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Bengal Political Churning -I: For BJP and TMC, Its Crunch Time

Ahead of the Assembly elections, Mamata Banerjee-led TMC will be on a difficult wicket because of BJP’s determined bid to weaken the party by manipulating defections of its legislators and active leaders.

Kolkata: An escalating Centre-state conflict and a breakthrough for the Bharatiya Janata Party in engineering the defection of an important Trinamool Congress leader—with proven capability to mobilise people in certain districts—mark the evolving political situation in West Bengal, where Assembly elections are due next summer.

TMC chief and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has her hands full; for she has to confront not only New Delhi for what she calls its brazen actions to bypass states and diminish their functional autonomy, but also politically counter BJP’s aggressive posturing and live down its  oft-repeated charge that her regime is a story of Bengal’s downhill journey. For the first time, BJP has accused Mamata Banerjee of quietly working to install her nephew and Lok Sabha member Abhishek Banerjee as Chief Minister.

The latest trigger for a fresh conflict with New Delhi is its decision to seek the release of three West Bengal cadre IPS officers—without prior consultation with the state—for deputation to the Centre, linking the matter with the attack on the convoy of BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda, who was on his way to Abhishek’s Lok Sabha constituency, Diamond Harbour. Upon the CM’s refusal to release the three officers, the Union home ministry helmed by Amit Shah, issued orders directing the three officers to report to the Centre. The CM is yet to release the officers.

Also read: WB Assembly Polls: BJP Faction-ridden, CM Defensive About Pandemic Handling, Concrete Shape Eludes Left-Cong Tie-up

Unseating the Left Front in 2011 and defending power in 2016 was relatively easy for the TMC supremo in the then prevailing circumstances. But, indications as of now are that 2021 Assembly election is going to be a fiercely fought battle, posing a challenge for the Election Commission of India. Compared to 2011 and 2016, Banerjee will be on a difficult wicket because of BJP’s determined bid to weaken TMC by manipulating defections of its legislators and active leaders.

Suvendu Adhikari’s Defection from TMC

Suvendu Adhikari, who had won from Nandigram in Purba Medinipur district and was, until recently, the transport minister and headed several other administrative outfits, has been one of TMC’s prominent faces. Apart from Purba Medinipur, he wields influence in Paschim Medinipur and parts of two-three other districts, which account for over 40 Assembly seats. Along with him, six more TMC MLAs and one Lok Sabha member have changed their spots.

BJP’s calculation seems to be that there will be further defections from its principal political rival because dissensions within TMC are on the rise with the ‘dadagiri (arrogance)’ of Abhishek and poll consultant Prashant Kishore who, the dissidents, believe are acting in tandem with “the blessings of Mamata”.

An indication of this was available on December 19 at the meeting in Medinipur at which Shah was present and Suvendu changed his jersey. Adhikari concluded his address thus, “Earlier, I said BJP hatao, desh bachao (Remove BJP to Save the Country); from tomorrow, I will say tolabaz bhaipo hatao (remove the extortionist nephew).”

Clearly the reference was for Abhishek, whom the CM had installed in 2014 as TMC’s youth wing chief, replacing Suvendu. This is a new situation for Banerjee in that she has to digest the serious charge of extortion and increasing clout against her nephew. Kishore – on whose counselling the CM lays great store by – is being accused by a section of TMC leaders of exercising disproportionate political authority, which they find unacceptable.

AIMIM Impact and Possible Political Re-grouping

Political observers NewsClick spoke with have made note of the sequence of events since the visit of Nadda in the second week of this month and that of Shah on December 19 and 20. They also see the possibility of Banerjee’s solid Muslim voter support base – 28% in the state – being dented this time with the Hyderabad-based All India Majlist-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Assauddin Owaisi announcing that his party will field a number of candidates in  Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur districts. Some of these areas are in the proximity of borders with Bihar, where the Muslim electorate is a factor.

Also read: Why AIMIM Will Not Succeed in West Bengal Election

This apart, what may affect the pitch for TMC is the proclaimed intention of fighting the election separately by Abbas Siddiqui, a dissident from the famous Muslim pilgrimage site, Furfura Sharief. The area has been known all these years as the stronghold of cleric Twaha Siddiqui, who has been extending support to TMC.

Significantly, there are pointers that the West Bengal Assembly election of 2021 may have national implications of sorts in the coming days. Already, on the issue of deputation of three IPS officers without taking the state government into confidence, the CM has received support from her counterparts in Punjab, Delhi,  Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh as also from Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M K Stalin.

An indication of a fresh anti-BJP political regrouping was clear on December 20 when senior politician and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar assured Banerjee of support from not only his party but also that from key regional players. The possibility of organising a rally in Kolkata of non-BJP parties well before the election also figured in their talks.

Further, it remains to be seen how the CM handles the evolving situation in Darjeeling, which has seen the return of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leader Bimal Gurung after three-and-a-half years. Gurung, changing his more than a decade-old pro-BJP strategy, has now pledged support to Banerjee for “the 2021 election” and threatened to put other GJM faction leaders Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa “out of his way”. In the absence of Bimal, Binay and Anit had emerged as pro-TMC leaders and had been cooperating with the state government. In reply to Bimal’s threat, these two leaders have issued a counter-threat to Bimal.

The reaction of TMC leaders – minister Subrata Mukherjee, Serampore Lok Sabha member Kalyan Bandyopadhyaya and Rajya Sabha member Derek O’brien – has been partly routine and partly expected. The routine reaction is that defections by “opportunists” won’t impact the party. Meanwhile, they have expectedly responded saying that “Banerjee is an experienced politician and fighter. She is capable of meeting challenges and her pro-people welfare schemes will count with the electorate”.

BJP’s Tactics

By deploying a good number of karyakartas (workers) from UP, MP, Rajasthan and some other states for organisational work in several West Bengal districts and announcing in advance about the visit of its national leaders at regular, even short intervals, BJP is signalling to the electorate the importance it attaches to the upcoming elections.

Also read: West Bengal Polls: 16 Parties Approach EC, Flag ‘Abnormal’ Rise in Number of Voters

But this programme also suggests that either the national leadership is unable to rely on state leaders or it does not have enough credible state leaders who can deliver. Then, despite exhortations of the national leaders, the state unit remains faction-ridden. The emphasis on defections from TMC has generated apprehensions among old, committed BJP workers that they may be sidelined in the distribution of tickets.

In a bid to connect with Bengal and its culture, the party leaders are generously invoking Bengal’s iconic figures, starting with Rabindra Nath Tagore and including, among others, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Netaji Subhaschandra Bose. In the process, they are also committing faux pas; for example, saying without any worthwhile context that Tagore was born at Viswa-Bharati while the fact is he was born at the city’s Jorasanko.

Apart from targeting the CM and her nephew Abhisek, BJP seems to harping on how Banerjee was depriving the people of the benefits available under Modi’s two welfare schemes – Ayushman Bharat and PM Kisan Samman Nidhi – and also depriving the state of Central funds meant for the two schemes.

What do Political Observers Say?

In the light of the recent developments involving TMC and BJP, Prof Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at the city’s Bangabasi College, told NewsClick, “It appears TMC is coming under pressure and the state government’s work is coming under lens. But, then it is too premature to suggest that TMC may be routed at the hustings. BJP is keen to grab power in the state and it is making use of its tactics of disintegrating the ruling establishment. It tried this method  before the 2017 Assembly elections in UP, where it succeeded in causing a split in the then ruling Samajwadi Party by pitting uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav against his nephew and chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.”

According to him, it is too early to say as to what extent BJP will be able to reckon the hard realities here. Stretching a point, he observed that media “is becoming weaker by the day”.

Also read: Ahead of 2021 Polls, W Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee Increases Rice Purchase Target

Similarly, Surajit C Mukhopadhyay, who teaches sociology at the Amity University at Raipur in   Chhattisgarh, feels the situation at the moment is fluid and much water is yet to flow down. But, he added, “One thing is clear; BJP has sharpened its skills in breaking up established political parties; aided, as it were, by its clout at the Centre and abundant resources. Both BJP and TMC are  populist; such formations usually try to outdo each other in populism when circumstances warrant.”

As for defection from TMC to BJP, Mukhopadhyay said, “Certainly it is not on ideological considerations. It is for the spoils of office. If distribution of the spoils of power is skewed in favour of one faction, the other faction revolts and deserts the party. Poaching becomes easy then. That’s what is happening.”

Prof Subhamoy Maitra of Indian Institute of Statistics referred to Suvendu’s defecting in the presence of Shah on December 19 by highlighting that “he had occasion to meet  Shah some six years ago”. According to published reports about this, Suvendu’s meeting with Shah was arranged by Siddhartha Nath Singh, a former in-charge for the party in West Bengal and currently UP’s health minister.

Maitra also wondered whether BJP had been grooming Suvendu since then and kept in reserve for a substantive role in the 2021 election.

Also read: Disastrous 2020 Topples West Bengal Election Forecasts

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