Politics in West Bengal is set to undergo tectonic shifts that will impact the political future of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The BJP central leadership has, according to political heavyweights in the state, put into operation a plan by which the party intends to win over big guns of the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress. These leaders will then join hands with the BJP to take on the Trinamool government in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 and the Assembly elections of 2021. The Trinamool leaders that the BJP wants in its fold, according to sources in the state unit of the national party, are Suvendu Adhikari, Saugata Roy and Bratya Basu, among others. Adhikari, the Transport Minister in the Banerjee government, is one of the most influential leaders in the state, with complete sway over at least two important districts of West and East Medinipur that account for 35 Assembly and five Lok Sabha seats. He was the architect of the Trinamool’s successful agitation in Nandigram around 2007, which triggered the CPM’s downfall in Bengal. Highly placed sources claimed that the BJP leadership wants Adhikari, who is in his mid-40s, to be the face of their campaign in Bengal. Saugata Roy, who is the brother of Tripura Governor Tathagata Roy, is MP from Dum Dum, while Bratya Basu is Information Technology and Electronics Minister. Another Trinamool heavyweight, Mukul Roy, has already resigned from the working committee of the party and is set to resign from the Rajya Sabha next week. Sources in the state unit of the BJP claim that he will join their party soon. From the Congress, the BJP wants Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury in its fold. Chowdhury, who was a minister in the Manmohan Singh government and is at present MP and Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee president, is one of the biggest names in state politics. An MP from Baharampur in Murshidabad district, he is influential in both his own district and in adjacent Nadia. The other Congress leader that the BJP wants is another grassroots politician, Shankar Malakar, MLA from Matigara-Naxalbari in north Bengal. In addition, sources claim that CPM’s former leader, the young Ritabrata Banerjee is about to join BJP.
The BJP is hopeful that if it is able to convince these leaders to cross over, more than a handful of Trinamool and Congress MLAs and workers would follow in the footsteps of their leaders.
IMPORTANCE OF MUKUL ROY
Sources in Bengal BJP claim that Mukul Roy is joining the BJP soon—in fact around 23 October. When asked about this over telephone, Roy refused to confirm the information, but added that he had “already said that the BJP was not a communal party”. He said that he was focusing on chalking out his “future road map” and consolidating his presence in the 77,000-plus poll booths in the state. He mentioned in the passing that he was in touch with Suvendu Adhikari, but did not clarify his statement.
Mukul Roy’s entry to the BJP can be a game changer for the party in Bengal. A poll strategist par excellence, he is known for his organisational skills. He is considered as one of the men who built the Trinamool Congress. Sources say that Roy has “contacts” in a majority of the state’s 77,000-plus booths, which will help enhance BJP’s electoral prospects at the grassroots. Currently, the BJP has a presence in only around 3,700-odd booths. Although BJP’s popularity is on an upswing in many parts of Bengal, to the extent that it is replacing the CPM and Congress as the principal opposition, the party is finding it difficult to convert its popularity into votes. It is here that Mukul Roy’s admission is vital for the party, for he is known for his booth-management and vote conversion skills.
Sources give the example of Trinamool Congress’ rise to power to explain the importance of Mukul Roy in Bengal politics. He is one of the founders and architects of the Trinamool. In fact, in 1998, it was in his name that the Trinamool Congress was registered. He was once the most important leader in the Trinamool after Mamata Banerjee, apart from being a Minister of State in the Manmohan Singh government, when he held the additional charge of Railways. In Bengal, the Trinamool was certain of winning the 2006 Assembly elections, but was unable to convert its popularity into votes and lost that election to the Left Front. Sources say that it was in November 2006 that Roy was given charge of the organisation. Two years later, in 2008, the Trinamool went on to win the panchayat elections and the Assembly elections in 2011, when Mamata Banerjee uprooted the CPM-led Left Front to come to power. It is this heft that the BJP expects Roy to bring to the party.
AREAS OF FOCUS
If the BJP manages to bring these leaders to its fold, it intends to concentrate on the districts of North and South 24 Parganas, the state’s two most populous districts adjoining Kolkata, with around 60 Assembly and 10 Lok Sabha seats. This area, particularly the eastern bank of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly (Ganga) river is Mukul Roy’s stronghold.
The other area of concentration will be Jangalmahal, a forested stretch comprising parts of West Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia districts. Jangalmahal was once infested with Maoists, and one of the biggest successes of the Mamata Banerjee government has been bringing peace to the area. Sources say Mukul Roy knows Jangalmahal “like the palms of his hands”. It is here that getting Suvendu Adhikari is also important for the BJP, because the Adhikari family—Suvendu Adhikari’s father Sisir Adhikari is a former minister in the Manmohan Singh government—too has a good hold on Jangalmahal.
Mention also must be made of the adjoining East Medinipur district, an Adhikari family fortress, where the BJP has started making minor inroads. Earlier this year, in the Kanthi Dakshin Assembly byelection here, while the Trinamool swept the seat with 95,369 votes, the BJP came second by winning 52,843 votes. The Left and the Congress lost their deposits. In East Medinipur, the BJP has already inducted former CPM leader, Lakshman Seth in its ranks.
The BJP also intends to concentrate on north Bengal, where Congress still has considerable influence.
Sources say that a lot of how this plan unfolds will depend on the kind of reception that Mukul Roy gets in the BJP—whether he is treated with respect or not. Some state BJP leaders are unhappy that the central leadership is talking to Mukul Roy. Although sources are categorical that Roy will not be the BJP’s chief ministerial face in Bengal, at least three or four local leaders who fancy themselves as BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, are opposed to his entry. One of these leaders made a snide social media post about Mukul Roy being a “Trojan horse”, but had to delete his comment after being reprimanded by the party’s central leadership. But with the majority of BJP’s leaders in Bengal being political lightweights and with the party’s central leadership keen to recast the state unit by inducting heavyweights who matter at the grassroots, opposition to Roy’s entry is irrelevant, say sources.
They also assert that there will be some major developments around 10 November, or thereabouts, when at least five senior BJP MPs or other leaders will be present in Kolkata to induct some important persons. The names of these persons cannot be disclosed.
Mukul Roy, when asked by this newspaper about the reason behind his anger with the Trinamool Congress, replied that he would explain everything in his resignation letter to the Rajya Sabha. Sources claim that the primary reason behind the rift between Mamata Banerjee and her second-in-command is the rise of her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, who is a 29-year-old member of the Lok Sabha. Small things have been building up, with senior leaders including Mukul Roy getting sidelined. “There have been instances when the CM and her nephew were sitting on the dais, but someone like Mukul Roy was made to sit in the audience. These things matter,” claimed a source. Some are also worried about the Mamata government’s “minority appeasement policy” and the possibility of Hindu consolidation against them. Such is the situation that it is alleged that many instances of communal disturbances in the state are actually clashes between the Hindu and Muslim cadre of the Trinamool.
If the BJP manages to woo Congress MP Adhir Chowdhury, it will be primarily because of his opposition to Sonia Gandhi’s plan to ally with Mamata Banerjee. Political circles in West Bengal are rife with rumours that the Congress high command is removing Adhir Chowdhury from the post of state PCC chief.
That BJP is in power at the Centre and has a “national outlook”, is of course the biggest attraction for many of the dissidents in Trinamool, and there are many. “You need a national party at the helm to bring back industry to the state. A regional party—even CPM is a regional party—cannot bring industry and that is an important factor for many,” say sources.
However, sources admit that the BJP is up against one of the most formidable politicians in the country, who has complete control of the grassroots—Mamata Banerjee. So it has a major fight on its hands in its attempt to counter her on her home-turf.