Kolkata: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president and Union Home Minister Amit Shah did ultimately inaugurate a Durga Puja in the city’s Salt Lake area, but not before generating controversy and causing a vertical split in the organisation that hosted the Puja. After strenuous mediation efforts by some people, a formula was worked out. And, what was the formula? The faction opposed to inauguration by Shah relented when the other side agreed to the suggestion of the mediators that the announcement would just mention that the Union home minister would inaugurate the Puja. There would be no mention of his party post.
The build-up carefully structured by several BJP leaders through the second half of August and September had helped create an impression that several top BJP leaders from New Delhi would inaugurate some prominent Pujas and local party leaders would make all-out efforts to organise ‘defection’ of as many small and medium-size clubs and associations as possible with assurance of fund support. Efforts were indeed made to this end but the efforts did not succeed.
Inquiries made by this correspondent from a cross-section of people clearly suggest that the West Bengal BJP unit’s plan to tap into Durga Puja festivities to socialise and connect with the people in general has a lukewarm response and Trinamool Congress leaders have had a field day.
The BJP leaders NewsClick spoke to, however, refuted any suggestion that their outreach programme during the Puja season has been a flop. They even suggested that it was not their intention to induce ‘defection’ of clubs and Puja organisers to their side with financial support. The party’s key objective was to engage with people to widen the support base, they added.
According to Jaiprakash Majumdar, vice-president of state BJP, “The media attributed motives to our outreach programme; we never tried to establish control over Puja organisers—be they clubs or associations, in the manner Mamata Banerjee’s party has done since it came to power. We simply asked party workers to reach out to people,” Majumdar said.
Shamik Bhattacharjee, state BJP’s core committee member, claimed success of the outreach initiative and linked it with the ongoing membership drive, which according to Bhattacharjee, “is registering a highly encouraging response from the people”.
Sayantan Basu, a prominent BJP leader known for his caustic remarks against the Opposition, particularly Trinamool Congress, claimed this time around, he received invitations from a good number of clubs and Puja committees to visit their pandals. “We are very much touchable now, the prejudice against us continues to weaken,” Basu said.
The leaders claimed success in opening bookstalls in the proximity of the Puja pandals. The number of bookstalls manned by BJP supporters has increased significantly over that in 2018 when the party had to be content with a token presence, they conceded.
Bhattacharjee and Basu sounded confident of the party’s membership touching one crore-mark; already, it is close to 86 lakh. Both of them dismissed the suggestion that the persisting weakness of the economy would tell on the membership drive, which started on an effective base of 25 lakh, although on books, it was 43 lakh, but “we were not able to connect with the rest”.
Veteran Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Pradip Bhattacharya told NewsClick that BJP’s plan to capture and control Puja committees had failed; it was ‘destined’ to fail. “The party has failed to appreciate that Pujas are never identified with political parties; Pujas are organised by the people and people take part in the festivities. Some political leaders may be associated with some Pujas, but that does not mean those Pujas belong to the political parties of which they are functionaries,” he said.
On BJP’s claims of membership growth, Bhattacharya said that the party was making itself a laughing stock by asking people sitting in tea stalls or those in bazaars and haats to sign membership forms. “It’s not as simple as that. People being approached for membership first have to be enlightened about the history, philosophy and social objectives of the party and then persuaded to become its members.”
Sujan Chakraborty, Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM legislature party leader in West Bengal Assembly, echoed the Congress leader’s views and said BJP’s plan to make the party highly visible during the Puja festivities had flopped. The party tried to win over some small and mid-size clubs, but did not succeed. In this regard, BJP with abundant resources has unsuccessfully tried to imitate TMC, Chakraborty said. He rejected BJP’s membership growth claims, saying “there is lot of water in the claim”.
The state unit of BJP also must have realised by now that their laboured invocation of Syama Prasad Mookerjee in the context of abrogation of Article 370 and thereby removing the provision for special privileges for Kashmir is just not working. The distribution of booklets on NRC is not helping either.
Another instance of failure on the part of the state BJP unit is to make inroards in Tollywood, Bengal’s film hub, and induce artistes and technicians to cross over to the party from TMC.
However, the national and state BJP leaders have ‘succeeded’ in creating a sense of panic among the Muslims, particularly in the border districts, over the NRC issue. Nearly 34 lakh people, mostly Muslims, applied for ration cards in just 15 days last month in a bid to have some kind of identity proof.
Interestingly, a view is emerging among BJP supporters and sympathisers that the New Delhi leadership’s constant harping on the NRC issue may prove counter-productive in West Bengal, which, along with Punjab, suffered the most in the aftermath of the Partition. The exclusion of nearly 12-13 lakh Hindus from out of the total exclusion of 19 lakh people has queered the pitch for the party in Assam and there is apprehension that BJP supporters in West Bengal that a similar situation may arise in the state if things are overdone.
Meanwhile, a development worth taking note of is the frequency of visits to Kolkata of Swapan Dasgupta, journalist and Rajya Sabha member. Dasgupta, who has intimate knowledge of West Bengal politics, is taking part in meetings and offering inputs to local leaders for follow-up action. At the moment, local leaders do not want to read too much in his involvement. Suffice to say that the party in West Bengal needs a presentable face.
It’s now time to watch whether Mukul Roy is able to keep his word on organising sizeable defections from TMC. Roy has on several occasions in the past three months said that people of the state should “watch for developments after the Pujas”. He has emerged as the main defection organiser, a role he had played as a TMC leader.