Battle lines are drawn out, gloves are taken off long back, and now knives are out. The BJP, which was hardly a force a few years back in West Bengal; is now reckoning as the real-time competitor to the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress
Former TMC leader and Mamata's aide Suvendu Adhikari joins BJP at Amit Shah's rally
Perhaps in more ways than one, neither BJP nor Trinamool Congress had planned the war. The two parties got drawn into this battle through a series of political journeys, even mutual miscalculation and toeing different road maps. At one point, it is quite paradoxical that both the parties were valued allies. Mamata herself served as a Minister under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But all these are now changed.
Amit Shah, more often credited for ensuring the expansion of the Saffron party, visited West Bengal in December 2020 for a brief two-and-a-half-day visit and scored a major milestone when a 'mass leader' Suvendu Adhikari and a host of Communist and Congress leaders besides a number of Trinamool MLAs and a sitting MP Sunit Mondal joined the BJP.
The mega defection-drama could be easily called the biggest exodus from a party to another in a single day. It has certainly given a new spring to the feet of the pro-Hindutva political force.
Half a dozen state legislators and about 50 others belonging to Trinamool Congress – at various levels - quit the party and joined the BJP on December 19. So did TapsiMondal, Haldia MLA from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and also some Muslim leaders from Trinamool Congress. This is the precursor to the fast-approaching assembly polls of 2021 summer when NarendraModi-Amit Shah's party will throw a major challenge to the provincial party which ousted the Leftists in 2011.
In retrospect, we know in little more than one year, as many as 15 MLAs of Trinamool, three of the CPI (M) and two belonging to the Congress are now with the BJP which had only seven MLAs of its own in the 294-strong state assembly polls in 2016. Ironically, in 2019 Lok Sabha polls – when BJP showed significant improvement in mass support, the saffron party's LokSabha tally went up to 18 --- a quantum leap from modest 2 in 2014.
"Give one chance to Narendra Modi. We will make 'Sonar Bangla' in five years," Shah said. He visited Sangeet Bhavana in Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan and shared snapson Twitter - "Committed to fulfilling Tagore's dream, restoring the lost glory of Bengal."
Besides Suvendu Adhikari, who was MLA from politically sensitive Nandigram, Tapasi Mondal (CPI-M), Ashoke Dinda, Sudip Mukherjee (Congress), Saikat Panja, Shilbhadra Dutta, Dipali Biswas, Sukra Munda, Shyamapda Mukherjee, Biswajit Kundu, Banasri Maity, Satyan Roy and a former MP Dashrath Tirkey joined the Saffron party.
'The Adhikari family':
There is enough political significance of breaching the 'Adhikar family'. On the background of the stage at Medinipur was a catchy slogan 'aarnoeanyae (No More Injustice)'. It was as much for the common people as also for Suvendu, who were perhaps a victim of machinations of Mamata and her powerful nephew Abhishek Banerjee.
When Suvendu had first resigned from the Mamata’s cabinet on November 27, his supporters - calling themselves 'Dada's foot soldiers' - had promised a political storm - fiercer than the Cyclone Amphan to sweep across West Bengal. Certainly, the Shah-Nadda duo has pinned a lot of hopes on Suvendu. If the grapevine is to be believed, he has promised to give BJP at least 50 seats.
According to a Trinamool booth worker in Siliguri, there are multiple challenges for his party, but one of them is most significant. "Keeping the Muslim base intact would be a difficult proposition. Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM and a local Muslim cleric Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui could in effect eat into Mamata's support base among Muslims," he says.
In November, a video went viral, say locals - that showed Siddiqui indulging in fear-mongering - "If we do not come to power next time, they (Hindus) will rape our women in front of our eyes". Common citizenry in Malda says such statements would only help the BJP in the long run. AIMIM chief Owaisi has already made it clear that his party will contest elections in Bengal. AIMIM had picked up five seats in Bihar, and four of them were in constituencies adjoining Mamata's state.
Of course, rural Bengal gives an angry look these days. The mood is palpable of grievance against the political class. Not far from Naxalbari, where peasants' protest once turned bloody, the 44-year-old Bidyut Kanti Pal says, "Politics of Hindu-Muslim has grown stronger here over last two years, and this is why Mamata Banerjee's series of welfare measures and dole-outs did not help much in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections".
Besides key North Bengal constituencies, the BJP's penetration was significant in the state's agriculture-rich constituencies of Hooghly and Bardhaman-Durgapur, he explains. Left to them, the voters are concerned about 'infiltration' of Bangladeshis. There is also a suspicion that 'the local political backing' is also helping Rohingyas to sneak in. Others say the violence of 2018 panchayat elections have left people anguished and thus Trinamool has suffered most in pastoral areas. Of the 12 Lok Sabha seats Trinamool lost out of the 34 in 2019, most were in remote and far-flung locations.
"The 2018 panchayat poll violence has harmed us. Even womenfolk no longer back Didi," lamented Islampur-based Trinamool worker Roba Sen.
But, the general refrain among Muslim voters is that they would still stick to Didi. "However, the division among Muslim voters is an issue. Mamata Banerjee has set up Aliah University, a minority education institution with a budget of Rs 257 crore. But the BJP campaign seems to be powerful. Several Hindus in these pockets have shifted loyalties especially those who earlier backed the Communists," she explains. The scheme of providing financial assistance to Imams and Muezzins - numbering an estimated 63,000 plus has also irked Hindus.
The mega defection-drama could be easily called the biggest exodus from a party to another in a single day. It has certainly given a new spring to the feet of the pro-Hindutva political force
In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP vote share in the state jumped from 17 per cent to 40.2 per cent. Mamata's party recorded an increase from 39 per cent to 43 per cent. "Notably, the Trinamool seats came down from 34 to 22. Increase in Trinamool vote percentage meant that the Muslim community voted en masse for Didi," says a local trader Iqbal Nawaz.
This 'shift' of Muslim votes had resulted in a massive drop in CPI(M)-led Left Front vote share from 29.9 per cent to 7.5 per cent between 2014 and 2019. These mean the Congress and the Leftists would be further marginalised.
But at the end of the day, Mamata Banerjee has been a fighter. In a dramatic development, BJP MP Saumitra Khan's wife has been now taken into Didi's party. But West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh says Mamata's popularity in rural Bengal has dropped. Others say the 'cut money' or commission style politics is an issue. The BJP has sensed the political messages well and would launch a campaign stating that under BJP, all welfare schemes would be implemented without 'cut money'. This promise is gradually going to the people well.