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High Hopes of BJP Top Brass from Bengal; State Leaders Count on Modi

There is no question of anti-incumbency and, therefore, West Bengal has to contribute handsomely towards fulfilling the party’s aim of a BJP-led third NDA government, with Narendra Modi as the prime minister.
BJP in West Bengal politics

Kolkata: The central leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party has ‘fixed a quota’ of 35 Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal which has, in all, 42 seats. The fulfilment of the ‘quota’ will warrant victory in almost double the number of seats (18) the party had bagged in 2019. There is no question of anti-incumbency and, therefore, West Bengal has to contribute handsomely towards fulfilling the party’s aim of a BJP-led third NDA government, with Narendra Modi as the prime minister. So runs the argument of senior BJP leaders in favour of a ‘quota of 35’ and they add that although this was determined before the formation of the Opposition’s INDIA block in August: “We are not supposed to lower our sights”.

There is a contrarian view too, but that is not to be made public. “It’s a tall ask,” admit leaders who stress the need for the top brass to be practical.

The state leadership has told active party workers not to be upset over the recent failure to retain the Dhupguri Assembly seat in North Bengal. Instead, take heart from the victory in Tripura, where by-elections were held to fill up two vacancies. The top priority now is to organise 1,000 mandal-level meetings to strengthen the organisation at the ground level. The exercise, since begun, will gather momentum after the monsoon and then resume with full vigour after the festive season, state president Sukanta Majumdar told NewsClick.

The party has around 1,300 mandal committees, each of which, on average, covers 60-70 booths. Periodic meetings are being held by the two prabharis – Mangal Pande of Bihar and Sunil Bansal of Rajasthan. “We have devised a mechanism by which the remaining 300 mandal committees too will be covered,” said Majumdar, who represents Balurghat constituency in Lok Sabha [seat in Dakshin Dinajpur district].

In 2019 and 2021, the party did well in North Bengal and the region colloquially referred to as Junglemahal, which is densely forested, and which was a Maoist hotbed for several years. The region covers four districts – Jhargram, Paschim Medinipur, Purulia, and Bankura.  In North Bengal, it had bagged seven out of eight Lok Sabha seats and 30 out of 54 Assembly constituencies. In the Junglemagal region, it had won all five Lok Sabha seats and 31 out of 40 Assembly seats. The moot point is whether, in the next battle, the party will be able to defend all of the 12 seats it had secured in the last general election.

Several factors had worked against Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in North Bengal and Junglemahal. Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha had been an ally of the BJP for several years at a stretch, counting as it did on the BJP leadership’s assurance of finding an ‘acceptable’ political solution to the “demand for Gorkhaland” comprising the Darjeeling Hills and contiguous parts.  Also, the BJP had been able to win the support of the Rajbanshis in Coochbehar and adjoining areas, who in the state are recognised as SCs. The silent and almost ‘invisible’ activity of whole-time Sangh Parivar workers had facilitated the creation of a base for the BJP.  TMC’s strong opposition to any division of the state had been working against the ruling party’s growth prospects. The Left Front, led by CPI(M), too had several pockets of influence. The Congress was active in some pockets.

But, the political scene has been witnessing changes in recent months. Gurung distanced GJM from BJP and brought the outfit closer to TMC. In the process, TMC gained and BJP’s base got dented. [In recent months, it seems GJM has revisited its proximity to TMC.] However, the support of senior and influential hills politician Anit Thapa, whose party Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha in command of the Gorkha Territorial Administration and Darjeeling Municipality, has been helping TMC to gain political space in the Hills and surrounding areas. Before the Dhupguri by-election, in a clever move, TMC’s second-in-command Abhishek Banerjee promised to meet within a specific timeframe a longstanding demand to make   Dhupguri a sub-division. These developments and the cash incentive schemes of the state government, particularly Lakshmir Bhandar for women, are proving politically beneficial for the TMC. The same is valid in parts of Junglemahal though failure of the TMC ministry to get ST status to Kudmis is an adverse factor for the party. Therefore, BJP has to live down the negatives that have surfaced after the 2019 election.

The party also has to get a sizable number of seats in South Bengal if it is to be anywhere near the number expected by the top leadership. Against this backdrop, NewsClick sought the views of four other Lok Sabha members who, in all likelihood, may be renominated for the next Lok Sabha election.

Jalpaiguri Lok Sabha member Jayanta Roy said that the failure to retain Dhupguri has to be viewed against the backdrop of the closely preceding panchayat elections in which TMC had resorted to a number of malpractices with “police help” and “our reading is that many of our supporters had switched loyalty, both on their own expecting some rewards and on being coerced”. The Lok Sabha elections will be held under the watch of central forces and, therefore, pro-TMC elements won’t be able to intimidate and manoeuvre.

“And then, we can safely count on the vote-garnering capacity of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi”, Roy observed.

Purulia Lok Sabha member Jyotirmoy Singh Mahato is pinning hopes on the welfare schemes and relief measures introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, which have “helped large numbers of backward people in the Junglemahal region”.

“The provision for a supply of clean drinking water through taps under the Jal Jeevan Mission to rural households is a new experience for the people, in the absence of which they have suffered for many years. The Awas Yojana (Grameen), too, has proved quite satisfying. The continuing supply of free rations began during the pandemic and has been saving people from hunger and malnutrition. I am pretty certain the beneficiaries will reiterate their support for BJP candidates,” Mahato said.

Malda North Lok Sabha member Khagen Murmu, in whose constituency about 50% of the electorate are Muslims, said: “We are organising workers’ meetings, participation in which is encouraging. The Centre’s schemes meant for farmers, women, children, physically challenged and old people are quite useful. So, we are not unduly perturbed over the state government’s ‘Duare Sarkar’ (governance at doorstep) programmes.”

“Extortion by TMC members and their other corrupt practices in the rural areas deprive people of their entitlements. That remains a major irritant,” Murmu told NewsClick.

At this stage, even guesswork is not possible as to what the ground realities will be when the Opposition’s INDIA block gets going. In West Bengal, however, it is almost certain that it’s going to be a triangular contest among TMC, BJP and the Left Front-Congress combine. The Left Front and the Congress will have to work hard to re-emerge as factors. The role of Naushad Siddiqui of the Indian Secular Front will be under watch and TMC’s Muslim support base may be dented if he is able to wean away an appreciable chunk of the Muslim votes. In that case, the beneficiary may be the Left Front-Congress combine. For the BJP, a major deficiency is the absence of a good number of leaders with proven political capabilities.

The writer is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist.

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