West Bengal: Amid BJP's Blueprint for Muslim Outreach, Shah's 35 MPs Target a Tall Ask
Representational Image. (File Image)
Kolkata: If the public pronouncements of Union home minister Amit Shah and his 'confidential' instructions to Bharatiya Janata Party's West Bengal leaders during his mid-April visit to the state are read between the lines, the most significant point that emerges is that the top brass will concentrate on areas with a sizeable concentration of Muslims for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
This component of BJP's strategy for West Bengal aims to deliver to the minority community electorate a kind of sneha varta (message of affection) and induce as many of them as possible to vote for BJP candidates. The other worthwhile messages that state leaders and central Hqs' office-bearers assigned responsibility for West Bengal got are: first, Shah himself will be in overall command for the Lok Sabha election in the state, and secondly, the leaders should not consider the target of 35 Lok Sabha seats, out of the total of 42 seats, as a 'tall ask'.
For 2024, West Bengal figures prominently in BJP's list of states which have to compensate the party for possible loss due to anti-incumbency and erosion of support base in the Hindi heartland. An allied point factored into is the 'yield' from South India, which may fall short of expectations despite the drive by the Prime Minister himself.
NewsClick got this assessment after talking to party insiders, who admitted being asked to immediately start working at the grassroots level for the 2024 Lok Sabha battle. Shah did not touch upon the upcoming panchayat elections. The state leaders got the impression that they have to utilise the panchayat poll in a manner that serves the party well in 2024.
The sneha varta concept seeks to remove the strong misgivings of the Muslim electorate in the state, which has a share of 28-29% of the total voters about the party. An outreach programme which attracted the attention of non-BJP political forces was on the recent occasion of Easter when senior leaders, including Narendra Modi, visited church superiors in Kerala and other areas with a concentration of Christian population where Assembly elections will be due in a matter of months.
It bears mention that the outreach scheme for Christians, who are numerically less crucial than Muslims, followed the concerns expressed by a delegation of church leaders to the Union home minister. They briefed him on the series of attacks on Christians and the resultant loss of life and property. Even educational institutions run by missionaries were not spared by saffron parivar attackers.
Shah visited the state on April 14 and 15, took part in the Poila Baisakh (Bengali new year day on April 15) celebrations and scheduled the next visit on May 9 to be present on Rabindra Nath Tagore's birth anniversary.
Significantly, the public meeting where he announced the 35-seat target on April 14 was held at Suri, the district headquarters of Birbhum district, in which Bogtui is located. This is where 10 Muslims of related families, including a woman and a child, were charred to death. The tragedy was traced to intra-Trinamool Congress (TMC) party animosity over sharing the spoils of covert activity.
Birbhum has a sizeable Muslim population, estimated at 37% of the 35 lakh district total.
NewsClick learnt from party leaders Shah also plans to visit the Muslim-majority Murshidabad district in the coming weeks. The death in dubious circumstances of a student activist in the Hoooghly district in the first quarter of 2021, before the 2021 Assembly elections and the maltreatment of Indian Secular Front MLA Naushad Siddiqui in recent times caused concern to the community leaders.
The victory of the Congress candidate from the Sagardighi Assembly bye-election by a comfortable margin is also cited by political watchers as an indication of a dent in TMC's Muslim support base.
As far as BJP is concerned, the Muslim outreach plan qualifies to be counted as a possible reason for the BJP's apprehension of a dent in its Hindu vote bank. This, political observers feel, is as much because of the slow but discernible signs of improvement in the prospects of the CPI(M)-led (Communist Party of India (Marxist)) Left Front and the Congress as the likely loss in TMC's Hindu vote base because of serious corruption charges against its leaders and inept handling of law & order situation by the ministry.
The choice of Suri as the venue for Shah's public meeting, which for all practical purposes is marked by BJP's soft launch of an election campaign for the 2024 battle, has political significance because TMC's uncrowned King in the district and chief minister Mamata Banerjee's confidante is neck-deep in cases involving cattle smuggling and host of other illegal activity. This is a setback for TMC, and BJP is trying to gain from TMC's loss.
BJP's state president and Lok Sabha member Sukanta Majumdar told NewsClick, "The allotted target includes almost 85% of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, which means the party has to work hard in all 42 constituencies. It's not a tall ask; we must tap into areas where we see scope. Do not forget we won 18 seats in 2019. It's all linked with our key objective of defending our regime at the Centre for the second time."
The party's general secretary and MLA Dipak Barman said, "Amitji has assigned us a task, and as advised by him, we are working hard at the grassroots level. We know we have limitations. 24 Parganas is one major district that needs our close attention."
NewsClick also asked him whether the party does not fear damage to its prospects from the ongoing slugfest over the issue of Amartya Sen's land at Santiniketan. Non-BJP civil society activists and sympathisers are agitated over the undignified treatment being meted out to the Nobel Laureate.
Barman told NewsClick, "We have nothing against Sen. We know he is an international figure. Vishwa Bharati, based on records at its disposal, is demanding from him 13 decimal land, which the Central University thinks does not belong to him. In the fitness of things, the Nobel Laureate should engage with the University with his documents and get the matter sorted out. We do not think it entails a political cost for our party."
Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty sees in the 35-seat target scope for an "eventual TMC-BJP deal".
"BJP is desperate for a third term at the Centre in 2024 but knows it will be challenging under the evolving situation. The next Assembly election in West Bengal will be due in 2026, two years after the next Lok Sabha election. Should circumstances compel, BJP may give hints to TMC about helping it to retain its rule in the state in 2026. Banerjee won't hesitate to grab the offer. BJP might sing a different tune when the Assembly election approaches."
"Moreover, we do not count at all on her talk of anti-BJP fights. Her party's record says it all. But I must add what I told you about a possibility. A 35-seat win is a tall ask. Shah must be aware of it. So, it is a pep talk to the leaders. Are not BJP leaders seeing that a 'reverse migration' has begun, though on a modest scale? CPI(M) and Congress workers who were forced to leave their flags and accept TMC's flag are returning to their old parties," Chakraborty said.
The writer is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist. The views are personal.
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