independent charge of a Ministry. “When I won for the second time in 2019, my family and friends were all surprised that I was not given independent charge. There is no need to elaborate how much power an MoS wields,” he said.

The BJP has tried to play down the significance of Supriyo’s defection. Suvendu Adhikari, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, said: “Supriyo’s leaving the BJP is his own personal decision; it will not affect the BJP in any way. First, Babul Supriyo is not a mass leader, and secondly, he is not an efficient organiser either.” Party spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya called it a “betrayal” of the people of Asansol, from where Supriyo was elected twice to the Lok Sabha. He said: “Today, it has been proved that his one and only aim was to be a Minister. The party had asked him to step down for a while after making him a Minister twice. So he took revenge on the party and betrayed the people of Asansol.”

At a time when several Trinamool Congress leaders who had joined the BJP ahead of the Assembly election are desperate to return to the ruling party’s fold, Supriyo’s defection has undoubtedly caused severe damage to the saffron party’s image. The singer-turned-politician was a big draw at the BJP’s public meetings, and he was known to be close to the top brass of the central leadership. A BJP leader told Frontline on condition of anonymity: “Babul Supriyo leaving the party has come as a big blow to the morale of the workers. We are witnessing a perceptible drop in their enthusiasm for work. On the one hand, they are facing constant attacks and threats from the ruling party, and on the other hand, our organisational base is being destroyed from the grassroots level. The Trinamool is luring away our panchayat leaders and workers. Their next obvious target will be our MLAs and MPs.”

The BJP, which had won 77 of the 294 seats for which elections were held, has lost four MLAs in the past four months to defection. Mukul Roy, the party’s all-India vice president, was the first to join the Trinamool barely a month after the election results were declared. Mukul Roy’s exit from the Trinamool in November 2017 had sparked a steady exodus to the BJP. His return to the Trinamool has initiated a reverse exodus. Between August 30 and September 4, three more BJP MLAs returned to the Trinamool. The BJP may dismiss the actions of turncoats as “expected” behaviour from political opportunists but has no explanation for old-timers such as Ganga Prasad Sharma, the party’s Alipurduar district president, and Babul Supriyo deserting its camp.
Also read: Babul Supriyo joins the TMC

Taking full advantage of the state of disarray and confusion within the BJP, the Trinamool has made the issue of defection a political strategy to repeatedly humiliate the saffron party and stoke further insecurity. It has been claiming that many important BJP leaders are in talks with its leadership, and that the BJP’s organisation is slowly collapsing, a strategy the BJP had employed when facilitating defections from the Trinamool camp ahead of the Assembly election. For instance, the Trinamool spokesperson Kunal Ghosh took to social media to attack Lok Sabha MP Locket Chatterjee, who was also a “star campaigner” for the BJP in the Bhabanipur byelection. “Thanks and congrats ‘star campaigner’ @me_locket for not campaigning at Bhabanipur. Inspite of many requests from BJP U hvn’t come. As a friend wish you success wherever u r. World is too small. Hope those days will return again when u started your political innings,” Ghosh posted.

Locket Chatterjee, a popular actress, had started her political career in the Trinamool. Ghosh’s social media message came at a time when rumours were rife in political circles of Locket Chatterjee wanting to return to her old party. She, however, struck back at Ghosh in a tweet: “You should focus on ensuring that Mamata Banerjee doesn’t lose from Bhabanipur.”

CHANGE OF GUARD

The magnitude of the crisis facing the BJP can be gauged from the knee-jerk reaction of the central leadership following Babul Supriyo’s defection. Two days after Babul Supriyo joined the Trinamool, Sukanta Majumdar, Lok Sabha MP from Balurghat, replaced Dilip Ghosh as the BJP State president. Ghosh, who was appointed the party’s West Bengal chief in 2015, has been made national vice president. A senior BJP source told Frontline: “A change of guard was on the cards, but Babul Supriyo’s departure hastened the process. Dilip Ghosh can help the BJP become politically strong in the State, but he is not socially or culturally acceptable among the moderate-minded, educated Bengali voters. Sukanta is young. He is expected to pull the party out of the morass it finds itself in.”

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