In Bengal, BJP steps into minefield by mixing Lord Ram, Netaji even as defections fail to deter Trinamool

Suhit K Sen
·9-min read

The turmoil in West Bengal politics, with Assembly elections scheduled in a couple of months or so, has become unceasing, ratcheted up by what promises to be a close encounter between the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The advantage might still lie with the former, but no one is writing the challenger off just yet.

In the mix are ingredients that citizens in Bengal have become depressingly familiar with. No strangers to political violence since the late 1960s, they are still witnessing levels of physical combat a couple of generations have not seen. There's also the switching of loyalties, and sometimes its retraction, barely witnessed since the anti-defection law was passed.

The latter statement needs clarification. The large-scale 'defection' of voters, cadres and leaders began in the run-up to the 2011 Assembly elections, mostly from the Left parties to the TMC, but also from the Congress to it, though by that time there weren't too many Congress personnel left to move to the party that was about to come to power.

Now the movement is largely from the TMC to the BJP, though there have been 'homecomings' as well. Left and Congress leaders are also on the move, some to the BJP, some to the ruling TMC.

Significant developments have taken place this month, in the aftermath of Purba Medinipur TMC strongman Suvendu Adhikari moving to the BJP on 19 December last year. Let's class these developments in terms of changes of loyalty; the forging of alliances; and end with Saturday's events, when the 124th anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose birth on 23 January 1897 was commemorated.

Since Suvendu left the TMC with Bardhaman Purba MP Sunil Mandal and five MLAs (two from his home district), there has been some form of Brownian motion in Bengal. Soumendu Adhikari, Suvendu's brother and former chairman/administrator of the Contai Municipality also made the same switch on 1 January, along with 14 councillors, delivering the 20-member board to the BJP. That had been in the pipeline.

But since then there has been a rash of disaffection with the ruling party in Howrah district. Minister of State for Sports and Howrah (Sadar) TMC boss Laxmi Ratan Shukla quit the ministry and his party post on 5 January, though he made it clear that he would continue as an MLA till his term ended. In his public pronouncements, he expressed dissatisfaction with working conditions and expressed a desire to devote more time to his original calling €" cricket. Apart from captaining Bengal, the all-rounder has also represented India. Crucially, Shukla has not given even the faintest indication of joining any other party. He has said he wants to stay out of politics.

At a somewhat more serious level, Rajib Banerjee, state forest minister and MLA from Domjur, Howrah district, was expelled from the cabinet on Friday after submitting his resignation 'without following procedural norms'. Rajib's exit came as no surprise, given that he had stopped attending cabinet meetings and publicly aired dissatisfaction at the way he had been treated in the party for a while. But Rajib has neither formally left the party nor quit as MLA.

On the very same day, Baishali Dalmiya (daughter of Jagmohan Dalmiya), the MLA from Bally, Howrah, was expelled from the party for sharing Rajib's grievances and attacking the party leadership in public.

Taken together, these contretemps do not at the moment amount to a big deal. Howrah district has three Lok Sabha constituencies €" Howrah, Srirampur and Uluberia €" and 16 Assembly constituencies. All of them are at present represented by the TMC, with the exception now of Bally, following Dalmiya's expulsion.

Nevertheless, these developments in a district contiguous to Kolkata, which houses Nabanna, the state secretariat, will be a matter of concern for the ruling party, even though a number of drifters have returned to the party, especially in North Bengal, where the BJP did astoundingly well in 2019. A few public figures have also signed up, in response to an ongoing campaign.

But the TMC will probably not start panicking yet. When Mukul Roy, then the number two in the party, left the TMC to join the BJP in 2017, seismic shifts were predicted. What followed was a whimper. When Barrackpore satrap Arjun Singh joined the BJP in 2019 after being denied a ticket and won the seat, six municipalities in his neck of the woods switched to the BJP. In a couple of months, each of them were back with the ruling party. And now, over a month after Suvendu's exit, no great tremors are being felt.

Whatever many pundits may say, what could have a more salient effect on Bengal politics in a general, rather than simply electoral, sense are two sets of new alignments: one new, the other an on-off affair. The new factor is the entry of Asaduddin Owaisi into Bengal with his party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). On his own, Owaisi would have been laughed out of the 50-plus constituencies he planned to contest for a number of reasons. The Bengali Muslim community has a distinctive cultural and linguistic identity that is not easy to assimilate into a putative 'pan-Indian' Muslim identity. The same holds true for the Bengali Hindu identity, of which more in a bit.

So, it would appear a smart move for Owaisi to have met and apparently reached an understanding on 3 January with Abbas Siddique, peerzada and secretary of Furfura Sharif, a prominent Islamic shrine in Hooghly district. Matters appear somewhat vague at this moment, but on 21 January Siddique launched a party, the Indian Secular Front, which plans to contest 50-60 seats. Whether this is in addition to seats AIMIM will contest has not been spelt out yet.

Given that Owaisi's heft in Bengal is negligible to the point of being non-existent, the real question is what Abbas could achieve electorally. The answer seems to be precious little given that, first, no other Muslim cleric has backed him; and, second, that the Furfura Sharif hierarchy is split in the first place, with senior peerzada Toha Siddiqui known to be close to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

The other issue is that Muslim clerics in Bengal, by and large, are not known to publicly endorse parties, far less form outfits to contest elections. By entering into an agreement with someone who has no status, stake or role in Bengal, and no understanding of its history and culture, Abbas may actually have gone out on a limb. This is not, obviously, to say that the Abbas-Owaisi axis will not make a dent. The question is: Will it cut the mustard?

The other alliance is the one between the Left Front, now swollen to 15 parties, and the Congress. It was reported on Saturday that despite overrunning deadlines, the Congress and the Left are working to finalize a deal by 28 January, with meetings scheduled for 25 January and deadline day. There are a raft of problems attendant on arriving at a working understanding. First, Behrampore (Murshidabad district) Congress MP and Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee boss Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who is also the party's leader in the Lok Sabha, has put on the table a demand for 130 constituencies of the 294 in Bengal. This is unrealistic not just because the Congress is now hemmed into Murshidabad and Malda and a few pockets in North Bengal, but also because conceding this demand would mean that the CPM would have to give up a substantial number of constituencies to the other constituents, especially their long-standing partners, the CPI, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party. It won't work.

If it does €" and the indications are that a realistic solution could be found €" it won't be good news for the BJP. The saffron party's success in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was premised on, among other things, savagely eating into the old Left Front vote. One reason it succeeded in doing that was that the CPM's barely campaigned. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Left got almost 30 percent of the vote. In the 2019 elections, it got around 6.5 percent, thus losing almost 23 per cent of its vote. The BJP upped its share by almost exactly the same amount €" 24 percent €" from around 17 to almost 41 percent.

In an alliance consisting of the Congress, non-Left parties like the Nationalist Congress Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and other Left parties who have, unlike the CPM, identified the BJP as the 'real enemy', like the CPI (ML), which outdid itself in the recent Bihar Assembly elections, sitting back and giving the BJP a pass will not be an option. So, if this alliance works out, the BJP will have to work much harder for its vote share.

Now, to return to Saturday's events. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Kolkata to attend several functions to mark Bose's birth anniversary. During the main one, held at Victoria Memorial, Mamata was supposed to speak before the prime minister. A section of the audience, drowned her out even before she began with chants of 'Jai Shri Ram'. Mamata declined to make a speech. This was an own goal by the party for several reasons.

First, whichever way you slice it, this is now a party slogan. The occasion was one hosted by the Union government. Mixing the two was in bad taste. Second, it seems unclear from where the sloganeers came from. Media reports say that they weren't official invitees, 'but appeared to be those carrying passes distributed from the BJP party office'.

Whatever the truth of the matter, this was an own goal for historical and political reasons. Bose is one of the most revered political figures in Bengal. Even those barely acquainted with the history of the nationalist movement know that he took on Mohandas Gandhi and bested him €" it's a kind of badge of pride. (For the record, Bose contested for the Congress president's post against Pattabhi Sitaramaiyya at the Tripuri Session in 1939 despite being advised not to by Gandhi and won). He was associated with the Congress Left and when he left the party he formed a party, the Forward Bloc, a left-of-centre party.

In any case, with the passage of years, Bose is regarded as being a critical part of Bengal's political heritage. The crude attempt on Saturday by BJP enthusiasts to appropriate him for a project he had always been opposed to could backfire €" like the desecration of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's bust during the 2019 elections.

Also See: Pros and cons of Mamata Banerjee’s Nandigram showdown against Suvendu Adhikari

BJP and Mamata Banerjee are 'two sides of the same coin', says Indian Secular Front's Peerzada Abbas Siddiqui

Mamata Banerjee's move to enter Nandigram poll fray indicates acknowledgment of bitter battle ahead

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