Mamata vs Modi: Didi's national agenda belies trouble at home

Shubham Ghosh
Tripura's changing Opposition: From Congress to BJP via Trinamool Congress

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has drawn a comprehensive plan to 'attack' West Bengal, a state where it has always been a fringe player. Though its vote-share in the state during the 2014 Lok Sabha election had reached an unprecedented 17 percent, it could not win more than two seats. In the 2016 Assembly election, the saffron party could win three seats with a vote-share of 10 percent.

Though these figures are quite ordinary when compared to the most powerful political force in the state – the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which won 34 and 211 seats in the 2014 and 2016 elections, respectively – the BJP has sensed that it has a future in the eastern state and has accordingly made a plan to mobilise many of its top leaders to the state between April 6 and 14.

The BJP leaders, including Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani, will camp in each of the state's 42 parliamentary constituencies before attending the national executive meeting in New Delhi where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah will lay down the roadmap.

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In the TMC camp, the repercussions are already being felt. Though the party's general secretary and state's education minister Partha Chatterjee has tried to downplay the BJP's grand plan, saying "Why only 40? Let 400 of them come", there are clear indications in his party's ranks that the saffron party's growing presence in Bengal has left its rulers worried.

Mamata is giving importance to the tainted Madan Mitra too!

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TMC supremo and state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said in a TV interview recently that if the BJP targeted Bengal, they would target India. However, in reality, it was seen that the leader was advising her party's members to secure their respective bastions in the state even while taking on the BJP. Banerjee was also seen welcoming back tainted leader Madan Mitra, who was jailed for a long time in connection with the Saradha chit-fund scam.

Mitra is known for his ground networking and in the times of the BJP's growth in stature in the state, Banerjee needs him more than ever for the sake of her party. The Bengal CM was also worried over the party's endless feud in Malda, a Congress stronghold where the BJP also went on to win one seat in last year's Assembly election, while the ruling party drew a blank.

Banerjee recently instructed the local leaders of Malda district to make up and work for the party. The growing concern over the threat named BJP has clearly put the TMC in an emergency mode.

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But is there a realistic chance for the BJP to make inroads in Bengal?

"We certainly do," Ritesh Tiwari, one of the BJP's state secretaries in Bengal, told the International Business Times, India. "The politics of Bengal had been bipolar in the last 50 years. We saw the TMC allying with either the BJP or Congress in its fight against the Left. It was only in 2014 that the state's bipolar political model got broken as all parties decided to contest alone. In the 2016 Assembly election, there was an understanding between the Congress and Left but as we all saw, they were routed."

Tiwari stress that while the Left is witnessing a serious erosion in their ranks, the Congress has been mostly turned into a signboard, especially in southern Bengal. "In these circumstances, people have regarded the BJP as the only alternative to the TMC. The top leadership knew about this and now it has decided to bring all focus on the state to achieve its potential," he added.

'BJP is reaping benefits of demonetisation in state'

Tiwari pointed out that the results of the by-election in Cooch Behar Lok Sabha seat also showed the BJP's growing strength in the state.

"In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, we received 16 percent votes in that seat. In the 2016 by-election, it went up to 28 percent. People have shown complete faith on the demonetisation drive of Prime Minister Narendra Modi," Tiwari said. The BJP ended in the second position in the bypoll, eclipsing the Left, while the TMC won the seat.

But why did the BJP's vote-share in the 2016 Assembly election fall after its good show in the 2014 Lok Sabha election? To this, another source in the BJP told IBT on the condition of anonymity that people suspected then that the party had an understanding with the TMC. Moreover, the source added, the 2014 Lok Sabha election had a sense of confirmation attached to it as Modi was the face. That finality was lacking in the election held two years after.

'No local face for BJP in Bengal is no challenge'

But does the BJP have a trustworthy face in Bengal to take on a powerful leader like Banerjee? Tiwari replied: "Did you hear about Manohar Lal Khattar or Devendra Fadnavis before they became the chief ministers (of Haryana and Maharashtra, respectively)? The BJP is a party which believes in organisational work and it is the only party where leaders rise through the ranks. Don't forget that the party had gone for Modi as its face despite the presence of a towering figure like Lal Krishna Advani in the Lok Sabha election of 2014."

What is the Left's take on the matter? Is it really worried over the way the BJP is making its presence strong in the state and gradually replacing them as the second most potent force?

BJP has been working on this plan for some time but that's of no avail: Left MP

Apparently not. Mohammad Salim, one of the Left's two Lok Sabha MPs from Bengal, told IBT India: "Such planning and programming by the BJP is going on for five-six years now. The RSS' resolution passed in Coimbatore recently slamming the TMC government in the state, coupled with the Banerjee government's failure and the BJP's recent victories, the initiative has seen a renewed vigour but we all know, behind the veils, it is a game scripted between the TMC and BJP."

He added: "Both these forces are threatening Bengal's ethos, the communal harmony, but it will never be successful, let me tell you."

So is the Left doing enough to protect its ground in a state, which it had ruled continuously for 34 years? "We are on the ground 24X7, fighting for every inch, Salim said. "Yes, we are not much visible because the media is not interested in highlighting us but that doesn't mean we are not doing anything." When asked whether the Left has a face to project for the future elections, Salim denied the need to have one. "We are seeing the politics of the facial and superficial. In UP, the BJP did not have a face but yet won it," he said. 

The Raiganj MP also said the Left is trying to forge a unity among the like-minded people to defeat the TMC and BJP. He called Banerjee's criticism of the BJP as "scripted" and said the RSS had helped her in the past.

IBT India also asked a TMC leader about the BJP's plans but he skirted the question, saying the top leadership would be the best placed to comment on th matter.

IBT's view:

The parties to the power struggle will, of course, have their own versions but going by the latest political trends in Bengal, the TMC leadership would have to burn some midnight oil to find a way to stop the BJP's growth in the state. The party is already having a tense time with the chit-fund scam and the sting operation against a number of its leaders.

In addition to that, the defeat of the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance and Bahujan Samaj Party in the recent UP election has dealt a blow to Banerjee's idea of cementing an anti-BJP federal front for the 2019 general elections. The BJP's growth of strength in the Rajya Sabha post the UP polls will also reduce the TMC into a fringe player at the Centre.

The TMC's only hope is that it still has a Mamata Banerjee, which the BJP doesn't have in Bengal. But the way the BJP has been spreading its base in one state after another, even without having known local faces, that final hope of the TMC doesn't look infallible either.

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