New Delhi: The appointment of Arvind Menon as the Bharatiya Janata Party in-charge of West Bengal on 3 October 2018, just 190 days before the first phase of Lok Sabha elections in the state, was defined by Delhi-based political observers as a sign of the determination that the BJP leadership had in its efforts to win at least 15 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats there.
Till that time, the party, despite its best efforts, had failed to make any inroads among Bengal’s voters, with its state leaders not being able to move out of the drawing boards while deciding on how to penetrate the Trinamool Congress (TMC) bastion, thereby failing to execute the same on the ground.
When Menon was moved to West Bengal, the entire campaigning was being managed by the team of Kailash Vijayvargiya, Dilip Ghosh and Mukul Roy.
The party had moved Kailash Vijayvargiya, who was the in-charge of Haryana, to West Bengal in July 2015, after which Dilip Ghosh was appointed the new party president in December 2015 replacing Rahul Sinha. Later, TMC’s number two, Mukul Roy, joined the BJP in November 2017.
A senior RSS functionary said: “The reports that we got from the ground till mid-2018 were that the voters were still not accepting us, as our leaders were not meeting them personally. The voters, especially in the rural areas including the tribals, had not heard about the benefits of the numerous schemes that the Narendra Modi government had launched, as no one was telling them about that. Most of the schemes were marketed by the Mamata Banerjee government as its own. The BJP was far off from emerging as a credible challenger to the TMC. Every objective media report was forecasting that the BJP would not win even five seats if the situation remained the same.”
“The ground was fertile for sowing pro-BJP seeds, but there was no gardener who would be able to go to the field and plant the seeds,” the RSS functionary said.
It was then that party president Amit Shah decided to send the Kerala born Arvind Menon, who speaks five languages (Malayali, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Hindi and English) to West Bengal, while asking him to focus specifically on North Bengal and the tribal seats. A quintessential RSS man, Menon, who specialises in erecting and then strengthening the organisation from zilch, started going to the ground and meeting the voters personally, while reporting directly to Amit Shah.
A party strategist, who was based in West Bengal since October until the last phase of the elections was held, said: “We had no organisation in the state. Of the around 74,000 polling booths in Bengal, we had zero or negligible presence in more than half of them. What Menon did was to visit the maximum number of villages possible, spend time with the residents, have tea with them, share lunch with them and tell them to vote for the BJP silently—an exercise which the media later termed as ‘chup chaap, kamal chhaap’. Once the voters saw that the BJP leaders were coming to the ground, interacting with them, they started trusting the party as a credible option to the TMC. Menon and his team apprised the voters of the numerous schemes of the Modi government that the TMC government was marketing as its own. The voters were looking for change; Menon was able to convince them that BJP was ready to become their new choice.”
Out of the eight Lok Sabha seats in “North Bengal”, the BJP won seven: Alipurduar, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Raiganj, Balurghat and Maldah Uttar. It lost the eighth seat, Maldah Dakshin by fewer than 8,500 votes. In 2014, it only one seat from these eight—Darjeeling.
Out of the total 18 seats won by the BJP in the state, 12 came from North Bengal and the tribal areas: seven out of eight from North Bengal and five out of six seats from the tribal areas. Party sources said that Menon, after reaching West Bengal, started at the bottom by focusing on creating the organisation in remote areas by recruiting willing youths and also the CPM cadre so that at least a buzz was created on the ground that the BJP, too, was fighting the elections. “The door-to-door interaction made a huge impact, as people started registering the presence of BJP in their areas. Since he does not go around with security, people were able to meet him freely and without any fear. The key was to demolish the fear of TMC cadre on the ground by telling the voters that the BJP was there with them. This was a very difficult task considering the violence that the TMC cadre is known for carrying out and many of the leaders were scared to go and work on the ground,” a BJP source said. It was because of lack of this security cover, something that is a characteristic of almost all RSS workers, that Menon was attacked four times by the TMC cadre. In Siliguri, on 18 April, party people who were with him at the time, claimed that the TMC cadre attacked the hotel he was staying in and started a room to room search, and but for the arrival of the CRPF personnel, Menon would not have survived the attack.
Before his present stint in West Bengal, Menon worked in East Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat (2017) and Uttar Pradesh and prefers staying in the background, both when it comes to the media and social media.
Party sources said that his first assignment with the BJP was way back in 2003 when he was looking after Indore; subsequently, he was based in Madhya Pradesh as General Secretary (Organisation) and handled both the 2008 and 2013 Assembly elections before being shifted to Delhi in April 2016.