ANALYSIS WEST BENGAL BJP-TMCKS Shankar / IHN-NN
KOLKATA/NEW DELHI: Feisty chief minister Mamata Banerjee has her hands full. The BJP, hoping to effect a repeat of Tripura in the May assembly polls in West Bengal, is digging in inch by inch. While it’s too early to say whether the saffron party will oust the popular woman leader from power in the state, the mass resignations from the ruling Trinamul Congress on Saturday, including exit by several MLAs, have sent alarm bells ringing in the Mamata camp.
Not one to give up hope and ready to fight to the finish, Banerjee quickly started rallying forces by calling up several Opposition leaders including Maratha leader Sharad Pawar who now reinvented himself in power circuits in Mumbai. The idea is to build a joint offensive against the BJP’s acts of poaching and applying pressure on non-BJP state governments. A collective fight, she feels, can put both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah on the defensive.
The exit of the CM’s close aide Suvendu Adhikari from the party was in the coming, and there by now is no shock about it. But, Adhikari carrying as many as seven sitting MLAs from the ruling party to the BJP in the presence of Amit Shah — at a rally in Midnapore town in West Midnapore district on December 19 — came as a bolt from the blue to the TMC. Several of them were disgruntled leaders, though. Adhikari enjoyed great clout and was the prominent face in the Nandigram agitation against forced land acquirement for industrial purpose. It was also he, along with another stalwart Mukul Roy who built the real base for Banerjee in the power edifice by engineering massive defections of leaders from the CPIM and the Congress in the past. Mukul Roy had left the TMC for the BJP some time ago, and Adhikari followed suit now.
TMC MP Sunil Mondal representing Bardhaman East constituency and the party’s MLAs Banasri Maity representing Kathi North assembly constituency, Silbhadra Dutta (Barrackpore), Biswajit Kundu (Kalna), Sukra Munda (Nagrakata), and Saikat Panja (Monteswar) joined the BJP along with Adhikari. Boost to BJP came also from the CPI(M), as its MLA Dipali Biswas (Gajole) who had joined TMC in 2018 now shifted his allegiance to the BJP along with CPIM MLAs Tapasi Mondal (Haldia) and Ashok Dinda (Tamluk) besides Congress legislator Sudip Mukherjee (Purulia). A total of 60 other councilors as also zilla parishad and panchayat samiti members from various parties also switched sides to the BJP.
The exit, especially of Adhikari, would likely have a severe adverse impact on the TMC as the assembly polls are just five months away. Adhikari was second only to Banerjee in terms of mass support and he is believed to have big clout in at least 50 assembly constituencies. Adhikari had tendered his resignation from the state cabinet on November 27. He had also left the chairperson’s post of the Hooghly River Bridge Commissioner (HRBC).
Much of the present troubles for the chief minister and the ruling TMC came following the appointment of election strategist Prashant Kishor, a Bihari, to energize Mamata’s road to victory in the coming polls. Kishor did studies constituency-wise across the state and helped effect a revamp of the party organisation at various levels. Word spread that half of the TMC MLAs as also substantial numbers of other elected representatives in local bodies do not have mass appeal and they must not be given a fresh chance if the TMC should win the next polls. Kishor had also helped in a revamp of the organizational structure of the TMC, which undercut the personal interests of many leaders at local levels. These exercises seemed to be the main cause for the present massive defections from the party.
Adhikari, waiting in the wings to take on Banerjee, used this to spread confusion in the leadership levels. More MLAs and local body functionaries are likely to exit the Banerjee camp also as her popularity as an administrator is seeing a downward slide. Feelings are rife that her constant fights with the central government were undercutting the state’s development aspirations.
Adhikari was cut up with Mamata because he started suspecting she would sideline him and project her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee as her second-in-command. Adhikari was Mamata’s lieutenant in the Nandigram movement that had helped end the CPIM’s 34-year-long rule. He ably organised support for the movement while Mamata led the fight from the front. The movement started against then chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s decision to develop Singur and Nandigram as special economic zone to woo both Indian and foreign investment in chemical, automobile and other sectors. This led to a confrontation between the Bhumi Ucched Protirodh Committee (Committee to Resist Land Eviction) and the West Bengal Police, and ending up in a carnage.
WHO WAS SUVENDU ADHIKARI
Till the time of the 2007 Nandigram movement, Suvendu had been a local leader of the party. His political career began as a councillor for the Kanthi municipality; and by 2006, he had been elected as MLA and made chairman of the municipality. The Nandigram struggle helped Suvendu climb up the political ladder. When Mamata formed government, he took him by her side.
Adhikari may be the right choice for the BJP to present a credible counter to the persona of Banerjee before the Bengali electorate. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 18 of the 42 seats in the state and emerged as the principal opposition to Banerjee. This also provided a huge momentum to the saffron party. West Bengal and Odisha, under stalwarts like Mamata and Naveen Patnaik, remained for long as the eastern geographical sphere where the BJP was unable to make deep inroads till 2019.
Notably, the founder of the BJP’s earlier avtar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, was Syama Prasad Mukerjee from Bengal.
The saffron party is banking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and resorting to identity politics — stoking the resentment of the Hindus against Banerjee’s “politics of appeasement” towards Muslims. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, aimed to drive out the large numbers of Muslim infiltrators from Bangladesh, was also intended to win over the Hindu populations on the eastern sectors of West Bengal.
BANERJEE CHARISMA ON THE WANE
After 10 years in government, Banerjee is slipping on many fronts – like, on issues of corruption, Syndicate Raj and the abiding perception that Bengal is a hard territory to do business because of the trade union aggressiveness. Yet, Mamata’s control of the state apparatus and her organisational machinery give her the upper hand so far. The CM’s handling of Cyclone Amphan in May this year, which claimed 86 lives in West Bengal and wrought massive havoc, also caused public disenchantment vis-à-vis her leadership abilities at critical times. Also, Banerjee is now struggling to retain her massive Muslim base while she is not able to give reassurance to the majority community to the effect that their interests will be protected. She seems to be falling between two stools.
Banerjee is a political fighter and cannot be underestimated.
She single-handedly steered her party to a resounding
victory in West Bengal and she has shored up her stature as a regional satrap. Yet, she faces numerous challenges on the development front in her second stint as chief minister. The 2021 assembly polls will be a referendum on her leadership of the state.
Another problem that the TMC is facing is its rank and file is not a cohesive whole. The party ran on the charisma of the CM. Defectors from the CPIM and the Congress swelled its ranks. They are ready any time for another defection if it suits their interests. Sunil Mandal, TMC MLA, had won the 2011 assembly elections on a Forward Bloc ticket but switched over to the TMC ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, through wooing done by Mukul Roy. He was elected from the Burdwan East Lok Sabha constituency on a TMC ticket in 2014 and 2019. In the end 2019, Mamata had entrusted him with the job of revival of the party’s cell for SC-STs. However, dissatisfied with his performance, the party removed him from that post. He was thus biding him time for defection.
As per reports, Saikat Panja, the Monteshwar MLA from East Burdwan district had been at the centre of infighting within the party since getting elected in a November 2016 by-election following the death of his father, the then sitting MLA Sajal Panja. The TMC’s local leadership found it difficult to get along with the new MLA. Earlier this year, a section of the TMC’s Monteshwar block leadership decided to boycott the MLA altogether. Panja turned inactive in the TMC.
Biswajit Kundu, the Kalna MLA since 2011, too was facing internal rivalry, with the majority of Kalna’s TMC leadership, including Kalna II block president Pranab Roy and Kalna’s municipal chairman Deb Prasad Bag, not in a mood to get along with him. He has been inactive since October, after the party’s reorganisation in September saw his influence waning. He did not participate in the block-level conferences of the party and was biding his time. The block-level conferences in Kalna were held in early November without Kundu’s presence, reports said.
Silbhadra Dutta is known as a Mukul Roy-loyalist. The Barrackpore MLA from North 24-Parganas district had become inactive and stayed away from party activities for more than a year. Months ago, he had announced that he will no longer be contesting on a TMC ticket. Sukra Munda was MLA from Nagrakata in Jalpaiguri district of north Bengal. Sukra Munda had been actively participating in the party’s activities till the beginning of the last week, and had been praising the chief minister.
Banashree Maiti, the Contai North MLA, has been representing the constituency since 2011. Banashree Maiti had been active in the party’s organisational work till October, but started distancing herself from the party since November. She is a Suvendu Adhikari loyalist.
Dasharath Tirkey won the 2011 assembly elections on a Revolutionary Socialist Party ticket but switched over to the TMC ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He went on to become the Alipurduar MP. However, he lost in 2019 to the BJP candidate. Some BJP workers took out protest rallies in Alipurduar’s on Saturday against Tirkey’s induction into the party.
Reports also noted that Shyamapada Mukherjee, a minister in Mamata’s cabinet between 2011 and 2016, lost the 2016 assembly elections but continued as the chairman of Bishnupur municipality. Mihir Goswami, the Cooch Behar Dakshin MLA, who joined the BJP in November, had been disgruntled over the reorganisation in the block and district-level leadership. Goswami was unhappy that Prashant Kishor had all the say in these changes. –IHN-NN
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