The fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have taken a knock in West Bengal. And that is leading them into making unverified claims that is showing up, and further slowing up, the party’s momentum. You have to feel for high-profile rebel and defector Suvendu Adhikari, who has been enticed into a contest that he is very unlikely to win.
On Monday, Adhikari alleged that his opponent in the Nandigram constituency, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, had failed to disclose the fact that she had six cases registered against her while filing her nomination. BJP leaders later visited the office of the state’s chief electoral officer to lodge a complaint, though the Nandigram returning officer had already scrutinised and approved Banerjee’s candidature.
It transpired later that at least one of the cases related to a namesake of the Bengal Chief Minister. While this provided some much-needed comic relief in the midst of what is being billed in the media as a titanic, epochal contest that could swing either way, it also underscored the BJP’s desperation.
To begin with, let us look at the problem that Adhikari has on his hands. When Banerjee declared that she would contest from Nandigram (in Purba Medinipur district) in addition to the Bhowanipore constituency in Kolkata she has represented since 2011, Adhikari mocked her and threw down a dare. It was not a good idea, because whatever opinion one may have of Banerjee, no one doubts her guts. She accepted the challenge and decided she would contest only from Nandigram, giving up her “safe” seat in Kolkata.
And now Adhikari is stuck. The problem is that Banerjee’s one-time lieutenant had begun to harbour delusions of grandeur. But when push comes to shove, Adhikari and the BJP know there is practically no way they can beat the chief minister in this, or for that matter almost any, constituency in Bengal.
Quite apart from this, it is now becoming apparent that whatever momentum the BJP might have acquired is petering out pretty fast for a number of reasons. Let us start with the strategy that the BJP has employed elsewhere in the country and which it regards as some kind of patented strategy of genius proportions. This consists of luring members of the opposing camp to defect to the BJP and is obviously enabled by the party’s massive war chest. Unfortunately, in Bengal this genius-level strategy has backfired badly.
It has been apparent for some time now—at least since the 2019 elections—that the steady flow of defectors from the Opposition camp has created two camps within the state BJP. One consists of the old-timers and the other of the time-servers. Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh has always been distrustful of the defectors, especially those from the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), to the extent of sidelining Mukul Roy, at one time the official number two in the Bengal ruling party, for three years, from the time the latter switched sides in 2017.
But in the run-up to the Assembly elections, Roy was made a national vice-president and it had been reported that Union Home Minister Amit Shah had told the Bengal leadership to court TMC leaders and give more space to defectors, at a meeting held in November 2020. The biggest fish they netted in its aftermath was Adhikari, but there has been a steady drip of TMC leaders, including a number of MLAs, joining the BJP.
Most of them, including Adhikari and former TMC minister and Domjur (Howrah district) MLA Rajib Banerjee, have been given nominations. In some cases, the haste to court TMC leaders has bordered on the bizarre. It is not necessarily the case that TMC leaders have joined the BJP from what we might loosely describe as a settled position. In the last few weeks, a number of the defectors have been people denied tickets by the TMC.
Singur MLA Rabindranath Bhattacharya is a case in point. At the age of 89, he was denied a re-nomination, ostensibly in line with the TMC’s new policy of retiring leaders who had turned 80. On being denied a ticket, he promptly joined the BJP on 8 March. His name equally promptly figured in the BJP’s 63-strong list for the third and fourth phases of the elections, which was released on 14 March. Incensed local BJP workers protested on that day itself, accusing Bhattacharya of having systematically attacking them during his time in power.
On 15 March, a wave of protests were triggered in Hooghly district over the list released the day before. The party office in Chinsurah was ransacked, while the one in Chandernagore had to be kept locked. One party worker threatened suicide. The anger was against Bhattacharya’s nomination from Singur and that of defector Prabir Ghoshal from Uttarpara. It has also been reported that there is discontent, though no violence, over the nomination of one Bishal Lama, a defector from the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, for the Kalchini constituency in Alipurduar district. Discontent has been simmering in South 24 Parganas district, too, because the prospects of a number of long-term BJP leaders have been scotched to accommodate new entrants.
On 15 March, Shah, the author of the defection strategy, is reported to have held a meeting at which Ghosh, the two Bengal minders, BJP party chief JP Nadda and senior party functionaries were present. It continued into the early hours of the morning of 16 March and continued after a break.
Shah is reported to have been furious about the burgeoning protests and reportedly gave those in charge of Bengal affairs a dressing down for not being consultative in their approach while recommending names for nominations. He has convened a meeting in Delhi for 17 March to further review the situation. Mukul Roy, who was absent from the Kolkata meetings, has been summoned.
If this reaction ignores Shah’s own role in fashioning the predatory strategy, one supposes no one will have the guts to tell him that. After all, it is he, alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who run, and practically own, the BJP now.
If the defections “strategy” has run aground, the parallel one of getting the Election Commission to stretch the Bengal elections over eight phases and almost four weeks so that central leaders can bombard it with campaign rallies—Modi is slated to hold 20, and Shah and Nadda around 50 each—is also likely to prove counter-productive.
Thin attendances have already forced Shah to cancel—on 15 March—a rally scheduled at Jhargram in the tribal belt where the BJP is at its strongest. The BJP claims this was due to a problem with Shah’s helicopter, which, given the circumstances, sounds specious. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanand, too, held rallies at Purulia and Bankura in the tribal belt on 16 March, which were sparsely attended.
Carpet-bombing Bengal with star campaigners from outside will just increase the fatigue apart from giving the TMC further grounds to characterise the BJP as a party of “outsiders”. The lack of a viable local leadership is already apparent as is the BJP’s inability to find enough credible candidates to contest in Bengal’s 294 constituencies.
Everything considered, it does not seem now that the contest will be titanic, though it will be epochal.
The author is an independent journalist and researcher. The views are personal.