Parivartan: How BJP breached Mamata’s Bengal bastion

Ravik Bhattacharya, Santanu Chowdhury
Modi and Shah addressed 17 rallies each and never lost their Bengal focus through the seven-phase campaign. (Express photo: Partha Paul)

It s an unpretentious little room on Pearabagan Road in Hooghly s Chinsurah, with some chairs, posters and an idol of Bharat Mata . But in the BJP s slow, steady and largely unspotted rise in West Bengal, this room played a role as good as any.

Sitting under a poster with photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP chief Amit Shah and others, Arup Das says the room has been ransacked four times and burnt down twice since the BJP opened its office here in 2011, allegedly by ruling Trinamool Congress workers. I was inside the office when it was set ablaze once. Police took no action, says Das, in-charge of the office and now a BJP ward president.

Every time it happened, the BJP set the office back on its feet. The last time was January 4, 2017. The office was up and running by January 26. Now designated a mandal office , it was from here that the party took out a victory rally for its state BJP Mahila Morcha president Locket Chatterjee, who won Hooghly Lok Sabha seat by 73,362 votes against the Trinamool s Ratna De Nag.

Now, the BJP has another office a bigger, district office 1.5 km away, that came up little over a year ago. Sitting in his chamber here, Subir Nag, the BJP Hooghly district president, recalls earlier times. Due to the Trinamool terror, we would hold meetings at someone s house, at night. We communicated over WhatsApp and messages, we could not hold public meetings or rallies… We changed our strategy to remain invisible.

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The irony of this tactic isn t lost on anyone in Bengal. The Trinamool led by Mamata Banerjee had perfected it when the state was under CPM hold. It would tell its voters, Chup chap phoole chhaap (quietly vote for the flower its party symbol) . The BJP changed it slightly. Indeed it was chup chap kamal chhaap , says Nag.

It was soon after its 2014 Lok Sabha victory that a decision was taken by the BJP to spread its presence in Bengal.

But it wasn t just the voters who quietly endorsed the BJP this time. With little booth management and ground presence in the state, the party took help wherever it got, including from the CPM s well-entrenched footsoldiers. Many Left cadres did so openly, after crossing over from a sinking ship; others tacitly, seeking political survival against the Trinamool.

The BJP, that won over Mamata s right-hand man Mukul Roy way back in November 2017, also set about wooing Trinamool leaders, spreading its footprints through theirs.

Vote share over the years.

The last-mile push was provided by Modi and Shah, who addressed 17 rallies each, never lost their Bengal focus through the seven-phase campaign, and changed their message on the trot. By the time Modi hinted what was coming, on April 29, saying Mamata s 40 MLAs were in touch with the BJP, the ground had already shifted.

Two days after the results, with the BJP standing at 40.30% vote share, against the Trinamool s 43.30%, no one is mocking that number of 40. Some say it may be closer to 100 (the Trinamool has 211 MLAs).

In Basirhat, a CPM and BJP office stand cheek by jowl. (Express photo: Partha Paul)

Offices, offices, offices

The message from the party leadership to them, says Nag, was: Aap log sangathan majboot karon, hawa hum log uthayenge (you people strengthen the organisation, we will create the wave)… We did what we can.

It was soon after its 2014 Lok Sabha victory that a decision was taken by the BJP to spread its presence in Bengal. With its seats saturated in the Hindi heartland, the party identified Bengal, where it got 16.80% votes and two seats in 2014, as fertile territory. It had fought 2014 in Bengal functioning largely out of party leaders residences, with wedding halls rented for bigger meetings. A decision was taken then to buy land and build modern offices in each of the 38 organisational districts of the party. Where land could not be found, like Kolkata, Howrah, and other congested towns, houses were to be bought and made offices. The drive was speeded up after the 2016 Assembly polls, which clearly showed the slide of the Left as the principal opposition.

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Five years later, the BJP has largely met that goal. A two-storey building in Ranaghat, Nadia, is illustrative of what its offices look like now. It has an air-conditioned, audio system-equipped seminar hall that can seat 500, separate spaces for leaders, a conference room, rooms for party wings like the Yuva Morcha or Mahila Morcha, IT cells, and even residential areas for party leaders/workers, and a canteen.

A leader from Madhya Pradesh who had impressed the BJP leadership with his work in Haryana, BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya was appointed co-observer for Bengal in July 2015. Considered one of the prime architects of the BJP s Bengal performance now, he says, We have our organisation till the booth level and our infrastructure in all districts of the state.

As it built the party bottom up, the BJP also set in place its organisation: We have booth committees with panna pramukhs, Shakti Kendras which look after five to seven booth committees each, and mandals overseeing nine to 12 Shakti Kendras, says Surajit Saha, the district president of the BJP s Howrah Town organisational district.

Adds Pratap Banerjee, the general secretary (organisation) of the party s Bengal unit, In 2014, we had no organisational presence in half of the 77,000-odd polling booths in the state. Now, we have committees in 72,000, and 1,300 Shakti Kendras. In many booths we have trained panna pramukhs to look after 30 voters each.

One of the areas the BJP targeted was the Jhargram tribal belt, falling under Junglemahal, which was considered a Trinamool stronghold after the Mamata government drove out Maoists from here. The BJP now has a two-storey office here with an IT cell, conference rooms and chambers. We completed the office after the 2018 state panchayat polls, says the BJP s Jhargram district secretary, Deep Kumar Bera.

The party reaped pidends of this work in that election, winning 35 of the 79 gram panchayats, two of the nine panchayat samitis, and two of the 16 seats in the zilla parishad in Jhargram. As well as in the recent Lok Sabha polls. BJP candidate Kunar Hembram, an IIT Kharagpur engineer, defeated the Trinamool s Birbaha Soren from Jhargram Lok Sabha seat by 11,767 votes.

The BJP expansion went on even in the midst of the campaign. The party office in Kolkata Dakshin constituency was inaugurated in April. The Nadia office was opened only in February. At the BJP headquarters in Central Kolkata, hectic renovation was on till deep into the campaign.

BJP Nadia district president Jagannath Sarkar, who won from Ranaghat Lok Sabha seat by a massive margin of 2.33 lakh votes, doesn t underestimate the role of this very visible BJP presence. Giving a tour of the Nadia office, he says, In 2014 or even 2016, the BJP office in this district was the bag carried by district leaders. We used to carry papers and meet people at their homes.

Speaking to The Sunday Express at the BJP headquarters, general secretary Banerjee says their work is far from done. Reminding that in 2014, the party had around 10-12 lakh members, he says, Apart from leaders, hundreds of Trinamool and CPM workers have joined us. Our cellphone membership is around 42 lakh now.

The BJP, that won over Mamata s right-hand man Mukul Roy way back in November 2017, also set about wooing Trinamool leaders, spreading its footprints through theirs. (Express photo: Partha Paul)

Extra hands

Though not openly, the BJP admits that these grassroot cadres of the Left formed its backbone on election day.

But the signs that the Left had conceded defeat had been evident long before. Two days before the final phase of polls in Bengal on May 19, The Sunday Express visited a number of CPM offices in Dum Dum, Barasat and Basirhat constituencies, and found many locked. In others only a handful of party cadres were present.

Sitting in the empty CPM office at Nagerbazar in Dum Dum, amidst a pile of posters and handbills seeking votes for party candidate Nepaldeb Bhattarcharjee, party office secretary of South Dumdum (1) area committee Gopal Nag Chowdhury sounded despondent. Many people have joined the BJP because of the fear of the Trinamool. We have told them not to bring a dacoit to drive away a thief. The BJP and Trinamool both play communal politics, said the 46-year-old, a CPM cadre for 22 years.

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At the CPM office in Netajipalli in Barasat, Gopal Sarkar, a member of the area committee, lamented the growing irrelevance of the Left. Everyone is saying it is Modi versus Mamata, but it is not right. The Left is also there. Pointing to a locked party office a stone s throw away, Sarkar claimed the Trinamool did not let them open it. He joined the CPM 19 years ago, as a 20-year-old.

The Express found two other CPM offices in Barasat locked. And in Basirhat, a CPM and BJP office standing cheek by jowl. BJP leaders say that while the CPM office has been around for years, they set up theirs next door in 1998 as it was the only house available in Basirhat for a party office then . Now, many of the leaders who sit in the BJP office are those who have simply walked over.

Shantanu Chakraborty, former CPI state committee member and son of the party s former Basirhat MP Ajay Chakraborty, is now BJP district secretary. Two years back there was a riot in Basirhat. Even before that this area was becoming a hotbed for Muslim fundamentalism. Added to this is the terror of the Trinamool. Many like me have joined the BJP, says Shantanu.

Tapas Ghosh, a branch committee member of the CPM, joined the BJP in 2016 and is now a party ward president. Scoffing at those who cite ideology , Ghosh says, We have told Left workers, first save your life then think of saying Inquilab Zindabad . Over a thousand Left workers joined the BJP with us. It is we who are the BJP s panna pramukhs, booth presidents, Shakti Kendra pramukhs in a majority of the booths in Basirhat.

Both Ghosh and Shantanu also say the rise of the BJP was inevitable, at least in Basirhat. So many mosques have come up here and so many temples. Hanuman Mandirs have become a craze of late… Hindus with money are making them. Even at my home we avoid non-vegetarian food now on Tuesdays. It is happening as a reaction to the onslaught of Muslims, says Ghosh.

With results on the table, one set of political theorists continue to argue that the CPM and Congress should have tied up. But, even here, the damage due to this

non-alliance may have been more to the Left. While the Congress s vote share fell from 9.58% in 2014 to 5.61%, the Left s plunged from 34% to 7.46%.

CPM leader and party Bankura candidate Amiya Patra insists the desertions from the party are temporary . The Trinamool has carried out atrocities against Left workers and slapped false charges against them. They have chosen to join the BJP to save their lives for now. They will come back when the situation changes.

Patra was part of the Left decimation in Bengal, getting just over 1 lakh votes.

Ghosh says he is not surprised. The top Left leaders in Bengal know it all, but do not accept the trend.

The ground was ripe then for Modi and Shah to launch their final blitzkrieg. (Express photo: Partha Paul)

Anger against Trinamool

According to the BJP, even as several Trinamool leaders have joined it, a large number helped it silently. Some of them, including MLAs, reportedly remained dormant during the campaign and on poll days.

Take Bijpur Assembly segment in Barrackpur Lok Sabha seat. Subhrangshu Roy, the son of former Trinamool leader and now one of the BJP s main leaders in the state, Mukul Roy, is a sitting Trinamool MLA from Bijpur. The BJP, which won Barrackpur, got a lead here. A day after the results, Subhrangshu hinted at joining the BJP.

Similarly, in Maniktola Assembly seat under its MLA Sadhan Pandey, the Trinamool got a lead of only 580 votes, though party leader Sudip Bandyopadhyay eventually won from Kolkata Uttar comfortably.

Other Trinamool rebels supplemented BJP efforts by transforming their small local offices into BJP offices. For instance, after Trinamool Bhatpara MLA Arjun Singh joined the BJP, Trinamool offices there turned saffron overnight. Arjun Singh won from Barrackpur on a BJP ticket.

Referring to Modi s remark that 40 Trinamool MLAs were in touch with the BJP, a senior party leader says, These people will now come out in the open and join us. Many dissident leaders not only deliberately slowed the pace of the campaign but also helped us reach door to door. On poll day they helped people vote (against the Trinamool s threat tactics)… The Trinamool leadership failed to track these leaders.

In this, Mukul Roy again proved a thorn in his former party s side. Among other things, he had a hand in wooing over suspended TMC MPs Saumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra apart from Arjun Singh. Khan too won.

The Trinamool believes the sword of chit fund scams and Narada sting operation hanging over many TMC leaders is also a reason for their vulnerability.

Says Anubrata Mandal, party Birbhum district president, Those who left us are traitors. It is good riddance. Some of the traitors are still with us, we will identify them. However we are confident that we will win in the 2021 Assembly polls.

All across the state, Mamata s wooing of the state s 27% Muslim population was cited as a reason by Hindu voters for consolidating behind the BJP. (Express photo: Partha Paul)


But it s not just its leaders that the Trinamool has been losing, it s also voters. All across the state, Mamata s wooing of the state s 27% Muslim population was cited as a reason by Hindu voters for consolidating behind the BJP.

The BJP started tapping into this resentment long back, whether it was the Kaliachak Police Station attack by a largely Muslim mob that was made a national issue by the party, or the death of two Hindu youths at Daribhit High School in Islampur during a protest essentially over shortage of teachers. The BJP set up its office in Islampur, Raiganj, in the residence of one of the victims. During the campaign, BJP leaders, including all its candidates, participated in Ram Navami celebrations. Unknown in Bengal till even four years ago, Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti rallies are now a staple, led by the VHP and RSS. Islampur saw one of the biggest Ram Navami rallies this year.

The cleaving along religious lines was evident in the results, especially in seats with large Muslim populations such as Raiganj and Maldaha Uttar, where Hindus voting en bloc saw the BJP through. A former Congress bastion won by CPM stalwart Md Salim in 2014, Raiganj has 49.5% Muslim voters. It was won by a BJP unknown, Deboshree Chowdhury, with 40% votes. In Maldaha Uttar, another Congress bastion, 37.61% of the votes went to the BJP s Khagen Murmu.

The BJP was also able to use the anger over the Trinamool s mockery of the 2018 panchayat polls, where 34% of the seats went uncontested in face of its muscle power. Many people during the campaign told the Express they had been denied their votes and wanted to teach Mamata a lesson.

In many areas in North Bengal, including Chopra (under Darjeeling seat), villagers, including women, blocked roads when allegedly prevented from reaching polling stations this time. Later, with Central forces watching, they were able to vote.

While Mamata sought to make the deployment of Central forces an issue, Modi highlighted incidents like at Chopra. On Thursday, Darjeeling, Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Raiganj, Jalpaiguri in North Bengal all saw the BJP win. With the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha split, and the GNLF supporting it, the BJP won Darjeeling with 59.9% vote share.

The ground was ripe then for Modi and Shah to launch their final blitzkrieg. Their campaign themes, apart from Pulwama and Central schemes, were highlighting failures of the Mamata regime and its appeasement politics. When one of his meetings was cancelled after he was denied permission to land his chopper, Shah held a road show in Kolkata, leading a sea of BJP workers chanting Jai Shri Ram slogans, with many of them dressed up as Ramayana characters.

The meticulous BJP planning was evident from one of the places it turned its sights on Thakurnagar, the headquarters of the Matua community. Modi held a rally here even before campaigning began. The Trinamool scrambled to catch up, held counter rallies there, even as many dug up maps to try spot Thakurnagar. On Thursday, both Ranaghat and Bongaon seats, dominated by the Matuas, went to the BJP.

Two days after the results, even the regular hanger-ons outside Mamata s residence in Kalighat are missing, while it s all quiet at the party headquarters, Trinamool Bhawan, in Kolkata. In areas where the party did well, workers held some low-key celebrations.

The BJP, meanwhile, is zeroing in on a new address in Kolkata, to shift its state headquarters to. It will be a long stay.